How an organization turned its internal communications upside-down

I originally published this post on the Headshift blog in 2009. ]

Recently I had the opportunity to present one of our case studies at the Social Media for Business Meetup Group in NYC. It was the inaugural meetup, which I am co-organizing together with Daniel Leslie from Reflexions Data. At the heart of the group is, besides networking, the idea to talk about concrete business needs and showcase how organizations have addressed those using social tools. At our first session we looked at internal communications and employee engagement. Presentation below:

The way organizations perceive their ‘human capital’ has apparently changed as well. Most organizations state that they value their employees and welcome active participation. All too often this is in stark contrast to reality. To understand an organization’s true corporate culture it is sometimes best to simply look at the office layouts and technology provided to employees. How can you honestly believe in employee engagement and participation if you lock people into cubicle farms and give them tools that severely restrict them from communicating and connecting freely with each other?

The cafeteria, hallway or watercooler are the only true social spaces in most organizations. That’s where people meet, discuss, learn. If the early KM era has taught us anything at all, then it’s that knowledge can’t be extracted, stored and archived. It was a flawed and in the end a very costly belief. Knowledge is inherently attached to people. Thus, instead of connecting people with documents, we need to connect people with people. And that’s why chatter in cafeterias, hallways and at watercoolers are so important. Check out Gil Yehuda’s observation why smokers seem to know everything and everyone.

Obviously, these offline social spaces don’t scale very well. Social tools reflect better than traditional IT systems how humans really communicate and connect. With those kind of tools organizations do have the possibility to create the digital watercooler and thus take advantage of its benefits enterprise-wide.

Installing social tools is not a challenge. The challenge are people and their perceived risks associated with the usage of those kind of tools. One of those risks for example is gossiping. Well, gossiping is actually an important social activity. It separates the insiders from the outsiders and by that creates a stronger social bond between insiders (thus all employees + management). But apart from that, will people gossip in front of the CEO? No? So, why would they gossip in an open space, where every word is attributable? People might gossip in the hallway, where they can have private conversations, but not on the company’s forum, blog, wiki or what have you. Another perceived risk is that the free flow of communication can be used for creating movements among employees against unfavorable decisions taken by the management.

What a lot of people don’t understand is that internal systems are not the World Wild Web. It’s a controlled environment, and as such comes already with underlying norms and principles. Still, organizations seem to highly distrust their employees and prefer locking them into cubicles and systems willingly accepting the deficiencies of this approach. But the growing discrepancy between the open communication people enjoy on the Internet and the highly restrictive environment people are faced with at work is becoming a major headache for organization.

In my presentation I talked about the case of the law firm Heller Ehrman. The firm got into very rough waters last year and subsequently dissolved. The dissolution did not happen over night. It was a long and painstaking process full of anxiety, fears but also glimmers of hope. Naturally, employees wanted to connect with each other, but most importantly ask for and provide help and support. But the firm did not provide a platform to address these needs. Consequently, one employee set up a WordPress blog on the Internet, which soon became a refuge for his co-workers and probably a nightmare for the firm. If you have time you should read the blog’s Dos and Don’ts – they show in a very plain and honest way that employees are not evil but passionate and caring individuals. If people really want to bad-mouth and spread rumor they will do so using highly visible websites and blogs like ‘Above the Law‘.

Learning from this and other negative examples, progressive organizations are starting to embrace social tools to give people a true platform for engagement, communication and support. I presented the work that we did for the Barnet Council in London. The Council went through a major change management program to meet new needs and challenges. Rather than pushing it down from top to bottom, the Council felt that anyone in the organization should have the possibility to become a change agent and turned the communication upside-down. We installed a system which allows the Council to publish news, but at the same time have an open conversation about new developments. A forum provided the employees with a tool to drive their own agenda and points of interest. Interestingly, the system did allow for anonymity, but that functionality was very rarely used. Included in the platform was the ability to create ad-hoc project spaces to allow the collaboration on specific programs, issues etc.

The technology aspect of the project was not a big challenge, but it did require a bold step by the Barnet Council, trust in its employees and understanding the changing tides in internal communications.

From the local village to the global village and back

[ I originally published this post on the Headshift blog in 2009. ]

Over the past decades we have seen the world becoming smaller and smaller thanks to new technologies. Location has almost become irrelevant when it comes to communicating, collaborating and connecting with other people. If I want to see someone in a different place, I fire up the video chat. If I want to stay informed of what family and friends around the world are up to, I call them on the phone or tune into Facebook. If I want to know what people in my network find important at this very minute, I look at Twitter. And even in remote areas I can still stay connected using text messaging. Welcome to the ‘Global Village‘.

And yet, it is the nature of our existence that we are (still) physically bound to a location. Through place and proximity we are all automatically part of another world – the ‘Local Village‘. Unlike back in the days though, we do not necessarily depend on the people living next door. We can perfectly survive without our neighbors thanks to all the modern amenities we are surrounded by. Thus, we may live in a local community but that does not mean that we are an active part of it.

In one of his papers, Marcus Foth makes a great point by saying that “a lot of social encounters are based on serendipity and coincidence“. People meet in the hallway, when walking the dog or during other events. Often, conversations on such occasions are limited to a greeting or meaningless trivia. If you don’t have kids that sit in the same class as your neighbor’s kids or do not attend service at the local church, chances are high that you won’t have much of a connection with people living next door. It is fascinating, and depressing at the same time, that we are much better connected with people that we may not even have met in real life than to our next-door neighbors. Thus, the question becomes how we can re-instill a sense of community and belonging in the ‘local village’ that we seem to have lost over the years. Can we find answers by looking at communities and networks of the ‘global village’?

Unlike a network, a community cannot be created. Both online and offline communities draw people with a shared interest, passion, problem in a specific domain together. Foth points out:

[…] place and proximity are insufficient attributes to attract residents to a community network and to sustain it. […] connectivity per se does not ensure community – and proximity does not ensure neighbourliness.

A great example for solving shared problems is Fix My Street (in the UK), where people report, view, or discuss local problems they’ve found to their local council by simply locating them on a map. The more nagging the problem, the smaller the effort to report it and the bigger the reward, the more successful the system will be. Indeed, the current system is not a proper community. However, one could build a community with profile pages, microblogging functionality, forums, event calendar on top. The site could also become a communication hub not only for the residents but also for the local council to announce news, discuss developments in the neighborhood. Maybe at some point residents will not rely on the council to fix problems but may set up their own initiatives to take things into their own hand and motivate neighbors to help them

Another interesting scenario could be the voting on how parts of the budget of a council are being spent. Councils should involve residents by giving them the opportunity to discuss how much money should go to certain areas and developments in their neighborhood. Not everyone may have time to go to meetings or feel comfortable discussing matters in public. An online platform could considerably extend the reach of offline meetings and inclusion of residents thanks to its convenience.

A third example that is being talked about quite a lot is hyper-local news. People reporting from/about their neighborhood. Robin Hamman, former head of blogging at the BBC and now Headshift colleague, lives in St. Albans (UK) and writes a local blog. By publishing content on the internet, he found other bloggers from St. Albans and they have started meeting offline to discuss among others local matters. He recently wrote a short blog post about it.

Of course, the motivation and means of writing and sustaining a blog might be limited to very few members of a local community. To ensure buy-in from the majority of residents it might be easiest to look for pain points and problems within the local community that people care about. Before one talks about any tools or applications, it is paramount to understand the residents and their needs, backgrounds, computer literacy etc.

That’s what David Barrie does in his proposed high-level project plan for two of his community-building initiatives in Cardiff and Moscow. When I met him about a year ago, we discussed the role social tools could play in bringing residents of different communities together. I am very happy to see his initiative taking shape and will monitor it closely, especially to find out if the different cultures have any considerable impact on strategy, execution and outcome.

The key advice I would give David as he starts the projects is to identify the real motivation and needs of (each) resident of the community during his investigation phase. “Improving flows and exchanges of experiences between people and existing groups” is a noble vision, but unless you have devoted contributors like Robin in you community, the project might be off to a difficult start. I would assume that few people will start blogging or contributing to a wiki to get to know each other better or share experiences. In my opinion there needs to be a direct and easy-to-reach reward or something residents are truly passionate about to get them involved. Identifying that element is paramount. Most of the communication, collaboration and connecting will evolve around solving those problems and will ultimately help to re-instill the sense of a global village into the local village.

EU blogging on the rise?

[ I originally published this post on the Headshift blog in 2007. ]

Earlier this week Mariann Fischer Boel, Commissioner for Agriculture and Rural Development entered the blogosphere. Welcome, Mariann! As far as I know, is she the second high-ranked person at the EU who blogs.

She is following the good example of Margot Wallström, Commissioner for Institutional Relations and Communication who has been blogging for the last two years. In an interview with a German news magazine M. Wallström explained her main motivation for blogging:

‘It makes us inhabitants of Planet Brussels more human […] it is important not only to inform people, but also to listen to them.’

Well, I am wondering to what extent she actually listens to the people that leave comments on her blog. By browsing through the comments one gets the impression that the blog is in fact a playground for notorious bellyacher who just want to dump their frustration concerning the EU. No, I am not suggesting that everyone should favour the EU nor its activities, but if they do have something to say, at least one could expect them contributing in a constructive manner. Too often, interesting discussions are carried away by non-relevant comments and complaints smashing the original idea of blogging – to engage in conversation and dialog.

And yet, Margot Wallström keeps blogging and Mariann Fischer Boel has just started. I sincerely hope that other civil servants at the EU will follow them soon and start talking about their lives and share their ideas and views on the EU.