This is a topic that has touched me and a number of people I know at various workplaces. Big businesses out there seem to be slowly adopting to the 2.0 view of internet empowered reality of ours. They seem to be deploying wiki, blogging, social bookmarking, twittering and other trendy tools of the day to supposedly empower their busy employees. The blogs allow the workers to air their experiences, views and concerns on things that matter to them as corporate citizens. The wikis allow folks in the know to disseminate knowlege. Messaging allows them to keep in touch. Some of these businesses have huge intranet content infrastructure with all kind of very useful and not so useful information. They have spent lot of time and energy deploying these huge information management systems. Some of the more innovative ones are also tapping into the crowd sourcing model of picking their employees brains for the next great innovation. All these has led to a very rich pool of valuable information for the entire organization. But information is only as good as how usable and accessible they are to get some real work done.
I often seem to notice, at least in a big organization, that in times of need it is not easy to find the person that can help solve a problem, even though you know this problem has been solved before and one or more people know how to do it. This problem is more common in larger organizations with layers of management, culturally diverse and globally distributed workforce. And with multitude of ongoing projects and initiatives it is not always easy to find the right person who can help. May be if you are one with some clout in your organization you can pull on your connections. But many of us are not in that situation. As soon as we step beyond the familiar we have to rely on the kindness and generosity of the fellow employees.
It is not always about finding the subject matter experts, granted having access to one helps. It is often about finding people who can help you navigate the world of your company’s policy, practices and tools to get your work done. It is often more about knowing who the right person is than knowing it all yourself. But if you do then more power to you! For example, we middle of the road corporate grunts take the IT infrastructure for granted during our day to day chores, till we ourselves need to do some experimental or non-traditional project that involves tapping into IT personnel and resources and in a big company that can easily become a non-starter especially in these days of outsourced IT operations. More often than not there are always hundreds of reasons why something cannot be done till you find yourself linked to the right folks.
It seems to me that in this Everything 2.0 Information overload age, along with empowering employees with all the cool social media tools of the day, it is essential to bring in capabilities that allow us the employees to connect in a contextual manner driven by the task at hand. Yes we can troll the intranet pages with latest and greatest search engines and appliances that the business has spent a ton on. But it is often lot of waste time because chances are we would get redirected from one person to another and end up with dropped emails or leads, specially in a business spread across multiple time zones. This is not LinkedIn for the work place. It is not about somebody letting me into their circle of trust. Its more about building transient opportunistic, self organizing networks to solve a business problem at hand.
Out of sight out of mind Problem
I have found that in a large business often the challenge is to get help from people who have no particular reason to spend time for you unless they have a stake in your project. They have their own priorities and targets to meet. Between the 8-12 hour time difference, individual work priorities there is not much incentive to help a colleague half the way across the globe, somebody who he/she has never met.
If your “help” is a few rooms, a few floors, or a few buildings away it is easy to walk over, build a personal rapport and get the work done. But in these days of curtailed business travel and headcount reduction it is not easy to grab the attention of a remote colleague and as a result one ends up wasting cycles, and potentially lot of it. Even though the idea, with its roots in the offshoring business, that having a workforce around the world enables 24×7 productivity is sometimes true, it seems to quickly turn into a myth if they are not part of the same team or share the same targets as you. Many individuals in a company are not part of everybody else’s projects. But their help is often essential to get that other person (such as you) to accomplish his/her task. This days with all of us spread across the globe the need for collaboration, and responsiveness has become more and more important. Sometimes email requests sit in inboxes waiting to be answered and eventually forgotten. I wish companies should instill a work culture that require everybody to respond to such requests indicating whether he/she can help or whether somebody else might be the right person to help, instead of dead silence. In companies spread around the world we only have few hours of overlap to collaborate and co-operate with our colleagues. These are not body shops or contractors that are at your beck and call and willing to stay up 24 hours chained to their desk to earn that throat cut hourly rate. These are your colleagues and in many cases probably higher than you in the company pyramid. But regardless of our own osition in the food chain I think we all as good citizens of the 21st century global corporations owe this respect to our colleagues.
Putting the Address book to use
I recently read a news item about a business use of Twitter where somebody can use it to find the right person in a company to help with a task at hand. I send a tweet out saying “Who knows about our company Firewalls”. I hope to get some tweets back. It was suggested to be less burdensome than sending out a company wide email, which can immediately draw the wrath of bands of fellow employees that you have never known till that time. I think a better solution would be the corporate address book where affiliation data, besides just the department, are recorded. Not necessarily competencies because competency somehow implies somebody is an expert on a topic. But instead it would be better to know which various company wide projects, initiatives, and technology efforts somebody is associated with. This allows others to seek help from proper source instead of twittering or emailing around. Of course the challenge is keeping the information current. But given the fact that most company wide initiatives and projects have lifespans longer than a few months, that is a risk I am happy to take. It may just cost me a couple of extra emails instead of days of cold emailing. Lot has been made of users’ address books in social networking circles. The same can be said about the the company phone book which holds great potential for enabling the individual employee.
Managing Knowledge for worker efficiency
In large organizations the size of their intranet knowledge base is always growing at a rapid rate. Given that it is essential that Content Management systems are deployed in ways that make it simple and easy for workers to find relevant information with minimum possible keystrokes and mouse clicks. Some of these systems use cryptic links, probably generated by some hashing scheme, to point to the content tucked away inside giant databases. Then as the content go through updates, sometimes the management systems find it convenient to update the cryptic hashes too. The downside of this is that none of your bookmarks work anymore and it is not much fun to deal with that in large intranet information jungle. This leads the worker back to the point of trolling through vast caverns of knowledge looking for that one right link. Not a very productive way to empower the busy worker.
Organization of such vast repository of information is never easy. Sometimes categorizing information is hard when the sources are so many and diverse in these days of wikis, blogs, databases, tweets, etc. That’s why tags are so popular. Sometimes searching seems to be the only way to find something you need. Knowledge owners need to ensure information is not only up to date but suitably tagged. And where there is no reason to prioritize information for ad revenues, the results need to be prioritized by relevancy to the user. Information such as the user’s geographical location, organization should play a role. To leverage the powers of all the latest and greatest new media tools for self sufficient business worker we really need to ensure that all that information is liberating and not drowning the worker.