Same but different

A while back I posted a video Microsoft had commissioned from Common Craft: SharePoint in Plain English. Here’s that video again:

Not long after, Jack Vinson posted a video on his KM blog, from IBM explaining Lotus Connections. Not as slick as Common Craft but looks kind of familiar:

Which made me wonder, has Google got anything similar? Oh yes, and wisely created by none other than Common Craft too:

Three vendors with three products/services touting a similar story. What are the differentiators that make you choose one over the other?

Side note: whilst many seem to be copying Common Craft’s style of presenting, I don’t see any coming close. The Common Craft web site is well worth checking out.


Designing Teams

Whilst driving back from a customer meeting yesterday, I was listening to a debate on the radio. The discussion was about the number of women in government, specifically: should there be ‘quotas’ to ensure a required percentage of government officials are women? Some countries have taken this approach. As you would expect from a debate, the panel was split 50:50 for and against.

I don’t like quotas. They risk demeaning the person in role: “Oh, she only got the job because they needed more women…” That is such an annoying statement to make because the same base argument can be used against most people in most roles. It makes the huge assumption that the woman is there instead of the ‘best possible person for the job’. How often is the ‘best possible person for the job’ actually in the job? As opposed to the one with the right connections to secure the position. I’m not saying that idiots are allowed to hold positions because of who they know (although… no, I’m not even going there). Rather, there are plenty of people sharing roughly the same level of skill and expertise. Out of them, the one who gets the job is most likely to be the one with the right connections or is the right ‘fit’ for the team.

This applies in pretty much any scenario. Think of the last conference you attended. Was every presenter the absolute leading authority on their subject matter? Probably not. At the conference I attended last week, the final presenter (Jim Benson) made the following comment, to reiterate the value in social networks:

“I’m here because of my blog and social networking, nothing to do with how well I did or do what I do.”

That didn’t mean he wasn’t any good. The organisers weren’t just dragging people off the street to present. Rather, he had connected with the organisers first and foremost through social networking tools like Twitter. They didn’t have firsthand experience of his skills, but his reputation and connections provided enough confidence and trust to ask him to present.

Many human systems have an imbalance of power at the top, usually weighted heavily towards middle-aged white males. Rather than try and force change through quotas, I’d like to see a different approach. First, identify the make-up of your audience (be they citizens, employees or customers). And make-up isn’t just about gender, race and age. It should include aspirations, issues and preferences. (Are Apple products designed for boys, for girls, or for people who love gorgeous gadgets?) Then compare the ratios to your leadership team. Do they match? If not, why not? Have you explored all channels to find people for your team? Or have you relied too heavily on your inner circle (and/or rewarded contributions that got you to where you are).

If the make-up of people at the top of an organisation doesn’t remotely represent the make-up of people at the bottom or the target audience, it is unlikely that the organisation has the ‘best possible people for the jobs’ in the jobs. Either because of corruption or because the current system deters the right people from coming forward. Neither reason is good. You can get away with it, as long as you don’t have any competition… (as depressingly demonstrated in Zimbabwe this week.)

I don’t like quotas, I would rather see leadership teams resolve their imbalances for the better good of the organisation. But in the absence of incentives (particularly true in government), are quotas the only way to break traditions and redesign the ‘fit’ for the team?

Changing Management

The Internet has changed how people interact with organisations yet, for too many organisations, internally they look the same as they did a decade or three ago. The result – a disconnect between what could be achieved and what actually happens. And the finger of blame usually points in the same direction -> middle management.

McKinsey has a stomper of an article – Innovative Management – A conversation with Gary Hamel and Lowell Bryan (free registration required to read) – discussing the challenges facing organisations. Traditional production line management in a world of change creates an inverse relationship with performance and profits.

Gary Hamel identifies the fundamental challenge:

¨When you read the history of management…, you realize that management was designed to solve a very specific problem—how to do things with perfect replicability, at ever-increasing scale and steadily increasing efficiency.¨

This should sound familiar to a lot of people, right back to the Pyramid builders. Do you have a standard job title and description shared with peers throughout the organisation? Are a set of standard objectives used to measure performance? That’s traditional management. Define a role and reproduce it to scale outputs. For those in the role – your job is to ‘do’ not ‘think’. What does the future look like? More of the same…

The challenge facing organisations is that more of the same no longer works. In the current environment, the winners are those who can adapt and change, quickly. But there is a hidden opportunity lurking inside all organisations. It turns out, who would have thought, thinking is not confined to managers. Lots of people do it. It’s actually quite normal, a common human trait. Redundant in a production line that wants replicability. Invaluable when value comes from connecting ideas and expertise.

Back to Mr Hamel:

¨The winners will be those that enable their thinking-intensive employees to create more profits by putting their collective mind power to better use

…You cannot command those human capabilities. Imagination and commitment are things that people choose to bring to work every day—or not.¨

So what’s stopping organisations from doing this? There are two issues that I think are common place.

The first is the outdated assumption about plebs* and managers: Plebs do the work, managers think and plan it. Plebs aren’t concerned with strategy or the future, that’s what managers worry about. Doing is replicable therefore plebs are easy to replace. None of this philosophy sticks when the ‘doing’ involves ‘thinking’. But managers are still running the show and therein lies the problem…

The step from pleb to manager usually results in the heady combination of more money, more power and less work (‘doing’ is often measured in time-based outputs such as utilisation targets, management is about results). You might as well dish out free drugs while you’re at it. Once addicted, few want to go back to doing and, somewhat ironically, the management club also looks like a production line:

Once you are in The Club, it can be all too easy to forget the messy life of doing. Names representing individual strengths become replaced with job titles in plans – this role will be doing that. (See also: Distracting Data) As job roles change, it is increasingly likely that managers make decisions about roles they have never actually done and therefore have little idea of what is or isn’t achievable. Non-management opinions struggle to be heard, particularly when they challenge the plan. Reports (and rewards) focus on what the plan has achieved that it set out to do, not the missed opportunities and costly mistakes that result from refusing to change it. ‘The benefit of hindsight’ is used to justify inaction.

There is an added challenge if you live in a country with legislation protecting employee rights. Replicatable work is the easy option for management to help justify that everyone is being treated equally (that doesn’t equate to fairly or correctly). It’s lazy management. You can ensure equal opportunities and still embrace individual talents to increase performance. But more effort is placed on management to keep track of what’s going on. That kills off the ‘less work’ part of the deal.

So what should management look like in the 21st Century? Yet again, Gary Hamel comes up trumps:

The management challenge is akin to urban planning. The art of it is that you must enable people to make thousands and thousands of individual decisions about how to live and work, but you have to create the infrastructure to make it easy for them to do so.

Management is becoming a more essential and skilled role than ever – coming up with, and executing, new ideas is much harder than repeating an established process. But so are the thinking-doing roles. Becoming a manager should not guarantee a move three rungs up the ladder of respect from non-managers. Organisations who insist on the pleb-management divide risk letting their best assets walk out of the door to become their next competitor (See also: The Digital Natives Are Leaving).

Related blog posts:

Filed Under: Changing Systems – Work

*I use ‘pleb’ in its original context – the plebeians. It seems ironic these days that ‘pleb’ is often used as an insult. Open and global access to information has shown how level the playing field is when it comes to acting with wisdom or stupidity…

Facebook Collaboration

Good post over on O’Reilly Rador – Working in Facebook – talking about how groups are using Facebook to co-ordinate activities and how the process is just natural to those growing up with Web 2.0 tools and why email is playing second fiddle (see related post – When will IM come of age?) Favourite quote:

For those who have active community within it, [Facebook] is this generation’s Lotus 1-2-3

Hecks, anything that compares to Lotus 1-2-3 in terms of adoption warrants attention, even if you do have to be a ‘luddite’ to know why 🙂

Related post: When will IM come of age

Modernising intranets

Just over a week ago, Microsoft released to manufacture their latest range of products and services that fall under the Office brand, including a heftily revamped Microsoft Office SharePoint Server 2007 (MOSS). MOSS brings together and upgrades two former products – SharePoint Portal Server 2003 and Content Management Server 2002. For an overview of the history behind MOSS and an introduction to some of the new features, please check out the following blog posts:

This release comes at a good time. Information and communications technology have advanced rapidly over the past five years, but most of the benefits seem to have been realised in the consumer world. Internal business systems involving people have been much slower to evolve.

The central internal information system for most organisations is the intranet. And it seems that many organisations are coming round to the idea that the intranet is long overdue for a refresh. But whilst the IT department is ready to install new technology, there seems to be little focus on leveraging new features that mirror some of the biggest successes on the Internet. Instead, the requirements list is based on making some incremental improvements to the existing system – more structured document management, some extra workflow for web content publishing, a little more personalisation within the classic portal interface, some improved search results would be nice….

When I ask if people are familiar with internet services such as eBay, Flickr, YouTube and MySpace, the typical response is “oh yes, we don’t let our people access those sites from the corporate network” or “we don’t want anything like that – how on earth would we manage it?” or “our users aren’t interested in technology, I don’t think they have ever used those sorts of sites”… I usually start sighing when that last excuse is rolled out. It never ceases to amaze me how much and how often people underestimate each other.

Refreshing internal systems provides an opportunity to introduce new ways of working. You don’t have to be bleeding edge – let the Internet shake out what works and what doesn’t. And introducing new features doesn’t have to be expensive. Quite often, the opposite is the case. The best way to try out ideas is to keep systems simple – minimal up front design and see how ideas grow as people start to experiment.

A good example of this approach can be found within the BBC, as documented by David Weinberger: The BBC’s low-tech KM. And the man behind the process – Euan Semple – is now a free agent and advising other companies on how to adopt his approach. Don’t believe me? Book a session with Euan.

Other organisations are also beginning to wake up to the idea of bringing Internet trends to internal systems, as blogged by Jon Husband over on Wirearchy: Enterprise 2.0 – on its way to a workpace near you?

If you are going down the Microsoft route, MOSS includes a variety of features modelled around some of the best successes on the Internet – blogging, wikis, news feeds, social networking tools, easy publishing to team and individual sites, integrated instant messaging are just a few for starters. Why not give them a try instead of sticking with the traditional ways of working?

When helping people design new information systems, I always give out the same advice: “be careful what you wish for”. The more managed the environment, the more effort will be required to contribute to it and the less it will be used. The more rational the design, the less it will represent reality and the less it will be used (hint: people behave rationally when asked what they want – “I want all documents categorised so that I can search based certain properties” – and behave irrationally when it comes to the actually doing – “yuk, all these dropdown lists, I’ll just use the default setting for my documents”). These days the effect is magnified. Whilst you set up immigration procedures to prevent information from entering your intranet without adhering to strict management rules, your customers will just go search the Internet and find out more about your organisation (and/or your competitors) than your employees know. Is that a good result?

Technorati Tags: SharePoint; SharePoint 2007; Intranet Design

Collaboration Types – Part 3: Size

This is the final part in a series of three posts looking at types of collaborative working:

This final post on collaboration types looks at size. Does size matter? Well, it depends on the context… 🙂

Collaboration Size

…Size certainly matters in the world of collaboration, and it is rarely considered when deploying collaboration tools. This can lead to the wrong tools being used in the wrong environment.

We are familiar with the typical group sizes – 1:1, 1:few, 1:many. The table below is based on one of the best ways I’ve seen to articulate the differences, as presented by Ross Mayfield at the OurSocialWorld forum held last September.

Ross placed collaboration within the wider ecosystem of networks:

Sample size: 1 12 150 1000+
Type of activity: Individual Collaboration Communication Publishing
Effect: Solo Creative networks Social networks Political networks

It is important to consider the size of group involved when designing a collaboration workspace. Is the group too large for effective collaboration? What percentage of the group are going to be active participants in creating content and completing activities versus consuming the end results? The type of collaboration workspace required for a group of 7 to work together is going to have very different requirements to one required for a team of 20, let alone larger sizes where collaboration decreases and is replaced by communication from the few to the many. The quantity of content and activities will increase as the group size increases, to a point, and then it will decrease (again, with communication of results replacing creative collaboration). These considerations need to be taken into account when designing collaboration tools.

The size effect will also be influenced by the type of group (covered in part 1) and the type of activities (covered in part 2). A large team is likely to be more interactive than a large peer group. The team will contain a diverse set of roles, and that diversity will likely increase with group size, introducing new content and activity requirements (and overhead to coordinate it all). Within a peer group, the roles and knowledge will likely remain similar and the group is more likely to take on a hierarchical perspective (or at least form two or more tiers) as it grows in size, with the most experienced and vocal group members dominating activities and content generation. A growing peer group is likely to head towards a communication medium (social network) far quicker than a team, which is more likely to struggle to maintain a creative network and may be better served by separating into smaller teams as it grows. As always, it’s the context that matters.

Closing note

These three posts have by no means covered all aspects of collaboration. But hopefully they have highlighted the need to put a little thought into the dynamics of the collaboration environment you need to create. It can be very easy, when relying on technology, to stick with the default templates. Going one step further and designing a site to suit the type and size of group who will be participating, and the type of content and activities that will be involved, can go a long way to helping support the true goal of collaboration tools – getting stuff done better than trying to do it solo.

Collaboration Types – Part 2: Acts

This is the second in a series of three posts looking at types of collaborative working

(Too) often, the focus on improving collaboration is really about content management. Ever heard the phrase ‘single version of the truth’ mentioned in the same paragraph as collaboration? (Well, you have if I’ve been in the room, I’m as guilty as anyone). There is nothing wrong with wanting to improve the management of content and, goodness knows, most content is in want of better management. But collaboration can be about a lot more than co-ordinating the lifecycle of a document.

Content management

Having said all that, we may as well cover content first, given it is likely to continue to be the starting point for many a collaboration project.

Technology has come along way to improving the management of content. Most document repositories with management capabilities (such as version history, assigning metadata, check-in/out facilities) now have web-based interfaces and are accessible from a browser. This makes it possible for documents to be placed in the context of their purpose. Document libraries can be placed alongside (and integrated with) calendar events, tasks to be completed, transactional data residing in database applications, team membership… the list goes on. Whilst more advanced file managers include the document management components (such as displaying metadata and managing version history), they don’t provide the context of the activity. I’d go as far to say the only thing file managers are good for is archiving static data – old documents and records that may need to be accessed for research or compliance purposes.

Web content management is still often a separate activity for most organisations, with dedicated roles being responsible for maintaining content that is published as pages on a web site. I believe this will change over time, as the line between document files and web pages continues to blur and the two merge together. Wikis will be instrumental in the change – they introduce people to the concept of editing web pages with the feel of document management (version history, approval/moderation of changes etc.). If you’re unfamiliar with wikis, explore Many of the traditional reasons for creating documents (memos, meeting notes, training guides, manuals etc.) could be better managed (and more accessible) as web pages. Up until now, the web didn’t work because web pages would be static (read-only) and only available online. Wikis make web pages read/write, and RSS syncs web pages offline. The final step to replace documents with web pages will be the offline client equivalent of the web browser – a common application for editing web pages with automatic synchronisation back to the web site and conflict resolution management. That’s what the next generation of word processors need to provide (i.e. concentrate on the processing of words, not the creation of documents versus web pages).


Activities are what a collaboration project should really focus on – what’s the reason for needing to create that content and what will it be used for? What steps need to be completed, in what order? Can activities be divided and shared? How can technology help co-ordinate getting stuff done?

The type of activities will vary depending on the type of collaboration group (see part 1 for a review). For teams comprising various roles and responsibilities, the majority of activities are likely to be task-oriented. Lists are the most popular (and effective) way of managing and delegating tasks. People can see who is responsible for doing what, the progress of each task, deadlines to meet and so on. Workflow can enhance lists by sending out alerts and reminders to prod people to complete their assigned activities and flag when the list is held up by an overdue and incomplete task. For peer groups, activities are more likely to be event-focused and optional – opportunities to share and communicate knowledge and expertise. For master-apprentice, the relationship is 1:1 and the primary activity will be meetings and opportunities for the apprentice to shadow the mentor. For teacher-student, the relationship is 1:many and activities will be about supporting the learning environment – surveys to capture pre-training expectations and post-training feedback, lists of pre-requisites that attendees should complete before the training, and information about where the training will take place with links to supporting materials.

The most popular enterprise collaboration tool currently is a web-based workspace. These tools often started life as document management tools and still tend to be used more for content management than collaboration. But they do include all the other features that can support a collaborative environment – lists for managing activities, calendar for co-ordinating events, surveys for gathering feedback, contact information about team members and so on. A collaborative workspace should always be organised around the purpose for collaborating, the goal to be achieved, rather than management of the content involved. When the latter occurs, there is a danger that the management of the content becomes more important than what the content is to be used for…


What is collaboration? For most organisations, it is what happens when two or more people work together. Now, last time I checked, the most common act that occurs between two or more people is the act of communication. Attempting to collaborate without communication is as useful as trying to drive a car without an engine. Yet I often see organisations focus solely on collaboration tools to co-ordinate content with little thought for how to improve communication between the people involved.

There are lots of technologies – emerging and well-matured – to support and improve communication between people. For example:

  • The telephone: Yes most people have figured out how to use one, even the mobile variety… we are now beginning to see integration between telephony and information networks, enabling you to look up a contact on a web page, click the link and your telephone automatically dials the recipient. The ability to place calls over the Internet is changing the dynamic of a telephone call. One of the most interesting quotes I heard last year came from Stuart Henshall’s Skype Journal – “Skype moves your use of voice from telephony to a kind of intercom where rather than closing a line down you just temporarily mute it“. Now that’s a potential paradigm shift
  • Email: The most common form of digital communication within the enterprise today, it perhaps ought to be labelled the most common form of mis-communication. A recent study (I forgot to save the link) discovered that we mis-interpret 50 per cent of the emails we read whilst we believe we understand at least 90 per cent. Want to improve collaboration? Consider implementing email etiquette training…
  • Instant messaging: It is still a mystery to me why IM is taking so long to become ingrained within organisations. Depressingly, the reasons for not using IM mostly seem to emerge from within the IT department – the very people who led the way in introducing networks, email and intranets. I’ve already had a whinge about this subject. see related post: ‘When will IM come of age
  • Meetings: Worthy of a paragraph all to themselves – see below
  • Location information: Organised organisations include employee location information in their network directory. Imagine that – you look up someone’s contact information, see they are located 50 yards down the hall from your desk, and actually walk across and meet face-to-face 🙂

These are just a few examples that should be considered as part of any attempt to improve collaboration. Too often, communication is treated as a separate project and activities are focused on sending messages in one direction – publishing – yet most communication is a two-way activity, a conversation, and the quality of collaboration usually correlates to the quality of conversation between the people involved.


Meetings fall under the communication cloud, but deserve special attention. They are the one activity that just about every team will be involved in at some point, and most people would say they have been in at least one unproductive meeting during the past month. There are various technologies that can assist with improving meetings:

  • Meeting workspace: Create a web page to co-ordinate the meeting. Include the objectives, an agenda (with times), invited attendees, any preparation to be completed beforehand, desired outcomes, and amend with minutes from the meeting and agreed actions (ideally with assigned responsibilities and deadlines)
  • Virtual meetings: Use audio/video/web-based tools to enable people to participate who cannot physically attend the meeting. Consider recording the meeting so that it can be replayed by those who could not attend, plus it can be reviewed to confirm agreed actions if required
  • Templates: It’s the simple things in life that often have the greatest effect. Publishing templates with guidelines to support the meeting (e.g. suggested objectives, times, what makes a good versus pointless action etc.) can help improve the effectiveness of meetings. The book ‘Death by Meeting‘ provide some excellent advice on how to improve meetings – use technology to share the advice…

Closing comment

Whilst this post is focused on how technology can support collaboration, there is another aspect that is too often is overlooked – how the culture of the organisation affects collaboration. Successful collaboration is about people working together to achieve a goal. People work better together when they trust their colleagues and enjoy their work. This is perhaps why peer group collaboration is often more successful than team-based collaboration – membership in one is always optional, membership in the other is usually required rather than asked. An organisation’s attitude towards new technology is often a good indicator – companies that have an adverse reaction to the words ‘instant’ and ‘messaging’ are most likely to suffer from a culture that does not support effective collaboration – and no technology will fix that issue.

Collaboration Types – Part 1: Forms

Collaboration Type covers three areas: the form of collaboration (e.g. teams vs peer groups vs 1:many training); collaborative activities (creating documents, generating ideas, making decisions); and collaboration size (the differences between small groups and very large ones)  Read More

Space – the first frontier?

The desire to improve knowledge and collaboration systems during the past 15 years has tended to focus on information technology and virtual environments. And in the process, we sometimes forget about the other form of collaboration – the spaces we inhabit, working together in the physical world.  Read More