Social Tools: Helping People Share What They Know


Ever since Andrew McAfee coined the term “Enterprise 2.0” in 2006, organizations have been investigating ways that enterprise social software (ESS) can address gaps in how employees work together. But we’ve also come to realize that there is a greater context behind industry interest in ESS. Over the next 20 years, nearly 80 million people will retire; that’s nearly 10,000 baby boomers a day. This trend will likely lead to significant generational shifts in the workforce, and the potential for a tremendous loss in intellectual capital as senior staff depart. The trend will also challenge organizations to more rapidly on-board new hires. ESS, alongside an effective change management program, can help an organization address these knowledge transfer needs.

We need to get this right as an industry. There is an enormous amount of “know how” and business insight within the heads of our senior workers. At the same time, those entering the workforce will be expected to become proficient quickly. We need to create opportunities for people to connect, share, learn and collaborate as a natural way of working rather than repeating the “knowledge capture” mistakes of the past. That’s where ESS offers tremendous potential. By making work more observable and participation more visible, “knowledge transfer” becomes something that occurs as people interact and build relationships. Let’s look at two examples:

On-Boarding New Employees

In the “good old days”, organizations would hire employees and bring them into the office for training. During orientation, employees would forge bonds with co-workers that might last throughout their professional career. This process helped new recruits sense that they were part of a community. We don’t always do that today; we might never actually meet the people we work with every day. Virtual teams are the way work gets done in global organizations.

With ESS, we can’t recreate those exact physical experiences, but we can come close, and in some ways, provide more flexibility. With ESS, we can create a community and social networking site where employees can connect with each other in ways similar to consumer sites. However, within the enterprise, this interaction is more aligned with employee needs and interests. An enterprise collaboration platform should make it easier to: find subject matter experts (social profiles), add them to your network (social graph), follow their work (activity streams), and converse with them (microblogging). Senior staff does not have to think of this as “training” new hires. By making their actions more transparent (what communities they join, what videos they viewed, what content they bookmark), junior staff can “watch” how they conduct their work in a non-intrusive manner. Over time, this becomes a means of informal learning and new type of virtual apprenticeship for new hires. When senior staff does want to share information with new employees, ESS offers a frictionless way to share links to relevant knowledge sources, or share insightful commentary on a current task.

The participatory nature of ESS also enables new hires to create their own professional networks with senior colleagues or join established communities where senior staff share experiences and refine work practices. And as ESS becomes more integrated with unified communications and video, those interactions can become more real-time and visual, getting us closer to that orientation experience we had long ago.

Preserving a Personal Legacy

ESS capabilities can also help organizations address knowledge transfer concerns arising from likely retirement waves. As mentioned in the on-boarding scenario, use of ESS can make “work” more observable and self-documenting as employees blog, update wikis, “tweet”, and have their actions published into an activity stream. This type of natural osmosis enables the organization to focus less on the type of forced capture of “tacit knowledge” prevalent during knowledge management projects in the nineties. The benefits of observable work, however, need to be felt by employees. If senior workers do not see personal value from contributing in that manner, they might return to prior information hoarding practices. Effective leadership and change management practices are necessary to address cultural dynamics and help with community-building efforts. When culture and community come together, senior staff should view participation via ESS as the “norm” for the way employees connect, share, learn and collaborate.

Offering retirees a way to stay connected after retirement should be considered as another means for organizations to harness retiree’s business insight. There was a time when retirement meant that the employee disappeared from the workplace. Nowadays, that’s often not the case. Consumer sites like Facebook make it easy for retirees to keep in touch with former co-workers. Organizations are now exploring how ESS capabilities can be used in a more purposeful way to provide retirees with options to continue work in a limited capacity. It is not unheard of to have former workers return to the workplace as a consultant, subject matter expert, or even as a mentor. An enterprise collaboration platform with the right security integration can support these former employees as they participate selectively in various roles.

Gaining Adoption

Changing existing employee work patterns and behaviors is perhaps the greatest challenge for making ESS initiatives a success. Governance, change management and constant communication are essential elements of any transformation program. However there are some techniques strategists can employ to influence actual technology usage.

  • Make it personally valuable: Enabling employees to post, tag, bookmark and share information enables them to create their own personal learning environment and build relationships with peers based on similar interests. Adoption will not be driven directly by what processes they are involved in, or any other formal activity that directs their role. Instead, their use of ESS is influenced by their own goals – which might tie to career development, recognition of their expertise, or professional networking.
  • Make it a community effort: People often enjoy helping others and collectively co-creating something of value. Adoption can be facilitated by posing challenges for employees to overcome. For instance, inviting employees to participate in solving some of the more pressing issues facing the company (products, markets) or their department (customer service, data quality) can tap into the goodwill of employees to contribute.
  • Make it the new way of working: Over the years, companies have changed the means of production by deploying office productivity tools, or automating work activities by deploying various business applications such as CRM. Employees had to change the way they worked as the work itself changed in terms of its tooling. In some cases, we can change the work itself such that people blog instead of creating documents, or share information via wikis rather than email. As people become comfortable using tools for their daily routine, they can become more comfortable using the same tools to voluntarily participate in communities and professional networks.

Murali Sitaram is the Vice President and General Manager for Cisco’s Enterprise Collaboration Platform Group. He is responsible for driving the development of Cisco Quad, an enterprise social software platform that helps organizations deliver a social, mobile and virtual workspace to its employees.

Photo courtesy Flickr user Ed Yourdon


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