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    Friday
    Mar062009

    A Collaboration Experiment

    The past couple of weeks I have organized and have been monitoring a very small pilot of Yammer in our organization. For those who may not be familiar, Yammer is positioned as 'Twitter for the enterprise', a service that allows people to provide short text updates, ask questions, and provide information to their colleagues in (nearly) real-time.  Unlike Twitter where updates are typically visible to anyone on the service, Yammer networks are restricted to members of individual organizations, by means of valid

    possession of a valid e-mail address from the company domain.

    I managed to get several team members to register at the site, join the dedicated, private group that I created to keep most of their updates 'private' and internal to the group, and also walked everyone through the steps to download and install the Yammer desktop client.

    So far, the adoption has been decent, and I think there is at least a 50-50 chance that Yammer will eventually become a reasonably important part of the every day communication process in the team.  But there are already a few key lessons that I have drawn from this brief experiment, lessons that I think would be broadly applicable to most other new 'collaboration' technologies (wikis, internal networks, or idea markets) that you may try and introduce into the organization.

    Lesson 1 - Tools won't create collaboration immediately

    Most of the work that is done by the team members has typically been done individually.  The practice and culture of primarily individual effort doesn't miraculously change or morph just because a flashy new 'collaboration' tool is available. Analysis of the traffic on the Yammer network reveals a modest amount of communication on actual 'work products' primarily centered around simple 'status' type questions and answers.  The tool has not immediately impacted the group to foster or encourage more collaborative problem-solving, development, or design.  That may come in time, but the tool itself won't make that change happen overnight.

    Lesson 2 - The right people need to be included

    One reason the collaboration levels inside this group are relatively low, is that much more interaction and collaboration actually occurs with folks outside the group, the customers for this team's development.  Inclusion of some of the key customer contacts in the pilot would likely lead to increased traffic and added value on the Yammer network.  In time it is anticipated that the 'wider' network will begin to communicate and collaborate more freely. So when organizing a pilot program, don't be afraid to cast a wider net in soliciting and including participants.

    Lesson 3 - Simplicity is more important that almost everything else

    Even with a dirt-simple tool like Yammer, I have had to spend quite a bit of time explaining how the tool works, how to get signed up, and how to download and configure the client application.  There were several moments of confusion and mis-steps along the way, while none of them are that complex, they still introduce unneeded friction into the process.  Any participants that are perhaps unwilling or disinterested in the pilot, or are slightly technology averse, may very well be completely turned off by these issues.  Whatever tools you plan to introduce to the organization, make sure you keep them as simple as possible, at least initially, if not forever.  Find the one or two key features you need, find a tool that supports them exceedingly well, and put everything else on the back burner. Simplicity is essential.

    Lesson 4 - But not as important as executive support

    This experiment may be successful, or it may not.  But I am 100% sure that if the 'right' senior executive found out about it, and was not comfortable or supportive, the project would quickly end. Once your collaboration project moves beyond just a few users 'playing around' and starts to gain some traction in the enterprise, you have got to secure senior level support.  This is so important. To have an executive sponsor that can break down barriers, protect your project from the budget ax (maybe), and serve as a champion in those meetings that you don't get invited to may be the determining factor in your success.  The most crushing and disappointing outcome sometimes is the hammer coming down from on high ending your project due to the lack of the right executive support.

    Lesson 5 - You won't know unless you try

    In my example, we are experimenting with Yammer, a free online tool.  The only cost is the internal staff time spent testing, explaining, and documenting the registration process.  The 'barriers' to this type of project are therefore extremely low. So consequently, it is an easy tool to try out.  Not all technologies in the collaboration space are completely free, but most are relatively inexpensive compared to most other enterprise software.  Wikis, internal social networks, and hosted blogs can all be tested and experimented with at modest costs. Many technologies have 30-day free trials that give you just enough time to get the feel of the technology.  You really can't just discuss these technologies to determine if they truly will be effective and important to your organization and deliver on the promise of increased collaboration and communication.  You really have to give them a 'real' test.  Fortunately, most of these tools are offered in the SaaS mode, do not require an upfront license fee, and allow you to walk away from the project with no penalties at almost any time.  But you may need to secure at least some funding to truly give these tools a try.

    So far our project is progressing, and I anticipate over time, if we can keep in mind and learn our lessons, it will be successful.

    I would love to hear what some other technologists have to say about the key lessons in introducing collaboration tools to the organization.

    Wednesday
    Mar042009

    With great power...

    comes great responsibility.

    I am a comic book geek.  I remember and still own the first comic book I ever purchased.  It was Amazing Spider-Man #149, in 1977. 

    Please keep the 'old fool' jokes to yourself. 

    It cost $0.25 and I was so proud of myself for investing the quarter in a comic that I could read over and over, versus buying some candy or gum that I would have enjoyed for five minutes and then would have been gone forever.

    Now, I wish I still had every comic that I bought when I was a kid, but the fact that I still have the very first one still means a lot to me, and that I will be able to pass it on to my son is special to me.

    The key message of Spider-Man was always, 'With great power, comes great responsibility'.  Peter Parker (Spider-Man's true identity) constantly struggles balancing his 'responsibility' to use his tremendous powers to battle evil with his desire to have a 'normal' life, and be happy and content. Of course throughout the Spider-Man saga, his responsibility to fight crime leads to tragedy and pain in his personal life, and many times he battles the urge to simply walk away from it all, and just live his life as a regular man.

    This is an incredibly unsettling time.  Jobs are disappearing, investment portfolios are worth half what they were a year ago, and everyone is looking over their shoulder waiting for some bad news.

    If you are a leader or manager of employees, you too have a 'great responsibility', sometimes one that you don't always relish.  Your employees are looking to you more that ever for leadership, guidance, and most importantly, to make the right decisions that may mean the difference in saving their jobs.

    It is not easy, it is not fun, it is incredibly hard to hang in there, to give your best day after day under this kind of pressure.  But you have to.  If not you, then who?  You are Peter Parker. You are Spider-Man.

    With great power, comes great responsibility.

     

     

     

     

     

     

    Wednesday
    Mar042009

    March Madness - HR Carnival Style

    The latest HR Carnival is up on Kris Dunn's HR Capitalist blog,

    where Kris has set up a 'March Madness' style tournament of your favorite HR blogs.Flickr - Curtis Perry

    My HR Technology Blog is included as well, (but if you are reading this, I am already one of your favorites, right?)

    Please take a few minutes to check out the Carnival, vote for the HR blogs you enjoy, (or give some sympathy votes to me).

    Thanks Kris for hosting and for the great idea for this Carnival.

     

    Tuesday
    Mar032009

    Can I get a status on that?

    How many phone calls, e-mails, and meetings are devoted and dedicated to answering the question:

    What's the status of (insert task, project, activity, report, proposal here) Jimbo?Flickr - Foreign and Commonwealth Office

    Finding out where an important piece of work stands should not require a formal inquiry or something akin to a press conference.

    But the reality is so many of these 'status updates' are deemed necessary because of the typical tools and technologies that still dominate most workplaces today.

    Project plans with 'percent complete' notations are done in Microsoft Project, and kept on the project manager's PC, or maybe stored on a shared network drive.  But even on a shared drive, they don't do most team members much good, since the license for MS Project is ridiculous, and most team members don't have the software installed anyway.

    Most other important documents are still developed in MS Word, and while pretty much everyone has MS Word, the important documents themselves are being passed around as e-mail attachments and it is almost impossible for 'participants' in the document creation to know they have the latest version. And for interested parties or executive sponsors, not actively involved in the actual creation of the document, well their only hope is to track down the latest version from somewhere, and you had better hope they can get the correct one.

    And in many, many organizations, technical support or development requests (bugs, customizations, enhancements) are still tracked in a bizarre stew of Excel worksheets, Access databases, or in some kind of locally installed 'help desk' package that the real users can't access anyway.

    Think about all the time you spend either asking or answering the question, 'Can I get a status on that?'

    Make a tally of every time and in what situations that question gets asked for a month or so. The topics, processes, and context that generate the most calls for 'status updates' are ripe for the application of technology solutions to reduce these questions, increase visibility (and likely accountability), and improve productivity.

    They may be new project tracking tools, wikis for document collaboration, or a web-based technical issue and help desk system, whatever the particular source of pain is in your organization.  But you know that they are needed.

    Because every minute someone spends updating 'status' is a minute where the 'status' remains the same.  And in 2009, staying the same for too long could mean putting up a 'Everything Must Go' sign in the window.

     

     

    Sunday
    Mar012009

    Will Employees Use Internal Social Networks?

    Easier collaboration, better communication, 'community' building, these are just a few of the anticipated benefits from the deployment of Internal or Corporate Social Networks. 

    Lately it seems like every vendor, consultant, and tech publication around is advocating the introduction of some kind of internal social networking capability into the enterprise, either as a stand-alone application, see examples here, and here, or from vendors that are including 'social' capability in existing HR products and processes, examples here and here.

    But frequently in these recommendations and 'sales pitches' hard data is lacking to address some of the key questions that HR and business leaders will naturally have about these projects.  Key questions like:

    Will my employees actually use the social network?

    Will social networking be seen as just a 'Gen Y' thing?

    Will the use of the social network improve productivity?

    These are just some of the important questions to consider when evaluating the appropriateness of an internal social network for your organization.

    In an attempt to shed some more 'real world' data on these key questions, enterprise social networking vendor Socialcast released a report of findings from a pilot enterprise project for NASA, the United States official space agency.

    The purpose of the social networking pilot (dubbed NASAsphere), was to determine if NASA knowledge workers would use and apply online social networking in the NASA environment. By purposely inviting a pilot group of users from a wide range of NASA locations and disciplines, NASA was also interested in examining what if any improvements in inter-departmental collaboration would be realized. The pilot would be a two-phase project, with each phase lasting 30 days, (honestly a very short time to make conclusions on the success or failure of a internal social networking pilot).

    The key findings (based on surveys of the participants and analysis of the information created on the network) from the 47 page report on the pilot program:

    • Almost 90% of the invited participants activated their accounts and participated in the launch of the pilot, a total of 78 NASA staff
    • As the pilot moved through to Phase II, the user community grew to 295
    • Users were from all Generation groups, and comments from participants indicated that age was not a factor in someone's willingness or unwillingness to participate in the social network
    • About 82% of the participants said the platform made open communication easier
    • But, only 28% of participants cited improved work productivity in the form of 'saved' time
      • This finding was tempered by numerous comments that indicated the initial narrow user base of the network was a limiting factor for many participants, it can be concluded that as participation across NASA increases, more users would report productivity gains.

    The report is extremely detailed and worth a read if you are interested in testing internal social networking in your organization.  In particular interest to HR and HR leaders is the following recommendation from the NASA project team:

    The human resource organization in private industry is increasing their role in coordinating,
    supporting, and managing tools that enable the workforce to share and transfer knowledge. It is suggested that NASA’s Human Capital organization take the lead on implementing and utilizing NASAsphere as an enabling tool for the NASA workforce, notably taking on the human element.

    This is an excellent 'real-world' case study that concludes that the HR organization is in the best position to lead these kinds of internal collaboration and community deployments. 

    Hopefully, we will see more and more of these projects and more opportunities for HR to lead.