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Archive for October, 2007

In an earlier post I indicated that during my research on ‘Managing Wikis in Business’ I was interested in finding out how themes of the ‘learning organisation’ can aid and be reflected in the management of wikis in business, and the extent to which such management can in turn encourage organisational learning and foster collaborative behaviour. Whilst there is still some lack of clarity regarding the distinction between the ‘learning organisation’ (end form) and ‘organisational learning’ (means), interwoven themes are apparent and common to both.

John Moss Jones (OU) summarises those themes and their relationship as follows:

“In order to perceive the [learning organisation] concept the organisation needs to be perceived with a systems perspective. The leadership group is the prime mover in establishing vision and identity, and modifying the internal culture. The vision must give high priority to people issues to maximise learning, for people are the vital element in learning. The ongoing learning needs to focus on challenging existing mind-sets, and developing creativity, adaptiveness, effective team working, and feedback. And taking all these together, it is argued that the whole organisation needs to develop a culture which promotes all these themes continually.”

‘Systems thinking’ is a cornerstone of the ‘learning organisation’. It encapsulates the idea that business behaviour like complex systems. As such they should be viewed holistically in terms of their subsystem connections, and how changes to one sub-system affect or can be affected by other subsystems.

‘Leadership group’ refers to the new view of leadership, where managers are designers, stewards and teachers, and are vital for encouraging the generation and spreading of new ideas/practices about purpose, values and vision. ‘Vision’ requires the maximum number of people to contribute to and share a picture of where the organization is going in terms of its external context (e.g. target products/clients) and internal design, development and operation. ‘People’ includes the principal and often “massive undeveloped potential” that exists within every organization, and raises issues about creating and sustaining cultures/processes to tap that potential.

‘Learning’ refers to double-loop learning which requires challenging existing mindsets that form the basis of (possible out-of-date) behaviour and affect perception of feedback. It probes the cause of things going wrong at a system level rather than simply identifying and correcting errors within existing organizational routines. The ultimate goal being to spread such learning from individuals and teams throughout the organization, ensuring that work experiences are captured, consolidated and disseminated so as to create new capabilities as a whole.

Within that learning process, ‘teamwork’ involves working across organisational boundaries, questioning routines and providing feedback. ‘Creativity’ and ‘adaptiveness’ are required to cope with rapidly changing environments and act upon learning by altering behaviours. That requires generating attitudes, processes, skills and knowledge, and translating them into more effective organisational practices. Finally, feedback is central to systems thinking, and critical to learning and adaptation, because “current perceptions of what is going on must continually be as close as possible to ‘reality’” (Moss-Jones (2005)).

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In my previous post I introduced the idea of using a process framework for managing the wiki implementation. Here’s some more detail about the concepts behind each of the framework’s processes:

Wiki Management Cycle

  • Identify ‘needs’: This requires focusing first on the business needs, collaborative behaviours and capabilities to be developed, then on identifying the technologies which can support those needs/capabilities.
  • Plan: Having identified a wiki as a suitable technology, its implementation and management must be considered. This should balance planned and emergent approaches to foster learning and allow patterns of use and self-sustaining behaviour to evolve over time, whilst providing direction/purpose to co-ordinate and guide efforts towards a shared vision of what is to be achieved. Consideration should also be given to the practical applications and purpose(s) of the wiki, how it will fit with existing technology systems and work processes, and the nature of facilitation (e.g. initial structuring and seeding of the wiki) to support and sustain use.
  • Adopt: Wiki ‘adoption’ refers to the stages through which users typically progress before committing to a new technology, with different adopter ‘types’ progressing through the stages at different times and speeds. Rogers’ Model of Technology Adoption Categories below illustrates the characteristic responses of adopters to technology innovation:

Rogers’ Technology Adopter Categories

Typically, those users become aware of a technology’s potential and then develop an understanding of it, which can lead to testing through trial use, and if successful, to its application in everyday work, before full adoption across the organisation as a key element in work processes. Whilst that path may not be linear, recognising the different stages may help to identify support/transition mechanisms to ensure each user-category is more likely to adopt the wiki, and help avoid its rejection, which may occur during any stage of the adoption process. In particular, the issue here is how to strike the balance between voluntary grass-roots adoption and directive use to encourage participation, raising considerations about the nature of training, teamwork, use of facilitators, support for different communication styles and unlearning of old habits regarding overuse of inefficient/ineffective technologies.

  • Maintain: Closely related to adoption is wiki growth and propagation of good practice throughout the organisation. Issues here relate to managerial support, content management and wikis’ integration with other systems and work processes. Of interest here is whether managers have in fact absorbed the advice from industry and academic literature indicating they should be directly involved in the implementation by leading by example, mandate and reminding, reducing barriers to use, encouraging experimentation with the wiki and monitoring its use for ideas and best practices then propagating them throughout the organisation. Content management is also a key issue. Since wiki content should become more useful, structured and navigable over time if people are updating, linking and tagging, consideration needs to be given to the mechanisms which best encourage that type of behaviour.
  • Evaluate: Of interest here is whether, and if so how, businesses are evaluating their wiki implementations. Such evaluation can be a mechanisms for encouraging feedback and learning from the implementation process, and allowing for revisions to implemenation plans, and wikis’ design, usage and maintenance. Measuring users’ progress through adoption stages and how often people are using wikis will provide some elementary figures on wiki diffusion and infusion in the organisation, and may provide grounds for investigating any barriers to the implementation process. However, more difficult issues relate to evaluation of wikis’ impact on bottom-line performance and development of organisational learning practices. Measurements focusing solely on bottom-line performance improvement in terms of accelerated project cycle times, reduced email overload and search costs may provide some hard data to support ROI, but they do not consider more important effects of wiki management/usage on organisational learning and collaborative capability development. Not only is it more difficult to establish direct causal connections between wiki management/use and improvements here, any evidence would be in the form of people’s opinions/perceptions.

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The original wiki design principles (Wiki Design Principles) encourage emergent work and do not impose structure, process or rules, contrasting applications characterised by a top-down command-and-control mentality. That can allow people to work together in self-directed ways, encouraging levels of openness, autonomy and knowledge sharing which other systems (i.e. all systems in the organisation including cultural, managerial, structural and operational systems) could not well support. Consequently, a wiki implementation should be viewed as a change process rather than the introduction of a new technology per se.

Since cyclical process frameworks have been suggested for technology management in general – i.e. as means to aid consideration of technology’s role, effects on the organisation and nature of managerial activities/involvement, from existing literature I derived a wiki management framework to help assess how in practice businesses are managing wiki implementations and the utility of such a framework for managing the change process.

That framework includes the following processes: ‘Need’ Identification, Planning, Adoption, Maintenance and Evaluation. During my research I posed a range of questions to interviewees and survey respondents regarding their practices in respect of each of the processes. I’ll be discussing the responses in a later post.

Wiki Management Cycle

Wiki Management Cycle

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Numerous blogs, industry and academic literature reflect the considerable correlation between the concepts related to the adoption of innovations, development of a ‘learning organisation’ and successful management of wikis in business, including:

  • development of a receptive culture and managerial support;
  • role of leaders in promoting interaction, dialogue and feedback;
  • top-down and bottom-up approaches to learning and management;
  • widely shared vision for what is required, and the teamwork, adaptiveness and creativity necessary to advance that vision.

A little while back there was an interesting debate which sparked considerable comment about the ability of social software/Web 2.0 to effect organisational change. In other words, whether Web 2.0 technologies can act as more than a mere technology enabler for wider information dissemination/communication in organisations and their use/management stimulate organisational learning practices and culture change.

One school thought maintains that Web 2.0 (including wikis, blogs, bookmark managers and network/micro-blogging services) will not address or substantially change the barriers that prevent organisational learning e.g. free flow of knowledge, lack of trust, missing incentives, power differentials, unsupportive cultures and the general busyness of employees (Davenport) . The other school (including McAfee, Suarez and Hinchcliffe) recognises that technology by itself won’t resolve the dilemma, but view the increasing use of Web 2.0 as a catalyst for change.

Proponents of the latter view consider Web 2.0 to be a radical departure from previous generations of collaboration/knowledge management tools, since they are easy to learn, deploy and use, giving people the ability to self-organise and collaborate in ways which best suit their needs. They consider that well-executed wiki adoption and management, couples with a growing need for businesses to focus on supporting innovation/collaboration, will encourage organisational learning.

That debate fed a second string to my research, i.e. the extent to which use/management of wikis may contribute to improved organisational communication and collaboration making them potentially useful tools for encouraging practices associated with the ‘learning organisation’. It also highlights the twin-edged nature of the problem, since using a wiki effectively in the workplace may itself depend on the extent to which the organisation is able to cope with complexity/change, learn and continuously improve.

Consequently, since the clear message is that implementing wikis (and any Web 2.0 technology) is as much about understanding organisational culture, learning, collaboration practices and human behaviour as it is about the technology itself, I also investigated:

  1. how themes of the ‘learning organisation’ can aid and be reflected in the management of wikis in business; and
  2. the extent to which such management can in turn encourage organisational learning and foster collaborative behaviour.

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Increasingly, wikis are being implemented in businesses to address concerns with knowledge management, collaboration practices and limitations of existing systems, and to:

  • Reduce email traffic;
  • Provide a common platform (rather than a private channel) for collecting, organising and sharing knowledge and experience of all stakeholders;
  • Provide a flexible tool adaptable to a range of uses including knowledge repository, project/action tracking and intranet;
  • Facilitate swifter more widespread and effective communication.

However, their use in the workplace maybe inhibited for a variety of reasons including:

  • Potential lack of clear purpose since wikis may not replace existing systems or processes;
  • Lack of content or too much unmanageable content if not refactored (i.e. editing/organising pages);
  • Bureaucratic command-and-control organizational (sub-) culture(s) and structure which stifle knowledge sharing, openness and trust;
  • Risk of abandonment if users do not perceive a clear need for, or benefit from using, wikis or other barriers to their use are not overcome.

Those difficulties raise specific issues about wikis’ management and use, the effect of organisational context (i.e. structure and culture) on wiki uptake, and more generic issues about adoption of innovations. Similarly, a business’s ability to collaborate effectively reflects issues at the heart of technology management, namely improving the effectiveness of an organisation and its people through the application of concepts and techniques for operating, improving and integrating an organisation’s systems, and introducing innovatory systems.

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As part of my MBA in Technology Management with the Open University Business School, Milton Keynes, UK I have been researching the use and management of wikis in business. During my research I set up a research wiki to record various elements of the research, including the survey, interviews, findings, conclusions and recommendations. You can read more about my research in the Final Report – Managing Wikis in Business – September 2007

Here’s a snapshot of what the Report covers and concludes:

The study investigates how businesses can manage wikis to facilitate collaboration in the workplace. In doing so, it describes a process framework for managing wiki implementations and analyses how ‘learning organisation’ themes can aid in that process. It also considers whether a wiki can act as more than a mere technological enabler for wider information dissemination, by providing an independent mechanism whose management and widespread use can encourage organisational learning.

Based on interviews and responses to a web-based survey, this study found that wikis are relatively new phenomena in businesses, whose use, management and growth, to date, have been dependent largely on grassroots initiatives of self-motivated technical users. Those users are typically technologically familiar, more venturesome, well-networked and able to cope with uncertainty during early adoption stages.

However, to sustain wiki-usage and grow it to other user groups more active/responsive managerial support is required to help develop a shared understanding of, and the skills/practices required for, wiki usage, and to overcome key barriers to wiki adoption. Furthermore, each stage of the wiki management cycle should be informed by, and provides opportunities to engage in, organisational learning practices, involving systems thinking, leadership, learning, teamwork and feedback.

It also indicates that wikis have provided platforms for collaborative and emergent behaviour, enabling people to work/communicate more efficiently and effectively, learn from past experience and share knowledge/ideas in organisational contexts that are not averse to collaboration. Whilst it has not been possible to conclude whether changes to organisational learning characteristics have resulted from wikis’ fostering of such collaborative/emergent behaviour, or will become more pronounced as wikis mature, it does highlight scope for longitudinal research in this area.

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