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Archive for the ‘Wikis’ Category

The 13th annual technology survey of AM Law 200 firms makes for a disappointing read from a social software/organisational change perspective.  The report suggests that firms are grappling with issues like “what emerging technologies are worth investing in – and which aren’t ready for prime time”.  However, in respect of ‘collaborative’ technologies respondees were asked only whether their firms use web conference software, blogs or wikis.  What!  No mention of RSS, feed readers or aggregators, let alone micro-blogging, friendfeeds, personalised pages, social tagging or content filtering.

The report blandly states that:

“While some firms have dipped their toes in the water — 43 percent run one or more blogs; 24 percent use intranet wikis (Web pages that let users contribute or modify content) — it’s been fairly ho-hum stuff by Internet standards. Blogs with lawyer posts on happenings in a practice area and wikis to collaborate on interoffice documents are the norm. It’s still unclear what sort of future these technologies have in a law office. But seemingly everyone is thinking about it.”

Of course firms are thinking about it!  Else they will find themselves sitting on the wrong end of the technology commoditisation process which turns yesterday’s shiny innovation (*email*) into today’s ubiquitous baseline or even legacy tool.  Not only do such tools offer no competitive advantage, they also trigger negative consequences, like information overload and silos of out-of-date content.

And the examples in the report of how blogs, wikis and social networking tools are being used in firms certainly are ‘ho-hum’.  From adoption and knowledge sharing perspectives, the Allen & Overy use of group blogs (integrated into wiki spaces) for knowledge networking is far more instructive.  As for wikis, they can be used to capture ideas, questions and comments in respect of groups or projects, and then to aggregate all interactions with content, so as to highlight recent activities, popular and/or salient items (from an individual or group perspective).  All these collaboration activities are quite distinctive, yet supplementary to, document management activities supported by other systems, as these articles illustrate:

Those are just a few examples of how firms are endeavouring to adapt and apply new techologies to help people work in smarter more social ways.  And there are even greater opportunities for the ‘re-engineering’ of knowledge intensive processes in business through technology.  As Simon Wardley has emphasised, unlike previous generations of technology, which essentially offered the opportunity of ‘substitution innovation’ (doing what had always been done a little better), new technologies like RSS, micro-blogging, social tagging and networking tools, offer possibilities for radical change in the way in which things are done.

These are some changes we are seeing or expect to see very shortly through the use of integrated platforms incorporating a range of social tools:

  • Reducing information retrieval costs by encouraging users to employ monitoring and delivery modes of information retrieval rather than searching for information or navigating to static destinations (like external sites).  The former modes rely on RSS feeds delivered to feed readers, blackberries or mail accounts.
  • Helping people to get out of their inboxes by offering alternatives to email.
  • Using micro-blogging to spark quick reaction to breaking news, increase awareness of on-going work and to strengthen social ties across the firm
  • Eradicating the static expertise directory and instead pulling information from the user’s activities, including blog posts, comments, tags, feeds and favourites into a dynamic ‘public’ profile which provides a rich picture of the user’s status, work, professional network, expertise and interests.
  • Providing personal dashboards to allow people to design and control his/her interactions and information flows to best suit their changing needs.  That means allowing people to easily add, organise and view activities, discussions, news, feeds, communities, colleagues, etc,
  • Delivering more targeted relevant information by recommending and filtering information based on the individual’s tags, subscriptions, or activity with content, communities, projects or individuals.

All examples of how firms need to continuously adapt just to stand still.

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Another addition to the open-source participation economy is the contest for the creation of new futures contracts. It is being staged on MarketsWiki – an online open source knowledge base for current and historical information about the global exchange traded capital, derivatives, environmental and related OTC markets, with idea and opinion contributions being encouraged from investors and traders alike.

The ‘Great Contract Challenge‘ provides another illustration of the prospective benefits of crowd sourcing. In other words, tapping the ‘wisdom of the crowds’ offers greater innovation potential than traditional approaches which have viewed and relied on exchanges as the source of new/novel financial instrument creation. Prospective customers’ involvement in the design and selection of those instruments which appear most promising, should also constitute a form of natural selection and help ensure only the fittest new products make it to market.

Aside from the shift in mental models, the contest also underlines the departure from traditional approaches to control – of information and processes – and a move towards participation, transparency and democratised decision-making. Admittedly, the contest is being staged in the public domain, where such ideas have already found fertile ground, and social networking and idea-sharing sites, and technologies in support thereof, are now relatively commonplace. Nevertheless, there’s also increasing evidence of this type of change occurring in many professional service organisations, not least of which being their growth in the adoption and adaptation of social tools tailored to suit their business purposes.

Even if those organisations don’t subscribe to an ‘innovate or die’ approach apparent in the derivatives sector, they still need to pay careful attention to the strong steady changes fostering teamwork, dialogue and learning, being nutured by their more adventurous competitors. To that end, we’re now seeing ever increasing interest in the customisation and use of tools such as wikis, blogs, social bookmarking, tagging and RSS to help better connect knowledge workers with current relevant information and expertise to extract value from complexity and commoditisation alike. Those same tools which support MarketsWiki and other collaboration environments.

As noted by Bruce MacEwan in his recent blog about law firms, billing hours and complexity:

“There will always be both [‘expert’ and ‘commoditized service]. That said, I think what constitutes either will evolve. Some of what is viewed as expert now – will devolve into commodity. New areas (unseen before – maybe new types of financings to emerge from the current crisis) may be the new “expert” (i.e., the always-sought-after high value engagements) areas.

To lubricate this information -> knowledge transformation cycle, and for firms extract value from it, they need to make it far easier for their staff to generate, find, share and use information and expertise. One straightforward way to do this is through systems which flex, shape and emerge depending on what people are trying to do. Systems which not only give people a better platform on which to work, but which can also make use of the trails people create as they search, bookmark, rate or view things – all very simply stuff focusing on supporting and gathering intelligence from people’s interaction with the system. And when these individual activities are aggregated, they provide powerful indicators of what is most useful or important to people across the breadth of the organisation. Another example of crowd sourcing – but this time applied internally – to tap the wealth of (informal) sharing which often occurs in casual exchanges, via email or other channels, and can so easily be lost in organisations which fail to innovate, or at least improve, their current information and technology environments.

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From time to time it’s instructive (and fun) to explore other systems and theories, as a way of learning and coping with problems in our projects, company or wider business environment. Take, for instance complexity theory and life in the Kruger National Park.

Broadly speaking, complexity theory suggests there is an underlying natural order to the behaviour and evolution of complex systems – be they ecosystems, financial systems, business operations or herds of buffalo. The following clip illustrates how herds and prides comprise sub-systems in the greater (Savannah) system. Each buffalo (or lion) operating with its fellow herd (or pride) member to form a unit, seeking to achieve a common goal, without anyone of them managing the operation! Each unit in the clip responded to the action of the other (and a third party intervention – in this case that of the crocodiles) – and together effected a pattern of self-organising behaviour, where the group was responsible for dividing and attacking the target. Something that each individual could not have achieved alone.

In other words, the disparate elements worked together in a self-directed manner to achieve coherence in the overall outcome. With each actor having some freedom to attack or kick from a certain angle or at a given target, allowing them to spontaneously adapt to the situation – all elements of ‘survival learning’.

So what are the implications for our work with people, information and technology?

Many organisations, in particular legal and professional services firms, are eternally challenged with ‘managing’ knowledge (and associated spin-offs for innovation). Until recently, they have been trying to do this through standardised inflexible top-down controlled systems, which require ‘knowledge’ to be distilled, refined and polished (all as separate time consuming activities to people’s daily work load), and then ‘filed’ in pre-determined siloed categories with associated taxonomies. Not much room in there for self-directed action!

That has led some to implement more flexible solutions and processes – including the use of social tools. Complexity theory suggests that, given enough latitude, people will self-organise and bring about their own natural order by using tools such as wikis, blogs, tagging, etc, to suit their information and process needs. (Social tools having the innate flexibility to support that type of behaviour.) That has direct implications, amongst other things, in respect of any top-down structuring of content, and managerial support and direction in the use of the tools.

It follows that people should be allowed and encouraged to use the tools to create their own view of the information, by tagging, linking and bookmarking content which is useful to them – i.e. bottom-up activity. Not only will that help the individual later find and use the content, but when each individual’s activity in the wiki is aggregated with that of others, it creates a collective intelligence and signals about the information people find most useful and the way they are categorising/labeling it to promote its future findability (because people use terms and content which are relevant and useful – rather than ‘miscellaneous’). As people use the tools, and reflect on and update the information/knowledge therein, they learn how to adapt their behaviour and what works best in their circumstances.

In other words, this behaviour is self-directed and emergent because it is dependent on the current issues and opportunities people have to deal with. Those issues and opportunities in turn impact on the value of yesterday’s information, which usually needs constant attention and updating to ensure it is current and relevant, so as to be able to help in solving today’s problems. So, as people query, discuss, update and re-categorise information, they leave crucial footprints and create new information – all of which can be captured (as part of the participation process) within the social tools, and collated to form new information which is fed into the stream of current awareness people use to make decisions about the issues they face. As such, trying to plan for and create wholly top-down structures (like categories and taxonomies) for information, and responsibilities for its capture and upkeep, is somewhat futile. That approach cannot reflect real-time changes and learning derived from people’s experience with the system.

And the take-away point here is: Allow people to self-organise in their use of social tools, and the creation, updating and maintenance of information/knowledge therein.

As I outlined in my last post, that will require businesses to take a different tact regarding control – i.e. stepping back and letting people develop their own patterns rather than trying to predict and standardise the structure of information and its use from the outset.

But that doesn’t necessarily mean a wholesale departure from top-down categorisation since the system may, to a certain extent, still depend on the interactions with certain pre-defined/categorised elements. Nor does it mean that the use of social tools, and the management of information therein, should be devoid of strategic planning for their development, enhancement and future growth. Planned emergence can play a key role here in helping to ensure we develop our ideas, knowledge and expertise, and systems in support thereof, in a way that helps us best deal with our everyday problems and ambuguities. As the lions demonstrated, it’s just not enough to catch your prey, you’ve got to be able to follow through in uncertain rapidy changing circumstances.

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I was curious to discover whether wikis are acting as more than just a technology enabler for information dissemination within organisations, and if they could serve a deeper function of facilitating changes to culture and stimulating organisational learning practices.

Consequently, I asked survey repondents and interviewees (i) what factors facilitate collaboration in the company, and (ii) whether those factors were prerequisites for successful wiki implementations or if wikis could be used as a means to develop better collaborative work practices. Common threads throughout the responses to (i) highlighted the need for organization-wide communications, access to/sharing of information/knowledge and a willingness to contribute/collaborate. In respect of (ii) views diverged. Some interviewees considered that, whilst wikis can provide a solution to the problem of locating information, they simply support existing information sharing/communication practices, since politics and cultural issues often hinder wiki usage. However, others considered that wikis encourage transparency by “questioning how people are thinking” and “can be used to increase awareness of people’s contribution to the workplace”.

Ross Mayfield of SocialText concurred with the latter view stating that “the best thing a wiki can do is to make transparent an existing culture. It can change culture overtime but if you try to introduce it into a controlling environment too quickly the entire notion of it will get slapped down”. That emphasizes the importance of ‘managing’ wikis’ incremental implementation so as to build towards a supportive user-community.

I also asked survey respondents to characterize their companies before and after the wiki implementation based on factors derived from the literature review. The overall picture is one of change towards ‘learning organisation’ characteristics (even if only slight in some areas). The greatest shifts occurred in relation to the level of information flows and new ideas being sought/tried, and people’s willingness to help one another carry out work. These changes appear to have occurred in a relatively short timeframe, with 47% of wiki installations being under a year-old. Most respondents considered that the wiki implementation has a minor (27.72%) to moderate (30.69%) impact in shaping companies’ characteristics.

Furthermore, the apparent benefits to be gained from wiki implementations in relatively short periods seem to have rather modest barriers/disadvantages, where survey respondents considered time to contribute (11.67% of responses), and reliance on email (11.67%) to be more significant barriers to wiki usage than culture (9.05%) and lack of managerial support (7.14%). That maybe partly attributable to the climate of openness and trust, and other learning characteristics, which organisations were considered to possess prior to the wiki implementation.

Consequently, the evidence suggests that wikis have improved organisational information flow, enabled people to work/communicate more efficiently and effectively, learn from past experience and share knowledge/ideas, in organizational contexts which are not averse to collaboration and learning. Accordingly, wikis have provided platforms for collaborative and emergent behaviour, which could not satisfactorily proceed through existing technology.

Time will tell whether the reported changes in certain organizational learning characteristics continue to grow and become more pronounced as wikis mature. Certainly, the level of grassroots’ implementations, facilitation and organic growth, illustrate instances of people at operational levels challenging mindsets regarding work practices and the utility of existing systems, experimenting with new solutions and adopting individual/team practices (including peer-to-peer learning) conducive to double-loop learning.

To grow this behaviour across the company and tap people’s “massive undeveloped potential” (Moss-Jones (2005)), management must be more alert to those initiatives and address barriers which inhibit wiki use. To that end, undertaking activities proposed in the wiki management cycle offers managers opportunities to engage in organizational learning practices and develop corresponding capabilities.

So, whilst there is much more to organizational learning and much more than can be supported by wikis alone, I think their use/management maybe informed by practices associated with the ‘learning organisation’ which in turn may facilitate changes to culture and stimulate organisational learning practices, making wikis more than a mere technological enabler for wider information dissemination.

 

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Having survey 102 companies, and interviewed 10 companies and 9 consultants, I compiled the following recommendations regarding the management of wikis in business:

1. For new implementations, consider the needs to be addressed/capabilities to be developed, how people currently work and changes that maybe necessary to routines/behaviours, as well as the nature of the culture, structure and other organisational subsystems, which initially will have to be worked within whilst gradual change is encouraged. For existing implementations, evaluate their impact (if any) on the foregoing factors, and who is (and is not) using wikis and why (including issues users have in respect of wikis and their work processes).

2. View the implementation as a change process and allow for planned emergence during adoption and growth/maintenance, and encourage evaluation throughout.

3. Involve a broad cross-section of people in the definition of flexible (collaboration) goals, and the consideration of how the wiki should be designed and people’s behaviour altered to (better) meet identified needs. Use those goals to guide and evaluate how well the needs are being met.

4. Consider the tasks being undertaken and the level of user competence when deciding whether some flexible structures/templates would help to avoid the wiki appearing chaotic and content being hard-to-find, as people learn how to create their own structure/maintain content.

5. Identify key ‘technical’ users (with needs corresponding to those identified) who can form pilot groups, or who can expand wiki usage to other areas/projects. Encourage experimentation to discover how the wiki can be used to best suit their needs and uncover issues with its design, integration with existing tools and/or impact on other subsystems.

6. Don’t rely solely on the self-motivation of the initial adopter groups. Develop and support good practices from the outset by supplementing self-learning with targeted training and best practice guidelines to help users understand the goals and wiki practices necessary to facilitate more effective/efficient work.

7. Recognise that later adopters may need greater support helping them understand how to use the wiki and work more collaboratively. Engage existing users in this process to grow the wiki organically. Focus on and demonstrate the uses/benefits of wikis’ use for everyday work (with knowledge collection being a by-product of wiki usage rather than an end in itself).

8. Allow people time to develop their skills with the wiki and gradually move them away from use of inefficient tools by constantly and subtly promoting its use (e.g. through moving tasks/information onto the wiki, sending people links/referring people to wiki pages and involving people in projects using wikis). However, support different communication styles and recognise that using a wiki may not be suitable in certain circumstances.

9. Encourage user delegation, and rotation of, a wiki gardening role to people within their respective communities of practice, whilst developing more dispersed habitual gardening practices amongst users.

10. Be alert to how people are using the wiki and seek feedback continuously to learn how people can best be supported in their work. Ensure that any measures used during the evaluation process are aligned with the needs which are driving the implementation. Assess/refine the implementation goals, process and wiki itself even if that means relying on soft data.

 

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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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