7 questions you’ll face as you modernize your company

The 7 Questions

“Yes”, I was thinking to myself, “I’ve been there.”

I was talking with two more large firms this week about modernizing work and they were sharing the challenges they’re facing. One firm is considering buying a social business platform and the other wants to make even better use of the platform they already have. And for all of the many differences between the companies I see, it turns out we tend to face the same questions, in roughly the same sequence, time after time.

As a company evolves, the questions shift from fear of the unknown to a desire for utility to excitement about innovative possibilities. And the answers tend to be – or can be – the same across companies.

Knowing the questions and answers in advance might help you modernize your firm more quickly. Or at least provide some comfort that others are sharing in the same challenges and struggles.

“Can we do that?”

If you suggest using a social platform at work, you’ll quickly face a range of concerns from different departments – compliance, legal, HR, data privacy, data security, IT – and it can be overwhelming.

It’s work to sort through the rules. To do the research and benchmarking so you know what others have done. To meet with each department and have the same meeting multiple times until they’re comfortable. To write the policies and guidelines. But the short answer is “Yes, you can do that.” Hundreds of large firms have shown that, if you do the work, you will absolutely be able to get past this initial question.

“What if people say something they shouldn’t?”

People are messy. If there are enough people using your platform, someone somewhere will indeed post something that’s offensive, wrong, in violation of your terms & conditions, or just stupid.

The good news is that this rarely happens. By not allowing anonymous posts, you greatly limit the most egregious behavior. In addition, platforms support a “report abuse” feature which allows posts to be hidden (and subject to moderation) with a single click if you like. In addition, all posts can be retained and monitored.

After 16 months, we’ve had less than two dozen questionable posts and all were resolved without invoking the moderation process. Not all firms are so lucky, but none that I’ve met have found objectionable behavior to be a major problem.

“What’s it worth?”

You’ll face this question when you first consider using a platform and you’ll continue to face it for almost the entire life of your project. I avoided answering it at first – “It’s too hard to calculate the ROI!” – and that was a mistake.

It turns out there’s an entire class of collective efficiency ideas that will pay for your collaboration program many times over. Even before you work with businesses to generate more revenue, you can gain credibility and trust by using social tools and practices to identify and eliminate waste. (Some may even change your culture and save lives.)

“Will anyone use it?”

Before we started, we really didn’t know how many people would use our platform. Our own team’s estimates turned out to be woefully low compared to what actually happened.

But that’s not a guarantee. Too many firms treat collaboration as an IT project and wind up surprised when they hit a plateau, having exhausted the supply of eager early adopters.

Still, almost all firms wind up getting a critical mass using their platform within the first year or two. People seem to naturally like the ease of publishing and the interaction. But your firm will want more than that, and the questions get harder from here on.

“Is it official?”

You’ll face this question after you have significant activity on the platform but before the institution itself – namely Comms and senior managers – have embraced it.

For Comms, it’s often a question of control and of sunk costs. If a group has invested in a web site and is the only one who can publish on it, they’re more likely to resist the tide of self-publishing that comes with modern platforms. For executives, they’re simply waiting for Comms – or for other executives – to show them that it’s worth their time and that it’s safe.

This is one of those questions that fades over time. More and more groups will opt for the ease, the interaction, and the social features of a modern platform. Those groups will influence other groups to do the same, and the old intranet controlled by Comms will, slowly, fade away.

For an increasing number of firms, their social platform is the intranet. What’s “official” will be more a question of who is doing the publishing than which content management system you use. And that’s how it should be.

“Will businesses use it?”

Some divisions will be more likely to make use of the social platform than others. IT, for example, is typically more comfortable with the tools and might place more value on social recognition than, say, salespeople.

The key to engaging people beyond the early adopters is to focus on specific use cases that help specific sets of people become more effective. Social isn’t the headline, value is.

For businesses, that typically means relying more heavily on curated content (e.g., information about clients) and on ready-made networks to provide support or answer questions (e.g., client teams and product teams). It also means a relentless drive for greater convenience, adapting your platform for a businessperson’s everyday workflow instead of trying to adapt businesspeople to your platform.

This is hard. And the only times I’ve seen firms come close to making progress is if they have a small center of excellence that can spend dedicated time in the field working on business-specific use cases and flows.

“What else can we do with it?”

If you get this question, take a moment and savor it. It means you’ve come a long way and put most of the other questions behind you. It means people in your company have moved beyond the basics and the barriers and are open to new possibilities.

Very few firms are at this stage. (We hear this question only occasionally.) But as you grow your portfolio of value stories, as more people use your platform for everyday work, as your culture shifts to one of greater openness and genuine collaboration, you’ll hear this question more and more. And you’ll be bounded only by your creativity and inspiration.

Getting to the 7th question

It seems more and more companies are tired of being 10-15 years behind what we see on the Internet. Frustrated with the overwhelming amount of email and meetings used to share information. And genuinely worried about the lack of engagement and the lack of appeal for younger generations.

But it took decades to create the deeply-rutted habits of how we work today.  And it will take a comprehensive strategy, a wide range of tactics, and dogged persistence to modernize how work gets done in big companies.

We’re only in the second year of that shift and it may take 3-4 more years, maybe longer. Meeting with other companies and writing this post reminds me of how far we’ve come and how far we’ve yet to go.

How about you? Are their other questions you face? Would you like to meet and compare progress and challenges? By sharing what works and what doesn’t, we can all make work more effective and more fulfilling, more quickly.

The best office design for collaboration is also the cheapest

Apple's plans for new headquarters in Cupertino

Apple’s plans for new headquarters in Cupertino

Steve Jobs wanted the Pixar headquarters to be a place that “promoted encounters and unplanned collaborations.” He was personally involved in the design details as he was with Apple’s plans for new headquarters.

“If a building doesn’t encourage [collaboration], you’ll lose a lot of innovation and the magic that’s sparked by serendipity. So we designed the building to make people get out of their offices and mingle in the central atrium with people they might not otherwise see.”

But what if you don’t have Apple’s budget? Or what if your employees are spread across buildings, cities, and countries? Then what?

Why physical space matters

The Pixar atrium

The Pixar atrium

By putting the bathrooms and other shared services in Pixar’s atrium, Jobs forced people to have to come into contact with each other. And there’s research to show why that’s a good idea. One study from Carnegie-Mellon put it most directly:

“physical proximity induces collaboration among people who might otherwise not collaborate. For example, if two were in the same department, they were two-thirds more likely to collaborate if their offices were on then same corridor than if the offices were only on the same floor.”

In studying how researchers collaborated, they found that a few yards made a significant difference in how often they spoke and might work together.

Less effective attempts at your firm

Less spectacular ways to get people physically together include “forced elbow-bumping”. In describing the importance of physical environments in “Influencer”, the authors related tactics of HP managers:

“leaders demanded that employees keep, of all things, a messy desk…By leaving work visible and accessible, they found it was much more likely that others wandering by would see, take an interest, and get involved in the work of a colleague.”

“mandating a daily break where everyone leaves his or her desk, retires to a common area, and drinks fruit juices while chatting with fellow employees about what’s happening at work…”

“Fruit juices while chatting” might be nice. But there’s no evidence to show that the staged networking events produce any value other than to make managers feel like they’re doing something.

A better, cheaper way: digital propinquity

Now, social technology provides us with a way to bring people together across geographies and timezones in ways that weren’t possible before. In a NY Times article from 2008 titled “Brave New World of Digital Intimacy”, the author describes the “ambient awareness” that comes from the short updates and activity streams in most social platforms:

“It is, they say, very much like being physically near someone and picking up on his mood through the little things he does — body language, sighs, stray comments — out of the corner of your eye….This is the paradox of ambient awareness. Each little update — each individual bit of social information — is insignificant on its own, even supremely mundane. But taken together, over time, the little snippets coalesce into a surprisingly sophisticated portrait of your friends’ and family members’ lives, like thousands of dots making a pointillist painting. This was never before possible…”

And, again, the importance for collaboration is supported by research. The same Carnegie-Mellon study tried to answer why physical distance matters so much. Look carefully at the language they use and how it echoes the Times article.

“Observational and survey studies of work teams have suggested that two important mechanisms by which proximity promotes collaborative work are through support for passive awareness of others’ activities and by the facilitation of informal communication. [bold is mine]. When people are co-located, they can view others’ activities and overhear others’ discussions, thereby learning about the existence of new potential collaborators and monitoring the progress of their current collaborators. Proximity also facilitates informal conversations which can serve to enhance social relationships and work coordination “

Propinquity is a word used to describe physical nearness but a richer definition is kinship. It’s expensive and often impossible to reduce the physical distance, but you can increase the digital propinquity – the kinship between employees – by encouraging the use of a social platform at work.

“I feel like I know you so well”

A social platform

A social platform

I get to see first-hand how people who’ve never met (and may be working in different divisions in different locations holding different corporate titles) show a fondness for each other – and thus a much greater willingness to collaborate – than they ever would have done before we had a social platform.

A common comment is “I never met you but I feel I know you”, with some directly giving thanks for the platform “giving me the chance to connect with a great person whom I otherwise would have never known.”

Every firm is struggling to have their people break down silos and collaborate more. Creating a more human workplace – improving the propinquity, the kinship between people – isn’t just a nice to have. It’s better business.

But before you spend money on new offices, focus instead on implementing a social platform. And create an environment where people can come to know each other wherever they are.

Towards a more humane workplace

If you want to mistreat someone, it helps to think of them as something other than human. And so, unfortunately, you’ll notice the same tactics used at work as in some of the greatest atrocities against humanity.

Yet there’s hope – and evidence – that the social platforms firms are now introducing will make your firm a more humane place.

De-humanizing tactics

“Humanize”, by Jamie Notter and Maddie Grant, makes the compelling case that the mechanistic, industrial model has influenced us to treat each other more like cogs at work than like people. And Seth Godin echoed this in a recent blog post.

But the industrial model has only exacerbated what seems to be a natural tendency.

Some fascinating studies show how easy it is to create an environment where people mistreat each other. For example, the “Robbers’ Cave” experiment, involving 22 eleven-year-old boys in a 3-week summer camp, showed how easily we can be divided into arbitrary groups and drawn into conflict with each other.

And a study by Albert Bandura (popularized in “Influencer”) showed how subjects in a “training experiment” would deliver significantly different levels of electrical shock depending on a single one-word label applied to the unseen “trainees” (Literally: “They seem nice.” versus “They seem like animals.”)

Bandura found this kind of dehumanizing labeling is one of four strategies – moral justification, dehumanization, minimizing, and displacing responsibility – that “allow individuals to act in ways that are clearly disconnected from their moral compass.”

A self-evident truth

A photo by iO Tillett Wright as part of selfevidentproject.com

A photo by iO Tillett Wright as part of selfevidentproject.com

One example of combatting this tendency to label and dehumanize was presented by the artist iO Tillett Wright who recently spoke about gender diversity. In her project, selfevidentproject.com, she decided “to photograph anyone who is not 100% straight” and created 1000s of simple, beautiful portraits that defy labels.

“My goal is to show the humanity that exists in every one of us through the simplicity of a face….I challenge you to look into the faces of these people and tell them they deserve less than any other human being.”

Self-evident truths at work

The problems associated with de-humanizing people aren’t limited to social science experiments and issues of diversity. The authors of “Influencer” described why corporations also need to focus on the issue.

“If you’re a leader attempting to break down silos, encourage collaboration, and engage teamwork across your organization…moral disengagement always accompanies political, combative, and self-centered behavior.”

Part of their advice? “To reengage people morally – and to rehumanize targets that people readily and easily abuse – drop labels and substitute names.”

Evidence & optimism

A social platform

A social platform

Social collaboration platforms take this idea – moving from labels to names and photos – and makes it a fundamental part of the work environment. And because the platforms are so highly interactive, the benefits go well beyond that.

At my own firm, I find that widespread use of the platform makes it harder to objectify people in 4 ways.

  1. You see faces everywhere – not just in the group directory but every time someone contributes something.
  2. You tend to know more about people. As someone interacts online, you pick up more information about them – “ambient intimacy” – than you’d ever get from a simple profile.
  3. People tend to be helpful. Whether people are having a bad day or a bad project or just have a question, people on line are eager to offer help or at least sympathy. And those simple acts of generosity help build relationships that make collaboration and cooperation easier.
  4. Bullies don’t like sunlight. There will always be bad behavior at work (companies are made up of people, after all), but few at work want their bad behavior to be public. The more employees work out loud and attract public feedback for their contributions, the more difficult it is for someone to unfairly diminish them.

It’s true that the main reason businesses are implementing social platforms is because they’ll generate commercial value. But the cultural side effect – creating a more humane work environment that respects and celebrates individuals – is priceless.

“It’s just the internet at work.”

After 5 months of using a social business platform, I’ve stopped talking about social business.

Hundreds of elevator pitches, demos, and blog posts later, I’ve pared down my description of our social collaboration platform to 6 words:

“It’s just the internet at work.”

The biggest opportunity no one talks about

When it comes to getting things done inside the firm, many large companies simply missed the big mega-trends that we all take for granted as individuals. Search? Social filters? Self-service? We all have much better tools at home than at work.

Although there are 100s of millions of people working in large firms – over 13 million in the top 50 US companies alone – most of them are working like it’s 1995, in a pre-Google, pre-Facebook era.

That’s a huge opportunity since, in the past few years, it’s become easier and more practical to implement the kinds of shifts that have been happening on the internet inside our firms.

Unfortunately, social software vendors and collaboration experts tend to talk about things like improved innovation, communications, and employee engagement. Those are nice stories, but they’re missing the headline.

The real story

The headline is how much commercial value these collaboration platforms can unlock. Beyond blogging and tweeting, we can finally transform how 100s of millions of people work, making a tremendous difference in both operating costs and productivity.

We all know the internet is great for exposing waste and highlighting opportunities; for  connecting experts and coordinating work; for tapping into collective wisdom to solve and create.

Now we can use that power at work to address all sorts of problems that have plagued firms internally – reducing internal service costs, consolidating communications platforms, crowd-sourcing the quality of asset inventory data, reducing printing and storage, cross-selling.

These and many other valuable use cases can generate $500+ million of value for a large firm.  And there are a lot of large firms.

That’s what social software vendors and every collaboration team should be talking about.

The kicker

There’s still more to the story. Just as the internet has created tremendous commercial opportunities for firms, it’s created tremendous opportunities for individuals.

The “internet at work” lets people work out loud, shape their reputation, and control their career. It’s a key to re-humanizing our firms.

So, my job and my message are gradually becoming simpler. If you can generate enough value, and do it in such a way that it serves individuals’ self interest, then you don’t need to do a song and dance about what social business is or isn’t.

Everybody’s familiar with the many kinds of transformations brought about by the internet. Now, we’re just putting that to work inside the firm.

Why are banks so interested in collaboration platforms?

This Tuesday, 7 banks attended an event to learn more about Jive, a social business platform.

Insurance, publishing, consulting, and technology firms were there, too. But there were more in banking than any other industry.

Why?

Money

The main reason for all the interest is that banks have the most to gain from better collaboration and communication.

Many banks are huge companies. The top 4 US banks alone spend almost $300 billion and employ over 1.1 million people all over the planet.

More importantly, they tend to be wasteful. Over the past few decades, they made enough money that they could afford to be wasteful. They were focused on growth over efficiency – particularly on the investment banking side,

Now, with fundamental shifts in their business models, all the big banks need to seek other paths to profits. Eliminating waste, always an obvious thing, is more of an imperative than ever.

Staff recruiting & engagement

Just as it used to be easier to make money, it used to be easier to attract and retain people. Bank employees always worked hard under difficult, stressful conditions but they were paid a premium in exchange. And there was always a decided cachet to the phrase “investment bank.”

Now, as bonus pools and social recognition have been diluted, banks need to pay more attention to how work gets done. That includes, among many things, giving people the tools and convenience they’re used to at home. It includes making it easier for people to do their jobs and to have a voice.

More than ever, if young, bright people feel like they’re going back in time when they enter a bank, they’ll look for other options.

Compliance

When it comes to sharing information, banks are conflicted. They aim to enforce “need to know” policies and “only use bank devices for work” policies. Yet they also want to break down the silos and discover more cross-selling opportunities.

Which is it? Well, it’s all of the above. Yet, the combination of old tools combined with restrictive policies leads to a set of incoherent, inconsistent, and ineffective controls.

Studies by regulators (e.g., looking for business use of public social media by employees) have shown that people, while conscious of the rules, tend to do what’s easiest and most effective to get their jobs done. Regulators caution that “willful ignorance is not an option.” If there’s evidence that policies aren’t practical, then banks need to do more.

Modern collaboration platforms are part of the solution, allowing firms to consolidate the current disparate array of tools. That makes it easier for employees to communicate while also making it easier for banks to retain and supervise communications where they need to.

What are you waiting for?

Every single bank I know recognizes that their collaboration solutions are inadequate. A few have made significant progress. Some started well but stumbled on compliance or organizational churn. But the remainder, the majority, are spending protracted time running pilots and wondering what to do next.

If you’re one of those firms, please stop. Given the extraordinary potential for commercial and personal benefits, the time for dithering is over.

Now is the time to make a decision, lead a movement, and change the way your firm works.