Monday, March 14, 2011

4 Social Business Lessons I Learnt Last Week

The last week at work was great. Against several odds, we launched our internal social business platform - myThoughtWorks. The uptake until now with just three working days of operation, has been tremendous. We've seen 1016 documents, 347 social bookmarks, 294 threads and 293 blogposts on the platform from about 524 contributing users. 1310 of our 1700 users are active on the platform and that is a huge win, given our vastly distributed nature. The last few weeks have also been a great learning opportunity for our team and while it's easy to surround ourselves with those statistics and feel good about them, the truth is that our journey has only begun. In today's blogpost, I want to share with you some of my musings and our team's collective learnings from the weeks gone by.

Never Overlook Communication

I was chatting with Mark Needham last night. For all his eccentricities, Mark is a very reasonable guy and someone who just gets social media and social learning. Mark however, was one of the people who was taken by surprise with our launch of the new platform. When I spoke to him, he mentioned that while he'd gotten the memos, none of them were interesting enough for him to pay any attention. It brought out a very interesting point. The meaning of your communication is in the response you get. If someone as connected as Mark knew nothing about the launch, it meant that we were perhaps not communicating effectively to get his attention. When we were launching MediaWiki in my previous firm, we'd faced a similar experience. Corporate communication means nothing if no one receives your message. The success of a social business initiative does depend on effective communication leading up to the launch. This ensures that the key movers and shakers are already warming up to the idea. Shocking high potential users doesn't do much good. If one way doesn't work, try another. In coming weeks we're planning several more roadshows, user meetups and other ways to make our communications click.

Understanding User Context is Key to Success

"Communication channels are highways of habit: people have their preferences and they generally stick to them." - Jono Bacon, The Art of Community
Everyone in the enterprise usually wants to contribute to its success. If social business is key to the success of your enterprise most reasonable people will want to jump in. Provided of course, you communicate well enough. This being said, we need to be empathetic towards the slower adopters. It's often not a lack of will to contribute, but the limitation of the performance context that stops people from being gung-ho adopters. Let me give you an example. Our most recent social learning implementation rests on the Google stack. We use Google Sites as a wiki, Google Groups for discussions, Google Chat for chatrooms and Google Videos for media sharing. The heart of the implementation however is Google Groups. For consultants at client site who are often coding at client computers, the easiest way to stay in touch with the rest of the company is email. When you add to that, limited access to ThoughtWorks systems, accessing any other platform becomes a big challenge. Google Groups gets around this problem quite well by providing simple mailing lists for communities. It also helps that a vast majority of western software developers like mailing lists! The move to a social business solution is great for our enterprise if adoption keeps going up as it has in the last three days. Adoption also depends on our empathy and responsiveness for user mindsets and context. In coming days we need to find ways not just to make things like email integration and mobile access seamless for our onsite consultants, but also to ensure that we can build such relationships with our clients that it's not taboo to access the enterprise social network while onsite.

Choice is not Always a Great Thing

Every time you provide an option, you're asking the user to make a decision. - Joel Spolsky
Social media has transformed my learning and there's no doubt about that. I do remember though that when I first saw Twitter, I couldn't wrap my head around it. It's quite simple isn't it? Just 140 characters! For some reason I just didn't get it. The process of finding people to follow, setting up a client that works for you, choosing hashtags that matter was just too complicated for me back in the day. I've struggled similarly with Facebook when it was new. Social media is like that. It becomes powerful when you make the right choices and personalise effectively. Personalisation however, is about making several choices and not everyone is happy to have choice. This is the part of the social business puzzle we need to figure out. While we want most people to make meaningful choices, how can we create useful defaults that the average user can get away with? The shorter the setup time, the easier it is to dive in and participate.

Intuitive is an Overloaded Word
We use the word 'intuitive' way too loosely in design circles. We often debate pointlessly around little things that'll make our interfaces 'intuitive'. This often reminds me of the old BSD bikeshed painting analogy that Sriram Narayanan pointed me to. The fact is that the little things that make a platform intuitive for one are the same things that make it unintuitive for another. Intuition is really a factor of context, experience and familiarity. When my mental model matches the model that an application provides, it seems intuitive. When mental models clash, it's unintuitive. The catch with social business implementations is that they are unlikely to be intuitive to users that are unfamiliar with the social paradigm. In fact, I can say that even experienced users of social media who don't use it in a business context are likely to struggle at time. So instead of fussing over how to make the experience intuitive, it's crucial that we make the experience 'learnable'. There's also no substitute to providing people support when they need it. Complaints are good - they are opportunities to connect with users, educate them and build relationships. Nikhil Nulkar, our enterprise community facilitator (a.k.a ninja) is great at doing just this.
Learning is a continuous process and after going through several social learning initiatives and experiments, I'm glad to be implementing a proper social business solution for my employers. I'm learning heaps about this stuff, and as time goes on I want to share these insights with you. I'd love to hear your thoughts about today's musings so please drop a line in the comments section and tell me.

I'm going to be at Learning Solutions 2011 next week, so if you're in the vicinity please come and say hello. It'll be great to catch up.

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