Slack is more than chat: Why it is the trojan horse to better enterprise

by Thomas Vander Wal in , , , , , , , , , , ,


During the last couple of years, since Slack has been publicly available, it has taken off like wildfire. To many it is "just a chat service", which gets derided and belittled like most chat services do. This is until they find that chat has not only a place in organizations it has lasting value in organizations, proven out over the last 5 to 8 years (if not longer). Slack, much like prior chat services, do really well in organizations. As a "presence service" (is the person at their desk or available) and a means to ask a quick question or have a quick discussion (synchronously or asynchronously). Over the last 5 to 8 years chat and messaging services took off in organizations. This is not they took off and became popular in pockets of organizations, but have become standard tools everywhere. Messaging not only became the norm, but in many (if not most) organization the messaging platform is second most used service behind email (often Outlook) that is centrally supplied and supported (I know a few organizations where messaging is used more than email and is their most used application / service).

If the email client is Outlook, more than likely the messaging service has been Lync (now rebranding to Skype for Business). The downside to Lync isn't that it is used heavily, but it isn't supported well enough with archiving and with solid search capability. Many IT shops say all the messaging (even if just text based) would eat loads of space to store it. It is a capacity problem in IT's perspective, which when broken down on a per person level it is less than a few gigs of text per year that are created from active users. The last few years Lync has been used heavily for internal voice and video (where allowed) messaging, which not only eats storage at a faster rate, but voice search is still not commercially available with good enough accuracy at a low enough price to be viable for voice in practice. The last issue has little to do with capacity, but is compliance focussed and storing of messages isn't seen as compatible with the organization's policies, which means many of their other knowledge capture capabilities are likely crippled to some degree as well. But, for organizations that believe storing messages and supplying really solid search is limited by capacity constraints a tool like Slack becomes the organization's dream.

So, Slack is a better messaging service?

Well, Slack didn't become popular (these days try and find an organization that isn't using Slack in it somewhere and paying to use it) because it was just another messaging service. There are loads of chat and messaging services for business and enterprise, like HipChat (the largest most similar product), Lync / Skype for Business, Jabber based services, or other less capable services that were developed by those who misbelieve chat is just simple and easy to make. What has Slack standing out is (similar to HipChat) syncing across all platforms, from your pocket, to your desk, or on your coffee table / sofa. But, unlike HipChat, Slack stood out for being not only easy to use, but fun to use. Part of this is the helpful Slackbot that guides users and provides assistance with a playful, yet helpful personality (personality that fits a service and need is incredibly helpful with bots is it help discern with service and bot you are interacting with in our lovely human brains) as well as the myriad of other bots that are available to add in.

Why is Slack people's buddy?

But, this isn't the whole reason Slack is being used, spreading widely, and relatively quickly. Slack is more than chat, which can be used quickly to interact with others and keep information out of email. But, Slack and its personality(ies) address some most acute pain points that are in every organization: Knowledge capture and retrieval; Search; and Interoperability / integration. All three of these organizational maladies not only have long been problematic most of the "solutions" for them over the years suck (to put it politely) for the people using them.

It is important to keep in mind Slack is founded and built by game developers who focus on creating fun and engaging environments. They deeply get staying away from creating pain points for customers / users, as well as reducing them - this isn’t the clicksperts gamification, it is real game mechanics and game design models / theory at work.

Knowledge capture and retrieval

Email has for more than a decade or two been known as the death bed for knowledge in organizations where things are captured and shared are never to be seen again. Yes, think of the cesspit that is email (we've known this problem for 20+ years) with each email little envelope not as that nice friendly symbol but as a tombstone for the dead / never to be live again knowledge within it. It is now you have got the reality of the last 20 plus years. But, more open systems that allow for capturing, sharing, and most importantly searching have really good value to move things forward.

Many organizations value capturing the knowledge they create and have within it. They also have interest in having that knowledge shared and found by others who can benefit from it, so the organization gets smarter faster. The key pain point is capturing what is known, often this is set as a separate set of actions and activities from what people do in their regular workflows and conversation / interaction models. This separation of flow and spaces decreases the use of the knowledge services. These separate services have their place and value as spaces and places for focussed (either team task focussed, project relevant investigations, or subject interest focussed) discussion and development of ideas. But, the conversations that happen in the flow of work are valuable to capture as they happen, then have them addressable / linkable and searchable.

Services that capture conversation and communication in open, historically captured, and addressable spaces have long been far more valuable than email. This value is replicated often with the ever present situation of bring somebody new into the team, project, and / or conversation. The context and history is there to be seen, the important items can be marked or pinned in a manner so they stand out as well as getting context around those items in their original context. Getting a new person conversant and in the flow of things (as well as not out of the loop in conversations that are current) is incredibly valuable when trying to get things done and done well.

Slack provides that means to capture the conversations as they happen. It provides the means to pin (and now with emoji responses, a hackable means) relevant valuable chunks of the conversations and streams.

Good search (yes, you read that right)

Search in and across enterprise, is often painful as it is not very good at finding things. One of the benefits of Slack for many is the search is quite good. Not only is Slack good at retrieving past messages and conversations, but anything that is linked to in Slack or attached as shared objects (text related or with text metadata) in Slack all become searchable. When the linked items or objects are returned in search they are surfaced within the context of the conversation they were shared. People using Slack in organizations have been amazed with the quality of search for finding and refinding shared knowledge and resources, but also relating the item to why and how it was shared. To those who are deprived of viable search in organizations Slack is a real treasure.

Most enterprise search provides success in only 4 of 5 attempts (this adds up to being roughly $375 of cost for unproductive / counter productive time per employee per year when looking at it through an extremely conservative lens (others estimate 4 to 10 times this cost per employee per year). Just the value of improved search, as well as bringing information into context and having it searchable ads greater value from moving the dark matter into the searchable light.

Search in Slack is most often better than the enterprise search that people use across their organization. But, it also is often better than the search that is built into various platforms that are used in and across the organization, including enterprise social networks (some exceptions to this include KnoweldgePlaza, which has really good search within it, as that is a large part its purpose). This improvement in search finds what is needed and the search result surfacing the item in context is really special. Slack has also designed this really well, which adds to the ease of use and enjoyment.

Integration and Interoperability (What? Really?)

Another big pain point in organizations is integration and interoperability. There are disparate systems which many people have to pay attention to metrics, messages / alerts, and charts from various services across them, which is not efficient and rarely is there an integrated view (nor a means to interact across different systems from one interface). But, rarely is there a means to search within and across the services to do quick comparisons or easily bring those things into a more unified view. Often IT has the integrations far down on their prioritized to do list or in the "can not be done category" for reasons of feasibility or difficulty. But, one of the beauties of Slack is it integrates with other services relatively easily through a variety of methods (many can be done in a day or two in side-project time), if there is access to an API or even a means to see a screen so it can be parsed for values and meaning. Groups have been able to pull together their own aggregated and searchable views (sometimes in their own channel to view / review and search within or as a system with an identity that chats and shares things out as a bot). The solution that is cobbled together in side-project time to meet the needs of employees meets their jobs to get done and need that access requirements, which make Slack far quite efficient and usable. While IT has their requests slowly (if that) moving through the prioritization process, employees have been able to drastically reduce the pain points that nudge them to consider looking employment opportunities that value their getting work done.

Sane payment models

One of the last, often overlooked, elements goes completely against the trend of "evil" enterprise service payment models of paying for seats (used or unused). This model is loved by nearly all enterprise software vendors (or their boards - somebody has to love it as it surely isn't the customers who know they are being taken for a ride).

Slack treats paying for their software / services differently. It runs on a freemium model, but has high conversion rate to paying customers for its offerings. It is not that paying users get full search of the a complete archive and more plug-ins, but also quite good support (yes there are a few others that give quite good support - though this isn't the norm). The pay model provides improved search powers and interoperability / integration, which being severe pain points in organizations make it worth paying for and the pricing per user makes that a bargain (hey Slack don't go changing the price though).

Yet, what really makes Slack's payment model special and different is you only pay for accounts used that month. (Did I hear a collective "WHAT?") Yes, you don't pay for the number of prospective seats nor tied into long contracts that go beyond the needed time span. Ever try to get a reduction in seats paid for after a few months when you have realized only 60% of the seats paid for are used and that doesn't look like it will shift over the next 18 to 30 months of the life of the lock-in? Slack understands that pain and opted to not partake in that model of pain.

In short Slack reduces pain and increases efficiency and value

So, the reasons why Slack seems to be at the tip of many business and enterprise tongues (as an inquiry or recommendation) is focussing on what is delivered, its ease, and the value people get.

Slack aims at delivering a usable (and friendly) service as a means to communicate to get and share information and knowledge. But, in doing this also knocks out some nasty pains people in organizations really don't like and have long wanted resolved. Slack is basically the un-enterprise solution as it focusses on being easy to use, reduces pain points, and tries to be friendly. Yes, this is software for the enterprise, or for the parts that don't relish pain.

So Slack is perfect and the cure all?

Um, no. Slack is far from perfect. It isn't trying to be everything. So, you are wondering what are the pain points or limitations?

Slack isn't going to scale to meet your hundreds or thousands of employees needs today

Slack works relatively well up to a few hundred people (there are many hundreds using in one installation (instances well over a thousand as well), but that isn't optimal). And even with keeping an installation under a couple hundred people it is still going to be a bit noisy. Many of these installations with more than 100 people in them use the channels for creating smaller groups / teams / projects / targeted conversations.

While improvements are need to get to solid filtering, this does help so important things don't get missed, or conversations that could use a person's input gets their attention when they weren't specifically called out. The ability to move conversations to and between channels (in a manner that leaves a trail behind where the conversation started).

It also needs the ability to more easily tie conversations threads together and tie related discussions together through tags (yes, I said the tags word) [the addition of each entry now having the ability to get emoji responses has been getting used to aggregate related content in some organizations in a "visual tagging" way, but lacks clarity in understanding, even with "what each emoji means" charts]. Also, finding related threads and discussions across channels can be cumbersome in search when different terms (synonyms / fungible technical terms) are being used, even if search is good.

Not everything nor everybody works in the open

In organizations there are viable and valuable reasons to have some things not shared openly. Legal, regulatory, compliance, and some things are best tested and considered among a few people and honed / vetted before sharing more widely and other needs for improving social comfort are often lacking in the enterprise social platforms.

Many mature social platforms for enterprise now offer private spaces for groups to share information, and if it seems viable or gets honed / edited it is shared it out more broadly. Many even follow the social progression of fire model where trends in the messages / sparks and comments are seen as being connected and possibly need more investigation, then moved to or collected in a small comfortable space / campfire to investigate before sharing more broadly / campfire (if it is deemed worthy of moving it forward), and then honed through collaboration and perfected to be put into production / torch.

By the way - Slack does offer the capability of not remembering things for paid users as some organizations require this for compliance. There is a forget quickly, forget in a week or so, and keep everything capability to meet a variety of needs / requirements of organizations [this forgetting negates the incredibly helpful search, but organizations that require this often have bigger troubles that they are dealing with]. But, global forgetting isn't the same as quiet comfortable groups with permeable walls that work well for many people in larger organizations with cultures heavy on the Western European and North American sensibilities.

Slack doesn't replace everything

There have already been some rather poorly considered (mostly through the lack of understanding the diversity and complexity of social - no it isn't simple nor just complicated) "we are going to use Slack to replace..." attempts. Understanding the category / class of tool that Slack falls into is essential. It isn't a replacement for the collective, curation, nor team / group workspaces like Jive and others (yes, there is one service in this category / class that nearly everybody wants to move away from as fast as they can, but Slack isn't the tool to move to as a replacement). Slack does well to sit alongside those services for conversational interactions and sharing results out of them. It isn't going to replace a social search and collective aggregation service like KnowledgePlaza. Slack not only integrates things into itself, but also can have what is in it as fodder to integrate out, so conversations and things shared in Slack can be honed and more deeply framed and considered in other services and then have results and outcomes of those considerations shared back into Slack.

Slack is not going to replace your document management service. It is a good partner for it to add context and easily drop documents that are relevant from the service into Slack. But, Slack isn't going to replace document management, even if its search is good, the versioning, permissions, and access controls for compliance and other valid needs aren't there in Slack. Your document management service could become more pleasurable to use though.

Enterprise is a complicated beast

Having worked in and around social software for enterprise for about 20 years now, it is a wicked space. There are a lot of "needs" that Slack doesn't comply with yet. There are a lot of issues that aren't on Slack's horizon yet, it may not want to place them there.

Enterprise also brings with it a diversity of needs, mental models inside, use cases, workflow models, and more that should be and could be addressed, but Slack isn't there yet. I'm not sure Slack even has all of them fully on their radar - many organizations don't centrally have them on their radar yet either. But needs arise when divisions and groups underserved by centrally chosen tools in an organization that doesn't fit their needs. When this happens groups often will go in search of services and tools that meet their needs to help them get the job done.

Working with enterprise means working with organizations that don't understand how they themselves actually work nor operate in workflows nor knowledge flows. Many social platforms aren't in the business to help organizations understand their needs, problems, pain points, and gaps yet these are the first steps to understanding the right fit for tools. Analysts, for the most part, aren't in this business, nor are most consultants (selling solutions based cookie cutter decision models makes more profit than the deep understanding the problems before considering solutions model). Perhaps Slack could embrace this model of helping organizations understand themselves, as they aren't focussed on "winning" as much as helping solve problems and address needs (another reason Slack stands out and has a good helpful product).

So what should you do?

The first step is to take Slack seriously. It is doing a lot of things really well, as well as weekly and monthly iterations making things even better.

Also understand not only what Slack is, but what it isn't. Understand how your organizations works (if you need help with that reach out to me, as helping organizations see clearly through the fog of complexity is what I do) and sort out how a service that focusses on reducing pain points and increases people's ability to get things done can fit.

Second, start early thinking about filtering to cut through the noise for alerts and reducing "noise". Work out a community guide and plan. Also, sort out the flow models that can work well with the other services in the organization.


The One Year Club: A seven year review

by Thomas Vander Wal in , , ,


In 2008, or so, I would have semi-regular calls with a friend who was also doing social and collaboration consulting and advising. Stuart Mader and I would set aside 30 minutes or so to compare notes about our client work (these often lasted 2 to 3 hours). The common trait with our clients was most had purchased tools and services to roll out internal social platforms for their employees. Nearly all of those who came to us had their services and platforms up and running for a while, but at the 6 month to 18 month mark they started to realize all of this work was more than complicated, it was seriously complex. The customers and potential customers weren’t certain they had the right tool or platform for their environment and they needed help to better understand their actual needs, problems, and gaps.

This transition from the “social is simple” perception to “this is incredibly complex” Stuart called the “One Year Club”.

It was roughly in that one year window that the reality of what they were trying to do sunk in. When we would work with the clients and walk them through foundational questions and framings for the variety of models of social interactions (collective, team / group / community / network, and real collaboration) as well as other essential models (these foundations became my Social Lenses in late 2008, which are now up to 60+ lenses) the understanding and clarity of the state of things for them would become far more clear.

(Of the 60+ Lenses, there are 10 to 15 initial lenses for social I use in workshops and kick-off meetings that are part of 25 that are common lenses for social and general complexity filters that many engagements use or get considered. The remainder are used for situations as needed so to see through the fog of complexity. An updated view of the Lenses is likely to be posted here next.)

Is the One Year Club still relevant?

In recent client, potential client, and workshop attendee discussions over this past year the issues that were relevant in 2005 to 2010 that caused the One Year Club moniker to come to life and live on still exist. Nearly every engagement I have where I do either a high-level Lenses framing or a deeper workshop session all get the “we really needed this badly early on when we were trying to understand our problems and set requirements” response. All find something deeply valuable, that is becomes clear in the sessions, they need to focus on. At the same time most realize they may not have the right system for their needs. All find deep value in the sessions because they quickly identify improvements and efficiency gains, from the insights they see through the clarity of the Lenses that help them see through the fog of complexity. Many of these gains are helpful in the short term, but other find quick solutions to keep things going as they work through how to resolve their larger platform change needs.

Looking at things in the past year through all the discussions and reviewing the state of many of the platforms (particularly those that are relatively inexpensive, free, or included as a throw-in from vendors selling other products), not only is the One Year Club still valid, but may be broader reaching and in a worse state than the 2005 to 2010 stretch.

Why is the State of Things Worse?

First off, not everything is the same or worse. Some platforms continue to grow and evolve through maturing in ways that embrace the diversity of how humans are social and diversity patterns of how people work, Jive is one of those. There are also new entrants that have taken things like chat, (in most large organizations with Microsoft foundations Lync (now rebranding as Skype for Business) chat was claimed by many corporate IT departments as the second most used piece of software / service after email in the organization) and added solid functionality (ability to archive by default, including documents and linked objects, and use really good search across it all) and solid ease of integration that in a sense has been making “Slack is the Operating System” a truism for many. Another great asset that is available today is the Community Managers Roundtable that provides insights for managing a community and the skills for running, measuring, and keeping a community vibrant.

The trouble that lead to the One Year Club years ago was largely people under-estimating or not doing the needed due diligence. They was also a lack the understanding the regular and continual assessment need for the right fit of their offerings to the problems, needs, and gaps they were hoping to solve. This is often exacerbated by the lack of broadly and deeply framing the problems and potential outcomes up front. I covered some of this in my CMSWire piece “Finding Your Right Collaboration Fit” and a recent talk at 18F titled “Internal Social / Collaboration (Slideshare link)” (an 18F write-up of the talk "Imagining a water cooler for the digital age is also available, with links to a less than optimal quality video of the talk).

The basic understanding that tools matter is not only lost, but is often considered not relevant, until an organization gets to the point of needing core features and functionality that come with a maturing community (or other scaled classes - teams / groups / networks). They also find the platform they are on not only doesn’t provide those, but can’t be adapted as the foundation for the platform isn’t structured to handle mature needs. This all can be headed off up front though the use of Lenses to not only see the current state of things, but use of quick scenarios for what things will look like in one to three years as things scale and other potential realities come into relevance.

Another thing that makes today’s state of things more troublesome is the common existence of more than one platform being successfully used in organizations. With the onset of new services there is much more to think through, to potentially work into the fold. The new services can be targeted at niche areas that fit various workflows and mental models really well at a good price, or offer a drastically improved set of functionality or class of service (like chat), where it is bordering on a new class type. The One Year Club often considers shifting all of their team and group services from a platform that functions okay, to a chat service, rather than thinking about integrating and how that would work in their distinct environment. The One Year Club continually is considering jumping from one platform to another, which is not only not fungible, but of a completely different category / class of service. Often their core platform may not serve their needs, but is of a class or category where they have a need, but they also have other needs to be addressed as well.

This Does Get Better?

It not only can get better, it must get better.

The path to getting better is to understand and embrace complexity as a reality, as well as embrace adaption. One must also learn to see through the fog of complexity to more clearly see the problems, needs, and gaps as well as see the small pieces clearly with lenses so to overlay lenses to see the intersecting influences at work. This not only helps understand today’s needs and the short term, but helps with working through near future scenarios (one to three years, occasionally five year views) so to understand the shifts that may happen so we can make considered choices today, while also having adaptive solutions ready for the impending changes and shifts. This changes the state of things being seen from disruption (otherwise known as having little clue what is happening and not being prepared) to relatively easy adaption through understanding and being comfortable with change.


Running Podular Teams

by Thomas Vander Wal in , , , , ,


Running Podular Teams

Podular platform

One of the things that has brought happiness from the Connected Company book being out for nearly three years (now in paperback), is getting the idea of podular teams and organization out there for a wider understanding. From 2001 onward I ran my product and project teams in a podular manner. Since then I have helped many organizations I have worked with as clients adopt this approach so to be more nimble, efficient, productive, and keeps the teams members happy as well as management.

This works well where there are a diversity of projects that have different cycles that need different skills for a duration, or are short to mid-range in length (less than 6 to 9 months). This does work well for longer projects as it helps with staffing when their is any turnover in the pod.

What is Podular?

When I started running my teams I had a fixed set of people working under me in my program area and a wider set of projects. The team members had a wide variety of skills and various depths of strength and experience in those skills. The simple overview is, to stay on top of my team and project needs I set up a simple spreadsheet with the names of team members on the horizontal rows and skills running along the top of the columns. In each cell I put a 1 to 5 ranking (5 being the highest) for that person’s skill and expertise level. To build a project team I would assess the skill needs of the project and the project timeline and review the program’s team to right fit a team to each project.

Other program managers and my upper management called this matrixed team management, but outside of this the term matrixed organizations had a very different meaning. When working with Dave Gray on the Connected Company book he brought up the conflict with the term matrix (matrixed organizations were in the “bad thing cycle”) and started calling them podular teams, which worked well as that is how they functioned, as a self-sustained pod.

The teams when set up could mostly run themselves autonomously, mostly because of the people I had in the program team. But, often there was a person senior enough that could keep an eye on how things were progressing. If things were not running well I would get a heads up as a manager and help sort out a solution. Many times I was on the team, not as a manager, but taking one of the roles that needed depth of a skill set for a duration.

How to Set It Up

Setting up podular teams can be done in a spread sheet, but a couple times I have built quick web applications to serve the purpose. The assessment of skills (all of them) is essential. This can be through professional assessments, team review by peers, and / or a managers assessment. Keep in mind that over time the skills ratings will change. It is best not to work off of job descriptions as those are most often very off target. It can be good to sit with each person and run their assessment by them. Keeping to a 1 to 5 rating makes the reviewing with people a little easier. Don’t assess the top rating for a skill based on their being the best in the pool of talent as there may be a need for somebody with deeper skill and experience at some point.

When you have the individuals rated on their skills and you are sure you have all the skills listed (keeping to relatively broad categories can be helpful) it is good to color code the ratings and look to make it easier to see the gaps or potentially thin areas in the pool.

Next take a couple projects that are have been running and map the people to the the team and look at what sort of skills are needed. Look at the make-up of the teams as well as the pool of candidates. Look at where there may be weaknesses in the pods at times based on cyclical needs. You may find that there is two days of work for a skill at a level 5 each quarter, so starting to map the pod over various durations of time is helpful, from weeks, months, and quarters.

Next Steps

There are a few of things that running a podular team environment needs that make it a little more complicated. The first is maturity cycles of a project. Projects have three distinct stages: 1) Creation; 2) Iteration; and 3) Maintenance. Initially when I added this I kept it as a column in the spreadsheet for each person, but I found it really applies to each skill. The skills and capability to fit into the stages is essential as each stages takes very different mindsets and approaches, as well as personality type / temperament to handle that stage well. Shifting somebody with a “4” skill rank that has only done maintenance to a creation stage role is often a quick way to start trigger problems in the pod on a project.

The second is growing skills. One of the things that quickly jumps out when running teams in podular environments is overlap of skills, as well as gaps at various levels. Another thing over time is the skill levels for individuals change, which changes the make-up of the podular teams and the pool of people over time. I started keeping a second sub-column in each ranking to track this change over time. At one point I turned the second column into the individual’s goal column, which was set during formal reviews and casual reviews to learn what the skills that person had a desire in improving. Eventually, this turned into a third column and I brought back the rating change column. This meant I had a “Last Review”, “Current”, and “Goal” column for each person’s skill ranking. The “Goal” column really helped with setting podular teams to take somebody with a high skill ranking and pair them with someone wanting to improve their skills in that area. The person there to shadow and get some hands on experience form someone with more skill and experience nearly always was in that pod because of some skill they had a skill match for on that project.

Tracking things in this way also means traditional reviews are relatively easy to do as progress can be tracked as well as contributions. In working with other organizations, those that have team members providing feedback across a project makes review and assessment easier as well.

The third is hiring into the pool. Running any group over time leads to hiring people. This can be to replace somebody who is leaving or for newly created roles / positions. Running things in a podular manner and keeping track of projects, pods, people, and their skills means there is a really good view into what skills are needed at what level to fill that new opening. With monitoring people’s growing skills (as well as atrophy) looking at a pool of people, their skills, and the needs on projects means seeing the needs of the new hire is rather clear. This can be difficult in organizations with strict job descriptions and roles that are only updated every two to five years. But, most often it means the role is easy to write and right fill, if skill levels and other fit can be determined well.

Building Pods

When the framework is set the next is taking projects and teams and converting them to pods. The big shift is going to be the pods most likely are going to be a little more fluid than they were prior, so to match changing skill needs over the life cycle of a project or team needs at various points. Turning them into pods often means these pods will run a little more autonomously over time.

This means the role of the person managing, if they are are not a contributing member at all, is going to change. Their role is going to be less managing what happens in the pod and focussing on clearing the way for the people in the pods to do their work. The manager will openly check with the project owner as well as those in the pod to ensure things are running smoothly and assess upcoming needs or smooth out any bumps that arise. Often the number of people and projects that are being managed will rise. The manager is often the person who will work to help get resources and answers to needs as they arise. The manager is also the one keeping an eye on budgets and burn rates, which becomes essential when bringing people in and out of the pod to get the best skills mix as needed.

The pods will need a really good platform for team communication, coordination, and collaboration. This needs to be open to the person managing as well as fully open to people that drop into the pod to fill in roles. Email doesn’t work as a part of podular environments. Getting a tool that works well can be a less than easy task, but it is an important task to ensure the right fit. The client or project owner may or may not have full access to the tool, but a good view into progress, deliverables, needs, and probability of completion is a good view to offer.

Putting a pod together can be done in a self-selected manner, in a curated approach, or one that is mixed. While many organizations find success with self-selection, where the pod has the opportunity to self assemble, the downside is this only works with some skill sets, personality types, and work environments. Where self selection really falls flat, if not fails spectacularly is skills that are often strong with people who are introverts and needing those skills in the pod. In many organizations this can be more than 70 percent of the teams and pods that are needed to be assembled. Self-selection also tends to favor those who have working knowledge of others, which makes new hires and others that don’t have experience in the pool on the outside, with pods often choosing a known, but poor fit, rather than a better fit that is unknown. The upside of self-selection is pods get built with people who tend to work well together.

The curated approach where a manager or pod builder works to assemble a pod with the right skills, levels, and availability. The availability is often tricky and can take some negotiation to get a key role filled with the right person for a duration that is needed. The curation approach mixed with some self-selection can work well also, and is often a really good way to do things over time.

Really Understanding Needs

The biggest hurdle to this is deeply understanding needs. This is understanding all the roles needed and skills. One thing that becomes quickly clear is there are often skills needed beyond what traditionally has been considered. With podular environments the ability to bring in people with skills that fill these gaps becomes second hand and seems natural. This leads to the pod looking to optimize their output and try to understand things that are less than optimal. This short fall in skills and gap in skills continually arises when implementing and deploying social / collaboration / communication platforms in organizations as there are 14 essential roles needed and most are trying to cover it with 2 or three of these skills roles.

Over time the skills needed in the pods becomes clearer, but often bringing in a consultant with experience in podular environments and the domain areas becomes a huge time saver to get things running smoothly early in this transition.


Shift Happened - Part 4: The One Social Way (Or not) to Doing Social Really Well in Enterprise

by Thomas Vander Wal in , , , , ,


Having been at the heart of social and collaboration since 1996 (no, I’m not kidding) it is interesting to see how large organizations that are doing social well (>80% employees are active) actually are doing it.

The interesting thing is most of these organizations are not using just one service or platform. They are using two or three, often with some additional small solutions for niche situations (niche for them). They are also not planning on migrating to one solution (most tried and it didn’t go well), at least for any foreseeable future.

There is No One Way

The reality of doing social well is embracing the understanding there is no universal, no master narrative, and no one right way. Yes, we are all human, but we are not all wired exactly the same. The different personality types, different mental models, and many different cultures in an organization (and world outside) that comprise reality require embracing that reality with more than one approach.

No organization started out to do this, it just happened. This begins with IT often wanting just one solution that works for everybody, as that makes their job more manageable (often they select something from a vendor they already work with). Often what IT provides for the organization doesn’t work well enough for sections of the organization (often large portions of the organization), as it didn’t meet their needs nor mental models. Over the last 5 to 8 years getting a good social / collaboration solution needed relatively little effort for a division or group as it often runs in the cloud (meaning it doesn’t need IT) and could fit on a credit card for the team or a division’s PO so it is small enough to fly under the radar, so getting a right fit solution has been easy. Not only was it easy, but it has worked rather well, as it fits the needs and people use them rather heavily.

Where this has ended up after 2 to 8 years is many different social and collaboration services in an organization, that until recently haven’t really talked to each other well. Teams, groups, divisions, etc. need to talk and work together and so IT was getting back involved to get everybody on one solution. The trouble is, you can’t remove what works from the different parties.

Why There is More Than One Solution Working Well

When you try to remove a well used solution you realize it is really difficult to move to one platform. While it is a pain the most difficult piece is not porting the data, interactions, and differing privacy models. It is not retraining people (if heavy retraining is needed the selection made may really be the right selection), but this is just a symptom of the real issue. The biggest hurdle is there isn’t one universal model. There will never be a universal model that works, unless is it heavily based on adaption, but no vendor remotely close to delivering on that yet.

Most of the well used social and collaboration platform vendors have understood they really need to understand their users well. They did user testing and mapped their products to their user’s mental models and needs. But, the thing is their users are not universal (they are a subset of the whole) but tied to the people and personality types that have long bought their software / services. The users they researched and tested on have been those parts of the organizations that buy their products. This is not the whole of the organization that they focussed on, but the slice that is their customer base.

This is why Salesforce Chatter works really well for sales and marketing, but the other 65% to 80% of the organization won’t go near it nor live in it the way sales and marketing people do. Similar for SharePoint as it is honed (and really not well) for tech centered folks or needs to be heavily optimized, but there are extremely few organizations with the depth of roles needed to modify SharePoint to get it to be easily usable widely in an organization. Jive works really well for knowledge workers (and even information workers). The innovation and leading edge teams and groups (it doesn’t scale up yet and works best with smaller groups) are often using Slack (there is no chance in hell you can remove Slack and they are likely the best minds and change makers in an organization whom you really don’t want to piss off and have leave - if you don’t think you have Slack users you either don’t have highly productive innovation folks or you aren’t looking hard enough). There are a myriad of smaller targeted solutions for a wide variety of roles, functional areas and personality types that are perfect for their niches (some with millions of users - with around 2 billion technology enabled people on the planet it is quiet easy to have a niche of a few million users).

So, What Do We Do Now

Organizations that are moving toward doing social and collaboration well fall into two camps: 1) One social platform that is decent, but not great usage is doing great in parts of the organization, but untouched in others; 2) There are many platforms in the organization and there is a strong need to get people working together across the now disparate groups.

The first step is realize there is no getting to one system. Be fine with that reality. But, realize you can likely reduce the number of systems.

Now, the harder goal, is getting products integrated, which is beyond just simple traditional integration. To do this well it takes deeply understanding the different personality types, roles, and mental models in the organization and not following a tech schematic that most integrators use as their blueprint.

The first step is to bring in people who understand the differences in the social platforms, beyond what the checkboxes say and vendors say. These people usually have strong social science backgrounds, have worked in large organizations along the way, and have been working (helps if managed, designed, and / or developed) with social and collaboration services more than a decade.

Likely this person (or people) will be from outside the organization. It is rare such a person will be inside, so getting them access to the services will be required - as many organizations have rules against outsiders having access to platforms but it is needed for research to get honest insight and feedback with good research non-disclosure guidelines in place.

“We Have One Solution” Organizations

If you are one of those “we have one solution” organizations, I’m hoping that one solutions is one that plays well with others, as those are a great starting points. Right now the best of these is Jive, as it seems they understand they are not out to rule the world, but play very well with the world and all the needed tools and services that employees use to get the job done. Jive also has a well laid out plug-in and module mindset that includes Open Social (this only is a partial solution so far as it isn’t full interoperation capable yet) to get outside content in. But Jive and Salesforce Chatter can integrate and work relatively seamlessly (if the right versions each are in place) with each in their own platform and well honed interface for their own user’s mental models. This is a really good example of where the future resides.

With the one solution that may not have really broad adoption, work to sort out who in the organization is not participating or has lower use rates. Spend time gathering the data and mapping patterns. It will likely start to frame divisions, roles, and personality types that are rather clear to see representing those not using it (also refine the understanding of who IS using it, as you don’t really want to mess with success of employees along the way).

Mapping the gaps where people are not using the tools, as well as why not, will start as a guide. In this mapping and research there will be other solutions used that may not be known (sometimes these are used widely - beyond 10% of the organization is where wide starts) and capturing and understanding what they are and why they are used is going to be essential. Finding and understanding the myriad of options out there to map to roles, sub-cultures, and personality types, as well as interoperation will be essential. Trying a few different options and having change management and internal communications involved will help things as well.

“We Right Fit Solutions” Organizations

The first step with organizations that have many known solutions is to do a full capture and audit of all platforms and services used, as there are likely more than what is known. Also be comfortable with the reality that there will likely be more than one solution at the end, but hopefully they will play well together.

In the capturing what is being used and by whom, learn what they do, how they do it, and why. Learn, what could they live with out (or what they rarely if ever use) and what is essential. Watch people work. One of the most important things is discern if they are working in closed groups, open groups, or if they are using one of the rare platforms that allows reseting permissions so to start closed and once honed and vetted they share more openly (this is a valuable capability in a solution). Map the differences between groups and tools (a serious benefit of having outsiders do the research and mapping).

Once everything is captured and mapped the hard work begins. The solutions is going to be different for each organization, but interoperability is going to be a key component. There will likely need to be a tool or service at the center that other systems work into, out of, and around. Understanding the multiple cultures, differences, capabilities, privacy, security, user work needs, underlying data models, and availability of APIs are going to play roles in working through to a workable solution. Depending on the organization mobile, what tools (the non-collab and social services) it integrates with and how, organizational make-up (including if an organization that has been acquiring other companies and / or has plans to), virtual work environments and needs, data / document storage models, adaptive to change, and much more are going to play very important roles in working to a good way forward.

It is important to keep organizational external boundary crossing in mind. Working with clients, consultants, and other valuable external resources in a closed system is really helpful. Having few services that are used with outside resources is a good thing from the perspective of keeping external parties confusion to a minimum. A services for document haring (like Box) along with a community and / or collaboration space is a good fit and keeps confusion to a minimum.

While There Is No One Way There Can Be Fewer

Many organizations hope to get to just one platform, but getting to a few that are optimized for large portions of the organization and their needs are going to be really helpful. This gets the advantages of productivity gains and efficiency that can come form services honed from solid user testing from vendors that match the people working in the tools (there will always be more user experience optimization needed, but it will be much less).


Shift Happened Series


Design Fiction Futures for NYC Libraries

by Thomas Vander Wal in , , , , ,


I have long been a fan of design fiction to frame what the deployment of a design idea looks like after it has been created and is in use. I have used this quite a few times in my own work over the years. But, seeing great examples of design fiction in public isn’t a common occurrence. The great folks at Near Future Laboratory do great design fiction work – it is well worth picking up their “All-In-One Design Fiction Combo Pack” if you haven’t yet.

Librarians at large
Librarians at large

Fantastic Example for NYC Branch Libraries

This week Union released When A Branch Becomes The Root: A proposal by UNION that imagines the future of NYC’s branch libraries.. This is not only a great example of design fiction, but a great rework and imagining explained as happened of how to reshape and design not only the physical New York City branch libraries properties, but how to expand how they function as a service for people in the city. The brand / identity design becomes as much of an important part of the work as it helps not only help the library stand out, but helps bring the library and information out of the libraries and into people lived.

There is so much that is really good in this proposal and how it is executed that it will likely be an open tab for a while in my browser or in near reach saved out.


Getting Good Case Studies in Today's Competitive World

by Thomas Vander Wal in , , , , , , ,


Efficiency and business advantage is what many businesses see as their differentiator. A week or two back while following the Twitter Stream and some live blogging of Enterprise 2.0 Summit: London I kept hearing how there were no new companies talking about their own case studies than there were a few years back. Many presentations pointed to the same limited set of case studies. The worry derived from this was concern stagnation in the space.

The odd thing is when you talk with consultants, strategists, and advisors out doing work companies and other organizations in this space the list of organizations doing social business or working out loud well and looking to get the next bump up from the value they are seeing is really huge. There are more than the handful of organizations using social platforms extremely well in their organizations and getting great advantage.

Why So Quiet?

But, why are they not talking? There are a few reasons, but one of the biggest is the first sentence, “efficiency and business advantage”, how they work and get the job done is their differentiator, or a perceived differentiators. Many organizations will not allow their employees to talk about how they do their work at conferences. Talking at conferences about how they do their work gets stopped by legal. In the past 4 years I have talked with about 15 companies who would have made for great case studies and they submitted them at conferences, but they were not permitted speak.

Tied to “business advantage” (competitive advantage and manner of doing business) often has a piece of it tied to the market, if they are a publicly traded company. Most organizations that are publicly traded do not reveal publicly who their main technical solution suppliers are for their internal work to ward of an negative impact to their stock price from a problem from one of their suppliers (technical problem or corporate perceived problems). The markets are fickle and not overly rational, so most organizations see it as not wanting collateral damage being publicly tied to a supplier. Additionally, most organizations have a diversified supplier base for redundancy and familiarity to enable a rather swift change to another vendor.

So, how do these stories get out? Most often these stories get out second hand and are not attributed to any company. The organization is generalized, but distinct stories roughed out to get a point across. Most companies looking for case studies are looking for names of companies and people that can give the case study sharp reality. This is particularly true when finding a company in the same industry vertical.

Another large factor limiting new case studies is vendors will put forward organizations who are doing great things with their platform. But, the reality is most organizations are doing really well, because they are using more than one platform to get the job done. Most vendors don’t want to tell that story as they want to be “the only one”. When vendors find organizations that will talk the vendor most often wants to ensure the organization is telling their vendor friendly story. Homogenous organizations are becoming incredibly rare these days. While many vendors have a much broader range of “darling” clients at their own vendor sponsored events (clients usually only talk about vendor focussed use), but at non-vendor focussed events the spotlight is how they found success, which is rarely just with one vendor to get the job done.

Improving Conference Case Studies

Of the two limitations, corporate silence and vendor approval, the only one of these two that is malleable is vendor approval. This means of the companies that are willing to talk it takes conference organizers going beyond their usual circles of influence and sounding boards to find good stories to tell and bring in.

Many organizations are also not seeing the value of being a focus of a case study. The limited number of case studies out there has far far less to do with the number of organizations having success with social business and any of the more forward ways business work today than it does with organizations no longer finding value with being the focus of a case study. When I talk with other consultants, strategists, and advisors we have lists of 30 to 50 organizations who are great examples and we use generically as examples. When needing specific examples of niche use the list runs into the hundreds. This is far wider than the limited set case studies that are over used today.

Many of us who are on the outside of organizations and know there great examples and lessons learned, if not a full case study, often ask if it is possible for us to write-up and publicly share. This is often the best method for getting things out and shared, but most organizations come back after checking with legal, that they do not want to be the focus of a case study and often don’t want to be mentioned in one. But, occasionally we get a yes and this is the way forward and we get another example that can be shared.

Listening to the Audience

At KM World in early November the audience questions and insights were as good or not better than a lot of what was being stated from the panels or talks. KM World is a practitioner conference and the social business or working out loud model has spread quite broadly for most organizations who have practitioners attending. The attendance at KM World was over one thousand attendees and from audience participation in the social business related sessions there were more than 100 organizations that have been finding quite a bit of success with social and collaborative methods or working and are looking for tweaks to what they are doing so to get even more value. None of these companies speaking up in the sessions with success stories are case studies and none were seeking to be. In my workshop of just over 20 participants nearly all of them had rather successful social or collaborative platforms running and were looking for ways to get more out of them and to better support the diverse ways people are working and being productive today.

The feedback from some of the presentations where the limited case studies that are out there as the focus was brutal. Mostly, because not only are the case studies well known in a large segment of the KM World audience, but their own practices out pace the case studies and they are farther along than the case studies repeatedly pointed to.

It well could be we are not only at the edge of a post-document business world, but also at the cusp of a post-case study business world. Our model of having one shining example at the front of the room, has become thousands of shining lights in the room sharing at a smaller level, because they are not permitted to share officially from the front of the room.


The One Social Way - Or not - to Doing Social Really Well in Enterprise

by Thomas Vander Wal in , , , , ,


One of the interesting things, having been at the heart of social and collaboration for business a good long while (since 1996, no I'm not kidding), is seeing how large organizations who are doing and have been doing social well (more than 80% of employees are active users (more than once a week (often daily) checking in and taking an action (setting status, commenting, posting something, etc.)) with many of them doing a majority of their interacting with team and work colleagues inside the tools and services) actually do this.

The interesting thing is most organizations who are doing social and collaboration well are not using just one service or platform. They are using two or three, often with some small solutions for niche situations (niche for them). They are also not planning on migrating to one solution, well at least for any foreseeable future.

There is No One Way

The reality of doing social well is embracing the understanding there is no universal, no master narrative, and no one right way. Yes, we are all human, but we are not all wired exactly the same. The different personality types, different mental models, and many different cultures in an organization (and world outside their doors) that comprise reality, which requires embracing that reality with more than one approach.

No organization started out to do this, it just happened. What IT often wants to do is have just one solution that works for everybody, as that makes their job more manageable. But, many organizations needed something far better than the mess that email created in their organizations so to clearly communicate with and within their teams and departments. Reality is people roll in and out of projects and people stopped using just corporate sanction tools to get work done with colleagues. Often what IT provided for the organization didn't work well enough for them, as it didn't meet their needs nor mental models. The last 5 to 8 years getting a good social / collaboration solution for a team up to a division that ran in the cloud (didn't need IT) and could fit on a credit card for the team or a division's PO that was small enough to fly under the radar has been easy. Not only was it easy, but it has worked rather well, as it fits the needs and people use them rather heavily.

Where this has ended up after 2 to 8 years is many different social and collaboration services in an organization, that haven't really talked to each other well. Teams, groups, divisions, etc. need to talk and work together and so IT was getting back involved to get everybody on one solution. The trouble is, you can't remove what works.

Why There is More Than One Solution Working Well

When you try to remove a well used solution you realize it is really difficult to move to one platform. It is not the porting of the data, interactions, and differing privacy models that is hardest, it is a pain, but not the most difficult piece. It is not retraining people (if heavy retraining is needed something is really not right, but this is just a symptom of the real issue).

The biggest hurdle is there isn't one universal model. There will never be a universal model that works, unless is it heavily based on adaption and no vendor remotely close to that yet.

Most of the well used social and collaboration platforms have understood they need to really understand their users well. They did user testing and mapped their products to their user's mental models. But, the thing is their users are not universal and are tied to the people and personality types that have long bought their software / services. The users they researched and tested on have been those parts of the organizations that buy their products. This is not the whole of the organization that they focussed on, but the slice that is their customer base.

This is why Salesforce Chatter works really well for sales and marketing, but the other 65% to 80% of the organization won't go near it nor live in it the way sales and marketing people do. Similar for Yammer and SharePoint as they are honed (and really not well) for tech centered folks who are willing to work with less than optimal tools. Jive works really well for knowledge workers (and even information workers), and for the innovation and leading edge teams and groups (no it doesn't scale up yet) there is Slack (there is no chance in hell you can remove Slack and they are likely the best minds and change makers in one's organization whom you really don't want to piss off and have leave - if you don't think you have Slack users you either don't have highly productive innovation folks or you aren't looking hard enough). There are a myriad of smaller targeted solutions for a wide variety of roles and personality types that are perfect for their niches (some with millions of users - with around 2 billion technology enabled people on the planet it is quiet easy to have a niche of a few million users).

So, What Do We Do Now

Organizations that are moving toward doing social and collaboration well fall into two camps: 1) One social platform that has good, but not great usage (Jive is a solution that adapts the most broadly and is one of the few actually pushing forward to improve and get to do a better job at having a product that is social as humans are social) is doing great in parts of the organization, but untouched in others; 2) There are many many platforms in the organization and there is a strong need to get people working together across the now disparate groups.

The first step is realize there is no getting to one. Be fine with that.

Now, the harder goal, which is getting things to work together, which is beyond just simple traditional integration. To do this well it takes deeply understanding the different personality types, roles, and mental models in the organization and not just following a tech schematic that most integrators use as their blueprint.

The first step is to bring in people who understand the differences between social platforms beyond what the checkboxes say. These people usually have strong social science backgrounds, have worked in large organizations along the way, and have been working (helps if managed, designed, and / or developed) with social and collaboration more than a decade. Outside? It is rare this person will be inside, but if so many organizations have rules against using platforms outside the organization that there will be a need to have an external party research to get honest insight and feed back with good research non-disclosure guidelines in place.

"We Have One Solution" Organizations

If you are one of those "we have one solution" organizations, I'm hoping that one solutions is one that plays well with others, as those are a great starting points. Right now the best of these is Jive, as it seems they understand they are not out to rule the world, but play very well with the world and all the needed tools and services that employees use to get the job done. Jive also has a well laid out plug-in and module mindset that includes Open Social (this only is a partial solution so far as it isn't full interoperation capable yet) to get outside content in. But Jive and Salesforce Chatter can integrate and work relatively seamlessly with each in their own platform and well honed interface for their own user's mental models. This is a really good example of where the future resides.

With the one solution that may not have really broad adoption, work to sort out who in the organization is not participating or has lower use rates. Spend time gathering the data and mapping patterns. It will likely start to frame divisions, roles, and personality types that are rather clear to see for those not using it (also refine the understanding of who IS using it, as you don't really want to mess those types of employees along the way).

Mapping the gaps where people are not using the tools, as well as why not, will help be a guide. In this mapping and research, particularly if done by people outside the organization, there will be other solutions used that may not be known (sometimes these are used widely - beyond 10% of the organization is where wide starts) and capturing and understanding what they are and why is going to be essential. Finding and understanding the myriad of options out there to map to roles, sub-cultures, and personality types, as well as interoperation will be essential. Trying a few different options and having change management and internal communications involved will help things as well.

"We Right Fit Solutions" Organizations

The first step with many known solutions is to do a full capture and audit of all platforms and services used, as there are likely more than what is known. Also be comfortable with the reality that there will likely be more than one solution at the end, but hopefully they will play well together.

In the capturing what is being used and by whom, learn what they do, how they do it, and why. Learn, what could they live with out and what is essential. Watch people work. One of the most important things is discern if they are working in closed groups, open groups, or if they are using one of the rare platforms that allows reseting permissions so to start closed and once honed share more openly (this is a valuable capability in a solution). Map the differences between groups and tools (a serious benefit of having outsiders do the research and mapping).

Once everything is captured and mapped the hard work begins. The solutions is going to be different for each organization, but interoperability is going to be a key component. There will likely need to be a tool or service at the center that other in, out, and around. Understanding the cultures, differences, capabilities, privacy, security, user work needs, underlying data models, and availability of APIs are going to play roles in working through to a workable solution. Depending on the organization mobile, what tools (the non-collab and social services) it integrates with and how, organizational make-up (including if an organization that has been acquiring other companies and / or has plans to), virtual work environments and needs, data / document storage models, adaptive to change, and much more are going to play very important roles in working to a good way forward.


KM World 2014 Is a Real Gem

by Thomas Vander Wal in , , , , , ,


I’m sitting Saturday morning a little bleary (I don’t sleep well around good conferences) waiting for my coffee that can’t brew quickly enough.

This past week I spent most of the days at KM World 2014 in Washington, DC giving a workshop on the first day (Tuesday) “Improving Knowledge Flows: Using Lenses to See Needs in Systems of Engagement”, which started rough (thanks to insane DC traffic that went above and beyond its usual bad) but smoothed out. The workshop was somewhat similar to ones I have given in the past, but the participants were fantastic. What set them apart is, nearly all of them have been running social and collaboration systems of engagement for a year or more and know the difficult task it is and they were asking great questions from understanding that struggle.

Repeatedly through out KM World this year the questions from experience and needing to learn more from people with real experience and living with less than optimal solutions and offerings from many vendors. The sessions this year were very good with a few great sessions (there were a rare few really poor sessions, but those were really exceptions). I didn’t make any of the keynotes as I am local to the event and chose (again) not to stay downtown to be closer to the event and still keep family priorities front and center and there was good things in those that had people buzzing.

KM World Meetings and Informal Small Groups

The meetings around KM World this year, along with dinners and hallway conversations were some of the best, not only at KM World, but any other conference I have been in a long long time (perhaps back to 2006 at a one off conference). I also got to see fantastic friends and colleagues I have grown to know over the last 10 years or so of putting serious outward focus in this area from conferences and client work. I also met people I really should have known and been deep tight buds with for years prior.

Shell Played it Smart

On the subject of meetings I was really intrigued by Shell, who had bought one of the conference rooms and ran a Wednesday through Friday session / demo out of them. The session was showing their system of engagement as intranet that is founded on the Work Out Loud model that Bryce Williams kicked off years back as a framing and many others, including Ian Jones of Shell, have embraced and extended since.

Shell was doing demonstrations of what they had built and was answering questions about how to do similar and lessons learned. One of my workshop attendees asked me to come by and set up a one-on-one session with them. Where I got a descent deep dive. In the session I noticed some things they had managed to do in Sharepoint that is really difficult to do (something that is part of the Sharepoint marketing pitch for compliance minded folks, but like many things in Sharepoint it is buggy and many times not achievable). I liked what they had pulled together as it was a good solid first to second stage social / engagement service (of about 8 to 10 that can be achieved), which many organizations struggle getting to that first stage successfully.

What was curious with Shell is I couldn’t sort out their motive. I couldn’t sort if they were consulting outwardly and this set-up was a really good smart way to show capabilities and offer that to others or if it was a showcase of their capabilities. What I missed (talking with other senior folks around the conference we all seemed to miss) was a third possibility they were crowdsourcing gaps and next steps. They were showcasing what they did, but also getting feed back from other organizations and vendors about how others have done things, but they were pulling the experts at the conference into deep one-on-one sessions. It wasn’t until Friday at lunch, when I sat with one of the Shell guys and he explained that. I then offered another set insights and we had a great chat about where things are headed with enterprise tools (things the “future of…” folks haven’t stumbled into yet) and I got some great insights into some small capabilities Shell folks have found make differences in people’s work life as well as the organization as a whole.

The Shell approach of getting feedback broadly and deeply is so obvious and genius, it is surprising other organizations with budgets for such haven’t done this. I don’t know how quickly this sort of thing would become utterly annoying if there were more than one or two organizations doing this at a conference year after year, but it showed really great thinking on the part of Shell.

Sessions that I Loved

My favorite sessions at conferences are the ones that hit on something I wasn’t expecting and provide a perspective I’ve been missing. I also love good presentation craft and slide craft, which is missing at most business and tech conferences, so seeing that with great content presented with good arcs and pace I also fall for. These that follow are the ones I went to and liked or loved.

The “10 Mistakes to Avoid When Purchasing Digital Workplace Technology” by Jarrod Gingras of Real Story Group was fantastic. Tech purchasing is insanely difficult and most organizations end up with something that really doesn’t fit them well. Part of the issue is they don’t understand their needs and problems well, which is often where I help framing things and setting understandings of what things they will need to know so their 6 month, 2 year, and 5 year versions of their organizations can grow with their selections today. But, once you know your problems and needs well enough, sorting through the minefield of potential vendors and implementers is a whole different story. Jarred’s session was one of the best framings of how go through purchasing process well in vendor / tool selection that I have ever run across (I have run across well over a hundred in the past 10 to 15 years).

I really liked Stan Garfield’s overview of “Practical Social Media Tips”. There wasn’t much new for me, but Stan has great framing of tools services for people unfamiliar and stating simply the value people and organizations can get from each. It is conversational and incredibly helpful. This is an approach I tend to gloss over as I love to go deep and to the difficult stuff, which many new to things are not ready for. Stan’s sessions are always a great reminder for myself on how to get things right for those new to things. (I also love the conversations with Stan where we can go deep). There is a fine art of making things simple for entry to the complicated and complex realities beyond. Most consulting firms and solo consultants try to prove their brilliance and depth (they miss the mark on this front on getting that right) or they lack the depth and only know the simple and can’t go beyond. So, watching Stan is a great pleasure as he has serious depth, but conveys things simply with a light touch.

The half of the “Creating Learning Organizations: Commitment not Compliance” session by Nabil Keith Durand on The Learning Organization: Creating Commitment Not Compliance was utterly fantastic. Not only was the slide craft and presentation craft as near perfect (there were many presentations with slides that were far from readable with content too small or dense for the room size and the hallway conversations and backchannels were insanely brutal hitting on this) as I have seen in a non design / communication professional conference or a something Duarte has worked on. His content and framing was fantastic and talk about the cognitive foundations for understanding how people learn and work, but also how to embrace this to have far more successful projects and programs. I got to chat with Nebil a bit after thanking him for a great presentation, but found he is another with great breadth and depth from a quite diverse and multi-disciplinary background that really shines through.

The session on Cognitive Computing by Sue Feldman may have been my favorite of the whole conference. She clearly mapped out the transitions from the traditional computing and search to the approach cognitive computing has been shifting us to. I loved this as I have been coming at this from other trajectories the past three or four years with approaches with complex adaptive systems modeling, friends and clients building in AI (artificial intelligence) into their tools / services / offerings, and similar working on offerings that offer great solutions through agency (tools working on our behalf in the background). Having a full framing of the dimensions, components, and models and the communities around this side of things was fantastic. Finding a community where things go deep and broad is always a gem, particularly when I haven’t known what things are called (ironic for cognitive computing as it is mostly anti-taxonomy) and finding the thread to pull on to get to the gold mines. This talk may have opened up a door for inquiry that may last me a long long time, so am deeply grateful for it. It is also going to be fodder and sanity checks for some of the Shift Happened series pieces I am writing (now about 14 of them that could be the full series).

Outflows

KM World this year not only had great content, great meetings, fantastic collecting with like minds and colleagues, meeting many many new people I really want to know better and work with, and had sparks for new things to flesh out, but it helped me hone all of the content I have been sitting on and working to hone and reprioritizes it. A lot of things in my work that have been shown and talked about in workshops and client engagements need to get out into the more open world. KM World was another big kick in the pants to get this moving.

In August I got a few big “welcome back!” messages from past clients, colleagues, and buds in the business and technology communities. They hadn’t seen me as easily reachable in those contexts for a few years. KM World had those August messages echoed even more loudly and with many steps to start to engage for assistance and help moving things forward in their organizations.


Working Out Loud in Hallways with Memory

by Thomas Vander Wal


I am deeply enjoying working out loud again with a team. There are so many great advantages to sharing what you are working on in progress. This is often how I worked with clients from 2005 through to early 2012 and it was so odd to move back into an email heavy work environment, and is now so refreshing to be engaged back with a team that shares works in progress.

As I pointed out in the latest, Shift Happens - Part3: Capturing Decisions in Social the results of the work are most often not the most valuable portions, it is the collective aggregate of the work that gets to that point, that has the most value. As we all regularly experience, what is today’s good decision often is not the best for tomorrow, nor a slightly different circumstance. But, teams, groups, and organizations not working out loud, even if just at group and team levels, don’t have any of these advantages of finding, integrating, nor reusing information and understanding shared along the way. Most often these transactions are lost in email. There is great value lost and buried (with not even the decency of a funeral) in email.

I caught a great tweet from Stewart Butterfield the CEO of Slack that drives home one of the great values of teams working out loud and having all the work collateral attached and searchable, not only is it great for the team or group, but is fantastic for the next member of that assemblage who is added in. Here, Stewart is responding to Chris Sacca asking about if Slack works well for a team of 3 people…

I’ve become a fan of Slack in the past year (it is less than a year old publicly) because it does for teams and groups what a tool I miss (SystemOne) did for larger organizations — it provides search across a collective’s work out loud contributions. Not only the conversations, but the linked to documents, code, sites, etc. to keep what is relative to the teams within easy digital reach. The conversations that used to be lost in meeting rooms and hallways are now captured, as a by product of working in a virtual team the hallways and meeting rooms now have memory.


Shift Happened - Part 3: Capturing Decisions in Social

by Thomas Vander Wal in , , , , ,


In the last 5 years many people have been working amidst a shift in how they work digitally and where they interact digitally with colleagues. They also realize the product of their work may have shifted as well. The work product has long been presentations, white papers, spreadsheets, general reports, etc. These deliverables are products of the work done and are often only a small representation of the thinking, considerations, and actual work put in to get to the final product. This final product has long been treated by organizations as the document of record, which is the model for the systems they have been working around for years.

The value of these output creations, or documents in a system of record are limited as the half life of their value is often rather short as the conditions and reality of the context they were created in and for is usually in continual flux. This means once the document is delivered not only is it (if all went well in the creation of it) correct for a relatively short period of time, but it is often just a transition point for other work. The deliverable is presented or handed over and others and then begin their work, it is just an interstitial between two or more sets of activity.

Realizing the Big Value

Many organizations have been realizing the value in their documents that are storing, while helpful, is only a small slice of the value captured from the work that went into it. Many organizations have employees doing their work with their colleagues in collaboration / social platforms and have been using these systems of engagement to capture the work in progress. When organizations start looking at the work that is captured in these tools and in formats that are relatively easy to use, they realize the value in them far exceeds the value in the outcomes document that is tucked away in they system of record, which often are rarely returned to.

What the systems of engagement offers is solid insight into the framing of the problem, the multitude of options, the researching and testing the options, thinking through the options, and often how the decisions for inclusion and exclusion were arrived upon. Much of this is captured in the service tacitly and / or explicitly. The key is to turn the tacit into explicit, or at least make it discoverable.

There is a wide valley between tacit and explicit knowledge. Capturing conversation and information flows was often enough to flip the tacit to explicit for some. But, this is far from binary as it really should be easily found and addressable. One system that for many years has provided the ability to point to and annotate at a paragraph level it Traction Software, which can be and is used to annotate decision inflection points as well as information of note that can be used to highlight and annotate likely highlights for decisions.

Systems of Engagement Meet Systems of Record

Systems of record are often the tools where outputs and outcomes are tracked. Document management and content management, Customer Relationship Management (CRM) that tracks sales and customer interactions, Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP) that tracks supply chain and product delivery, and more that are tied to business roles and / or lines of business. The systems of record are often the meta layer as the work is not done there, but the representation of that work is.

The systems of engagement are the various communication, collaboration, and social business network services. The discussions, sharing of resources in and around work, and often decisions regarding what moves forward and not often happens in these services. The ability to capture the decision points and the more minor inflection points is an incredible value. But, this takes a step beyond just purely capturing it, the inflection and decisions need to be easier to find than many services offer.

There are some work around solutions, which include the print a PDF of the pages / screens with inflections and decisions, then highlight and annotate the PDF and place it in the document repository. Ya, not so elegant, but it sort of works.


Shift Happened Series


Shift Happened - Part 2: Small Apps Loosely Joined

by Thomas Vander Wal in , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,


What are Small Apps Loosely Joined?

There has been a large shift in how many people work today and part of that is in the tools that they use to get work done. This shift in work patterns mirrors the shift that many had in their personal lives around social interactions and productivity.

Late one night many years ago (long before the iPhone), a group of us were talking about web and mobile and opportunities to work in a variety of similar tools that were all interconnected. The mash-up culture was a year or two behind us with Paul Radamacher’s first map mashup HousingMaps and the salient understanding that surfaced from that was the ability to have different interfaces for different needs and uses that could work as a workflow, or even similar interfaces for different personal needs of the users. We talked about Twitter and its heavy reliance on third-party developers to build web and mobile apps and services on top of its services and the Twitter API (the application programming interface, which is a standard data and interaction layer that sits behind the scenes bring data back and forth between the service). This approach allowed anybody to build an interface for seeing and interacting with Twitter or create an interface that provided greater ease of use for tasks. With tongue in-cheek (paraphrasing David Weinberger’s “Small Pieces Loosely Joined”), I said this model was small apps loosely joined.

What joined these apps together was a common data layer that fits a standard data model (or, as is common in APIs, a data model that self describes). The Twitter model allowed people to interact with the service through a mobile app with full functionality of the Twitter site, or to see many different Twitter lists in something like TweetDeck, or monitor and respond through different accounts in something like HootSuite, while tracking follows and drops in other monitoring services.

This same idea is more prevalent now across our mobile devices and the apps and services that they connect to and use. Not only are today’s mobile apps and services interacting with the APIs on the internet, but they are working with standard file formats on the backend and apps that meet the needs of users’ context and workflows. Some of the common app and service types that people have been shifting to the small apps loosely joined model are: Calendar, email, photos, text / documents, and to do lists / reminders (a closer look at these follows).

Who is Doing This?

The small apps loosely joined concept is nothing new in the technical geek and productivity nerd community (as part of both tribes, i use the words geek and nerd lovingly), as well as for early adopters. These uses and patterns with small apps loosely joined started surfacing around ten years on the web and mobile devices, all interconnected to the internet.

We understand innovation and broad adoption can take quite some time, roughly 10 years for innovations and new ideas to take hold broadly. We are about 10 years into this way of working and interacting with information and applications, so it was not exactly a surprise to hear research (done in-house to better understand the mobile market) that 60 to 70 percent of military members and their families surveyed use more than one app for a task types. They used calendars, email, and weather as examples. I checked with others who do surveys of employees inside organizations if they were looking at the question and found that they were. Their responses were also in the 60 to 70 percent range for calendar, to do, and text apps on mobile devices.

So, while this small app loosely joined focus and obsession within technology and productivity communities has been more than a decade old, it is something that is now rather mainstream. Over the last five years or so, when I am traveling or in a dank gym for club basketball, I often ask people next to me what apps and services they like the most on the mobile devices that is in their hand. Their answers often surface apps related to tasks and workflows for a data type (calendar, document, etc.) and the person would qualify how and in which circumstances they use it. Quite often, the app did one or two things really well that others didn’t cover or did not do well in their perspective.

Why are People doing this?

There are a lot of reasons why people started embracing small apps loosely joined. The primary driver has been mobility and looking for small mobile or tablet apps that do a specific, needed task. Mobile and tablet uses often have quite different contexts for use, including a mix of creation and consumption, but the affordances and agency in these apps is a driver too. Having applications work across platforms is helpful, but it is more essential to have open file formats and standards that work with apps that can pick up the file and provide use on another device with the constraints and augmented capability mobile and tablets provide.

There are additional relevant benefits of the file formats and standards working across devices. The ability to easily share files with others with whom you are working or communicating is a great benefit, as the platform doesn’t matter, just the ability to grab an app (often inexpensive and sometimes free) to read and modify the file is key. Being able to easily share files leads to always having needed files accessible, as they can be kept of an internet directory (the kids, okay grown-ups, call this cloud storage).

The last benefit that is driving people to the world of small apps loosely joined is the value of non-proprietary files, which isn’t as hippy and give-it-to-the-man as it sounds–it’s really about ensuring that the files will work on any device with an application that handles that type of object. Having to keep two or three versions of the same software around so one can work across file differences, or open files in a different version of the software so it can be saved down into an older version, is silliness we can leave in the inefficient old days. Many of the file structures that are based on around text, including calendars, can be opened in any text application and read and edited there.

Where are People Doing This?

Most people (particularly outside the geeks) started down this path when smartphones and the modern class of tablets entered their lives. They looked for ways to replicate how they worked on laptops and desktops, but often the same apps weren’t there and they had to improvise. Word of mouth also spread ideas and options for getting things done. But, often people go exploring small, focused apps that are inexpensive or free to see what they do. The small targeted apps, often in the “does one thing well” class of app or small app that is does a few things simply and easily, have filled made it easy to try quite a few different apps to find something that works. People often find a few apps that fit into a workflow that targets a few small tasks to get things done while standing in line, stuck in traffic, or sitting at your desk waiting for one’s computer to finish updating and reboot.

As a result, often people find that this small focused app model helps them do the things they need to do, and it can be more efficient than digging around large cumbersome software. Often this can be more efficient as the person is not digging around large cumbersome software. Once this becomes a habit or a way of working on mobile, the expectation is that it should also work on the desktop / laptop as well. People look for similar apps and services that fit their more efficient workflows that started on their “devices that are too small and limited to do any real work on” and want that same type of focussed application where they “do their real work”.

This change is also being driven by more than just shifts in devices–people are trying apps and services in their personal life to help manage their schedules or work simultaneously with club or event organizers crafting an email or newsletter. Our personal lives used to trail our work lives as far as technology and services
augmenting what we do, but now what we’re doing in our personal lives has greatly surpassed the capabilities of many of our work offerings.

The Types of Apps that Often Fit the Bill

The starting place for many people who try a variety of apps on their mobile and tablet devices are weather, text, and calendar. We don’t modify weather apps as they are mostly just a display of provided content, but there are much variety among the offerings, such as <give a good, standard example> and DarkSky, which offers micro-location weather with how many minutes until precipitation starts or stops.

Text apps

Text apps is where many start seeing the concept and value of small apps loosely joined. People want something more than just simple notes application to jot ideas and sync them to other devices. They want to be able to read and do a little editing of text that they or others started writing on their “work” devices, all while standing in line or during other available moments that permeate our day. Soon this “little bit of editing” seems like it isn’t all that bad to do and they start picking up things they started writing elsewhere and knock out more on their mobile device or tablet. Or, they have an idea when they are not near their “work” device and start jotting a few notes in a text app, and soon it has turned into a couple or few paragraphs. The accessibility and convenience of these capabilities has switched on a lightbulb. Talking and comparing notes with friends and colleagues, they find there are apps that are not just simple text, but can add annotations for structure (headers and outlines), hooks for style (bold and italics), and more. This often leads to learning that some apps have more robust writing tools (dictionary, thesaurus, writing analytics, etc.). Those who write with a workflow of first getting ideas out of their head and then working with them to hone them are often most prone to the small apps loosely joined way of doing things. But, others also like the ease of just getting words and ideas out in one app, then editing elsewhere by just opening another app and grabbing the same text file from a cloud sync service or sharing between apps directly. These text apps, particularly when those that are markdown friendly, can take that initial text and turn it into a styled PDF, a Word doc, HTML to post, RTF (rich text format), or more.

Calendar apps

Calendars are another gateway drug, er application type, that leads to embracing the small apps loosely joined way of doing things. The calendar files are a set file type that is easy to move from app to app (except when working across platforms that have proprietary hooks that break compatibility). Smartphones and tables all come with calendar apps, but they rarely fit the full range of needs. Some people want a calendar to have a certain look or layout format that helps them see and evaluate their day, and there is an abundance of options on all platforms for visual display. But, the real gems are the small apps that shine with certain tasks like Fantastical does on Apple products with its natural language parsing that turns spoken words into an almost always bang-on calendar entry.

Other calendar apps start adding other intelligence and agency (applications doing things on our behalf to ease our work). Donna (rest her digital soul) was a favorite of mine for evaluating time between events and different modes of transport and calculating time to leave based on weather and traffic conditions (and if you were really stuck in a jam, it offered to help you get Uber). Donna was a gem for the space between meetings, but was an incredible help with coordinating kid pick-up and leave times related to their various events. Other apps that are helpful agents are Tempo (it came out of the same SRI lab as Siri), which is one of the fullest featured and most helpful calendar apps around. Tempo monitors your mail not only for events, but pulls the relevant emails, documents, location and contact information, and relevant transportation needs into one simple calendar entry–and all you had to do was place it on your calendar or say yes to an event invite. Tempo offers the ability to send an “I’m running late” notification to those with whom you are meeting, as well as the expected arrival time.

One the the interesting things about calendars in the small apps loosely joined set is that most of these class of apps do something else–they augment and clean-up the calendar entry. Say I open Tempo and it doesn’t recognize the location that is in the calendar entry - say it only has Ray’s Pizza in NYC (oh, you too have gone down this crazy path of meeting somebody at Ray’s Pizza in NYC only to later realize (not soon enough) that there are more than one and nearly a billion permutations of Ray’s, Ray’s Original, Original Ray’s, etc.)… so Tempo offers suggestions to sort out the exact location and then enters the address in the calendar file’s location field. Bingo! We have clarity, but not only does your calendar have clarity within Tempo, but in all other calendar apps that read that event file. Not only does Tempo do this, but other apps may also do this. We learn quickly the apps that don’t play well with others and hoard the clean up information (Mynd app has done this in the past, but it seems to be more friendly after its last update). Additionally, some apps give you the option as to which mapping and directions app you would like the calendar to open when you are actually on your way.

Email apps

One of the things that mobile and tablets reinforce is how painful email is in our lives (on both the work and personal sides). Being able to live in email and work with it easily in some managed way from a mobile device or tablet is critical. The small apps loosely joined concept really takes hold with email for many people. Some tools work as easy, light triage, such as Mailbox, to quickly filter through your email based on importance and time-relative needs. Also, some tools that manage attachments in email (or, more appropriately, files that would have been attachments, such as Hightail (formerly YouSendIt), which stores files and documents for your email to link to securely. The only requirement for most of the email apps is the email account must run on IMAP, which is pretty much the norm these days.

Photo apps

The quality of photos has improved drastically on many mobile devices and even tablets. This along with the adage, “the best camera is the one you have with you” (and most people always have their phone with them), has led to the reality that a lot of photos get taken on mobile devices and tablets. The photos are a common file type and there is an abundance of apps that can take a photo and modify it to improve its quality, add filters to change the look, add text, or turn into something that looks a lot like a watercolor painting. The photos can also be scanned and OCRed, as well as uploaded as a document and later searchable (as many do in Evernote.

Standards and Access

The key to many of the apps loosely joined use types mentioned (and the many not covered here) is that the files passed among apps follow a set or ad hoc standard. Text files that use Markdown (or Multi-Markdown that extends the capabilities to add footnote, tables, and more) are all human readable, but also any text app can read them and edit them. The file sizes are small, which is incredibly important for mobile devices and tablets in limited mobile bandwidth locations (be that Manhattan at 5:15 on any weekday or the outer suburbs of Accra).

Access to the files is the other important characteristic of small apps loosely joined. Working between apps may not require internet access, but working between devices that are not in bluetooth range, or sharing files to collaborate requires data access (most often through the internet). Small file size, which those of us working with mobile a long time know is still an essential for actually getting things done reliably.

Common Use Traits

These apps have a core set of functionality that stem from the capabilities of:

  • Viewing
  • Creating
  • Honing
  • Agency
  • Features / functionality augmentation

Viewing is a common characteristic of all the apps, but the ability to create is where the real difference in these apps start to have real value for people using these apps and working in a small apps loosely joined workflow. The small apps can also provide the ability to hone what has been done in another app or on another device. This honing may be editing or adding data or an element to improve use. Agents that look out for us and do work we would be having to do is quite helpful, particularly when they are getting to the near bulletproof reliability some are approaching these days. The features and functionality augmentation in apps really helps when working with light apps that are focused and easy to use. Adding grammar checks and tools that can improve our work or creations, much like we would at a laptop or desktop, have shifted many people to this small apps loosely joined life.

App Traits

There are a few core traits in these apps. First off, as mentioned, they work on open document types that are are commonly used as actual or de facto standards.

Another trait is the apps are light (a few features and functionality sets), focus on simplicity, and are easy to use. Mobile devices do not have the screen space for complicated or complex interfaces, and, in reality, given where and how these devices are used, the user’s full attention is not on the app or device. Good mobile and tablet designers and developers understand this limitation very well and understand just how far they can push the limited human constraints that come into play when interacting with the apps.

The last related trait is that the apps are focused. When listening to how people use and interact with their devices and apps, it is interesting how they understand and parse functionality that fits their needs across apps. With calendaring, some people love Fanstastical’s UI for display of the day’s and upcoming events, while other people love how easy it is to input information and create events from a chunk of copied, typed, or spoken text (and getting it right). It was interesting talking with other Donna calendar app users as many of us would open Donna to get just travel-related information and / or honing the address, then close it and open another calendar app for its different functionality. The apps do a few certain things really well and those that live in the small apps loosely joined workflow are quite fine with that.

Wrap-up

The small apps loosely joined workflow and expectation has moved from mobile devices to the laptop / desktop world. The small apps that were just on mobile devices are showing up on the more fully powered devices. The output created from these apps have supporting services on the web that can augment this practice much further. Many who work in small apps loosely joined have learned to like the focused task and mindfulness of that targeted approach–they get things done far more efficiently and are more productive more of the time, and, as a result, they can often get more uninterrupted time to focus on living life beyond devices and apps. The goal going in was just to get things done on the device I have with me, but it is not a bad benefit for those whom value it.


Shift Happened Series


Shift Happened - Part 1: More Productive Not Using Productivity Tools

by Thomas Vander Wal in , , , , , , , , , , , , ,


Over the past six months or so, I’ve been increasingly hearing from IT leaders in organizations who have been surprised by a shift in how people work digitally. The work patterns related to this shift are far from new and, in fact, are well over a decade old.

Nonetheless, some have been surprised by who, why, and how broadly and rapidly the change is happening. Those caught by surprise are often in IT departments, and they are surprised by the changing work patterns of sales, teleworkers, and others in the field and away from the office. Looking at these shifts in detail, how those who are surprised by these shifts came to be surprised isn’t so surprising.

Productivity Happened

Over the past 3 to 4 years, there has been a shift in how people work. Advancements in mobile devices and applications is part of it, but the prevalence of touch tablets has been a large contributor to the change. The light weight and ability use them for much of users’ daily work makes tablets a relatively good choice for those working on the road or away from the office. Initially, many thought that not having Microsoft Office was going to be a hinderance for tablet use, but that has not been the case.

But, the same time touch tablets were becoming a largely viable option, how and where information and knowledge work was happening shifted too. Work was increasingly happening in online services where text and data was entered into an online service, often one with collaborative or social functionality. The daily report was no longer a document completed in Word and then uploaded; it is now text that is entered in a service that connects colleagues and team members who do follow-on work with that input. The conversations happens around the information and the content shared initially can be edited, commented on, and linked to externally.

Those in the field may not be online all the time, but they are collecting notes and information throughout their day, often doing so in small, lightweight, text-focused apps. The small writing apps often have Markdown as their means to add structure (structure replaced style), including headers, bold, italics, bullets, links (to web pages, online spreadsheets, images, or other). Markdown isn’t new and many of the online services people are using have handled Markdown text for years. Up to this point, Markdown had mostly been in the geek domain, but now sales folks, admins, field workers, and other traditionally non-tech-centric workers are using it as well.

Frequent users say that the 6 to 8 regular Markdown annotations (such as heading levels, bold, italics, links, and pull quotes) were quick and easy to learn. MS Word has nearly 200 functions in its ribbons these days, but many people use only 15 to 20 of those, and most often use 6 to 10, for which they use keystrokes. Yes, the common 6 to 10 most used and easily found Word functions map to those provided within Markdown. Many text apps have buttons for Markdown for user convenience.

This shift to simplified text focus (that doesn’t require Microsoft Word) has delivered quite a few benefits. The first is that it is incredibly easy to share contents and files with anybody, as there are no “I have the wrong version of Word” or “I copied it into my document and my document is now a mess” problems. The files sizes are also lightweight and easy to email or upload, even in environments with network bandwidth constraints. Most of their work is going to be copied into text boxes in an online system anyway, or, if folks are working in a Word Document, it will likely be parsed and turned into plain text, rich text, or HTML (things Markdown-related tools easily output as alternate options).

But, of all these small benefits, the largest is the increase in productivity. Many of those working in this manner, mostly because they were on devices that didn’t have Microsoft Word, found they were “far more productive outside their old productivity tools.” Nearly every person I have talked with who has watched this shift happen has uttered this statement or something very similar about productivity. Workers are no longer battling their tools (Office / Word), but are simply producing.

Shift Sneaks Up When You are Headsdown Building Past Models

Without exception, every person in IT who has tracked me down to have this discussion (with the aim of finding out if they are alone and how to start thinking about it), is coming out of a very long SharePoint implementation. They were heads down on their (initially) 2 to 4 month Sharepoint project, that ended up being an order of magnitude longer, more expensive, and larger in scale and scope than expected, so they didn’t see this shift happening.

Often, these folks in IT were pointed in my direction by someone in a different division within the organization who I talked with or worked with on collaborative and social working projects to support their needs. These systems and services provide the text boxes into which their workers were pasting text from their tablet text-writing apps. Their work and work models shifted drastically while IT was heavily focused on a solution that wasn’t solving needs for large portions of the organization.

IT really wasn’t aware of this shift until they went to renew their Microsoft Office licenses and were being moved to Office 365, which seemed like it was going to meet the online working needs of the systems they had been asked to deliver years back. What IT was not expecting was that 25% to 40% (or, as I have been hearing over the past couple weeks, 60%) of their workers, many of whom are working out in the field or virtually, refuse to go back to using Office (often voicing this refusal loudly and strongly). IT found they had paid for seats that wouldn’t be used, an incredibly expensive proposition. Office 365 can be justifiable to many when it is being used, but to sit unused is another story. The senior IT folks have been saying their percentage of workers shifting to this new (Office-free) model is going up by 2% each month, as means of working more easily and efficiently in other ways spreads (e.g. 25% in April 2013 to 27% in May 2013).

More Productive Not Using Productivity Tools

This big shift relates to the fact that traditional productivity tools weren’t based on efficient productivity. Most standard productivity tools grew from a paper-based model and world moved to the digital world. As work has largely changed from passing documents around to posting and working on content in more open collaborative and group environments that align with what our modern work has became, the model of a “doc” disappeared. The document as an object was the focus of the “system of record,” but now, in a “systems of engagement” model, focus is on the milestones met and status marker activities in the online collaborative, collective, and team (including group / community / network) interaction systems.

Tools that got in the way of productivity and didn’t meet needs as people began to work more interactively in digital-focused and digital-appropriate environments are no longer the default tools of choice. We are working a little more like humans interact naturally and having technology adapt to these ways of working, rather than making humans learn a lot about how to adapt to traditional technology to do their work.


Shift Happened Series