Social Media as a Collaborative Work Space

One of the big challenges for organisations internally is the management of knowledge, this often seems to sit with individuals rather than collectively in the organisation. This is often most clearly highlighted when a single employee in a key position moves on and takes the knowledge and experience with them, the learning process seems to reset and somebody new has to acquire that knowledge and experience from scratch (and starts the process of isolating that knowledge all over again). This process of knowledge isolation is further exacerbated when the ‘organisation’ isn’t one team or even one company, but a group working externally of the company. In these cases the knowledge and experiences are still held individually but in a chain where any individual can effectively break the organisation if they leave or even change role inside their own company.

The good news is that there is a way of working that greatly reduces the risk of knowledge isolation and strengthens the bonds that can form between individuals, teams and organisations. It’s not about the technology but the working principles, but the technology, and particularly disruptive technologies, have really opened up this way of working to individuals, teams and organisations in a way they never have before. Before we get into the technology, let’s start by looking at the way of working, the process that allows for this knowledge sharing and building. You may have heard of ‘Working out Loud’ or WoL. It’s usually credited to John Stepper who coined the phrase and made it widely accepted as a working practice with his formal steps approach to a better way of working. But Stepper himself would readily confess that the idea isn’t really a new one or his invention per se, WoL has been around for a lot longer than the last few years and the principles on which it is based are timeless; it’s about working in a way where people can see what you’re working on and where you are, contribute and collaborate — all in the open. Now if that sounds overly simplistic and easy to do it really is, but the vast majority of work done in organisations is not done in this manner. It’s usually individual work done on individual drives (or sometimes shared drives) then emailed backwards and forwards at various stages of completion or (commonly) just upon completion of the task in hand.

One of the great things about WoL is that you suddenly remove a lot of pressure off an individual to come up with solutions to things entirely on their own. A project manager’s job is to look after the processes in coming to a solution, but often a project manager is the one who comes up with the solution and even delivers most of the deliverables along the way. If you’re running a project, the key is not to do all the work yourself, but to work collaboratively with the other members of the team, that’s not only easier but more likely results in a better outcome that has more input from people with the knowledge needed. The whole WoL process also involves truly adopting a continuous improvement approach.

There’s another principle you’ve probably heard of called ‘perpetual beta’. It comes from the software world where a beta release is something that’s not quite perfect yet, still has some bugs that need ironing out and generally needs wider input to get it there. Perpetual beta refers to a state that we understand that we never actually get to ‘perfect’ and that we are always working in the state where we seek feedback and are looking to improve. Combine perpetual beta and WoL what we get is a collaborative state where we work out in the open accepting input and feedback to look to constantly improve. Sure most businesses are solutions orientated, but we should be aware that even when we reach a solution, it’s not the end of the story, there are always ways to improve upon our solution. Again software development is a good example of this, the World’s most successful companies like Apple, Microsoft, Facebook, Amazon and Google don’t have software that stands still, they adapt and release new versions either as point releases (like iOS, Windows or Office) or a continuously updating live offering (Amazon, Google, Facebook etc). So our solutions should be the same, they should not be the end of the journey, but milestones along it (point releases) or at least part of the path (continuously updating live).

So here’s where software and disruptive technology not only shows us a way, it also provides the tools for us to be able to WoL in perpetual beta to follow the true process of continuous improvement. The term disruptive technologies may sound scary, but it simply means they are technologies that allow us to break away from traditional enterprise models of using IT, suddenly we’re not at the mercy of our overly controlling IT departments, but can use the cloud (or internet or web) to access services that allow us to work together like never before — and often for free. Disruptive technologies generally follow three key principles for working; any time, any where and any device. What that means is that we can access them at any time of the day or night, from any location and using mobile devices, computers and whatever technologies we may wear or carry in the future. Disruptive technologies are cloud based so they run in browsers or with apps, they typically don’t require you to install hefty software programs on your local machine (though there are often apps as well), they don’t take long to load or are processor heavy in the same way as traditional programs. They also place controls in the hands of those that need it and often (and particularly for us seeking to work collaboratively) that allows us to have the control in the hands of each individual in the team. Control to share what you want when you want with who you want without needing to fire off a ticket request to some faceless administrator (hopefully in the times that they are supporting).

A great example of an early adopter of these disruptive technologies is Google with the Google Suite of applications like Google Docs and Google Sheets. Largely very similar to the MS Office suite in functionality (but yes, not as detailed in operation as those programs) but they allow two or more people to work on a document or sheet at the same time. They can also show very easily who said what, when they said it, allow comments and markup that all can see, allow the ability to revert to earlier versions, allow true collaborative real-time approaches and all without the need to ever click a button marked ‘save’. I’ve seen amazing examples of sheets shared between tens of users updated in real-time to produce something in minutes that would have taken hours in the past, without the need for a single email or shared file or version control to be manually employed. Best of all is security. Whilst disruptive technologies are often mistakenly given the tag of being less secure, the truth is that they are really a far more secure way of working. Cyber attacks like Wannacry that caused a stir in the media, were attacks on vulnerable systems employing old-software and locally held data rather than continuously improving cloud based technologies used my millions. Google pays a lot more money and attention to security than your IT department does and that makes a lot more sense when you think about the scale of their operation and their reputation (and indeed entire business) relying on their systems being secure and reliable.

So by utilising disruptive technologies with WoL and perpetual beta principles you’re suddenly in a great position to work in a more collaborative and productive way. That’s great for an individual organisation, but better still it applies equally well to relationships beyond a single entity; the perfect place for a community of practice (CoP) to develop and really work together collaboratively for the benefit of all. Using disruptive technologies there’s no need for IT departments to be involved or additional expense in setup and whilst some champions are required in any successful change project, the need for one or two to lead everything is greatly reduced too. Setting up the CoP is as easy as inviting everyone to the ‘place’ and working together on what we want to achieve; if we build it they will come. Good job building it, is as simple as inviting like-minded people via their email address or providing a link to other social media contacts (for those of you starting to find email itself more and more redundant).

At Synapsys there was definitely a missing puzzle piece around knowledge and knowledge retention that became evident when a key project manager moved on in their learning system space. We were picking up projects and struggling to find real background information on the systems that were put in place, how they were setup and the reasons behind the setup. Sure there were the usual official files on the shared server space (and all the associated trouble finding anything there of course), but they really didn’t tell the whole story. We put in place Workplace (a tool provided by Facebook for businesses) to start building our knowledge base. Workplace works just like Facebook in nearly every respect (without any connection to the friend-based site), you have colleagues instead of friends and you form groups that can be team or interest based. Chat is forum-style with the same icons and emoticons that you can use in Facebook and that most of us are very familiar with. Immediate drag and drop of photo and video, pinning of important links or files, tagging and searching just like its big brother system. Then you add a few more tools like integration with Google Drive and Salesforce and the messenger services (voice, chat, video and screen sharing) and suddenly you have an incredibly able system for communicating and building a knowledge base organically. Workplace is so confident that its tools will be utilised that they give a 90-day trial period and a free-version you can drop to after this stage (provided your happy without the integrations) or a $3US per user per month fee.

Copyright Workplace by Facebook

The only thing left to do is to encourage participation. Like most systems if it provides a better way of doing things lots of people will adopt it, but you’ll still need to jog everyone along a bit. At Synapsys we achieve this by setting simple tasks for everyone to do that they can only do through the system or by taking ‘offline’ conversations and putting them online. Resisting the urge to reply on emails when you know it will result in chatter and putting the key links to everything in one place where everyone can access them. We’re also finding that knowledge sharing with our clients is valuable for both organisations. When we’re trying to build a complete picture of how something is working we link in help desk tickets or emails, but some clients want spaces where we can truly work together rather than just a file repository.

If it’s all so positive why don’t we see a much greater uptake from all organisations to this way of working? Two main reasons and the first is fear. Fear of change, fear of upsetting the status quo, fear of upsetting the IT department and fear of making mistakes everyone can see. Fear and a healthy dose of inertia. It takes effort to make any change and in most organisations if there’s massive resistance and your top executives aren’t on board then it will take a lot of pushing to move anything anywhere. If there’s no desire at the top of the organisation to move towards this kind of approach then you’re likely in for a long ride going nowhere fast. To make matters worse the lack of intertia and fear of change will probably hide behind a throwaway term like ‘best practice’. Even when you’re best, you won’t stay that way unless you continuously look to improve. That means looking at opportunities that exist to leverage technology and improve the way you do things. In a world that’s evolving as fast as ours is in this space standing still is moving backwards. Think of continuous improvement as always looking for ways to do things better and best practice as resting on your previous accomplishments.

So if continuous improvement, working out loud and encouraging collaborative work in a safe environment sounds like the logical decision in today’s rapidly evolving technological environment; isn’t it time your organisation took the next steps?