Right-sizing Information to Fit Your Brain

info_overloadI have been reading a number of articles dealing with the age old problem of information overload. Seth Godin blogged about Getting meta and asked if information about information is now more important than the actual content we’re seeking. It is in a tag and search society!

 Tom Davenport purported in the Harvard Business Review that we are “info-satisficing” – being satisfied with sacrificing quality. I have examined this “good enough” quandary in my own blog.

Are we sacrificing quality because there is just too much information in too many channels to possibly read let alone absorb? I still receive six print magazine subscriptions (I just can’t move to nationalgeographic.com; I like the glossy photos) on top of my very active Google Reader account, Twitter stream, Facebook and YouTube channels I follow. I can’t seem to get on any other social medium right now or my head will explode.

Because of weather conditions, I settled for Skyping family instead of traveling to see them over the holiday. Instead of scheduling my time around when Modern Family comes on, I go to Hulu and watch it at my leisure. I can’t even find time to DVR the show!

I don’t know if we are sacrificing quality or just fitting the medium and level of content to the time we have.  Would I have preferred to see family in person for the holiday than on my LCD? Yes. But, Mother Nature had a different plan.  I can control what I receive, what I subscribe to and what I read. I used to feel under pressure to keep up on every medium but I don’t anymore.

Information is widely available but we have the power to filter and do so in the easiest way ever…thanks to technology advances. So, are we getting what we need? Are we sacrificing quality? Are we “overloaded”?

The answer is probably “yes” but I find that I am more selective than I used to be when I entered the socialsphere. I don’t accept every friend invite on Facebook. I don’t follow 5,000 people on Twitter. I don’t have RSS feeds from 500 blogs.

I pick and choose what I want carefully and I keep my six magazine subscriptions to ensure I have in-depth articles to not only spark an immediate thought in my brain but to have real, developed arguments and facts to consider. I still buy crime novels in paper because while Kindle is available, I’m not there yet. But, that’s just me.

Is Twitter for Sharing or for Prospecting?

Twitter-BirdsI was out watching the UFC fight with my significant other a few Saturdays ago when the loser of the title fight stated he was going to continue his rant on Twitter. That struck me so funny that I tweeted about it. Right then and there at 11 pm central time on a Saturday: “Even UFC is getting in the game when the loser continues trash-talking on Twitter.”

Just by me typing the word “UFC” on my tweet, oodles of people DMed (Direct Messaged) me about free MMA (Mixed Martial Arts) training classes, tickets to future UFC fights and upcoming pay-per-view events. I know the power of social media and use it myself for my own personal, and sometimes professional, purposes. But, I wonder if it’s too powerful?

Started as a way to connect to friends, this has become a marketer’s dream realized, which I believe was the master plan all along. Programs running constantly to monitor the Twittersphere…”UFC” = potential prospect. Is this too intrusive? I was sharing a funny quip about social media on a social media tool and now I am the target of everyone and anyone in this space. Is that fair?

I am a huge fan of the grand social experiment we are conducting and am an active participant but I feel we need to set boundaries for ourselves when using these tools. The line between sharing and becoming a marketing target is getting fuzzier. Sometimes you want to be DMed if you need help or have a legitimate question but sometimes you don’t. In my UFC example, I was sharing but didn’t want to be marketed to. I’m not a huge fan of UFC; I was just out enjoying the evening with my significant other.

I think social media needs to be crossed with intelligent agents to help decipher when someone wants to be contacted and when they don’t. I know this technology is already here and just needs to mature as a concept. I think that will be the ultimate power for individuals using the technology. Are we going to have a “DO NOT TWEET” option just like “DO NOT CALL”? Maybe.

In the meantime, I guess I need to either filter myself or be prepared for marketing message blitzes. How does Ashton do it? 🙂

The Dawn of the Generalist

Is it me or are the lines blurring between Communication, Marketing, Learning and Knowledge Sharing? Usually, these are distinct functions with people who have years of experience and even advanced degrees in the relevant subject matter. Not anymore!

My own path has taken me from Communication (with a Master’s in Communication) to Learning to Knowledge Management to, now, some light Marketing. I pride myself on being a generalist because I feel these disciplines are very related as they all depend on content, messaging, organization and, yes, technology.

The audiences might be different; the objectives may vary but the skills sets needed are similar – listening, coordinating, compiling, distilling, writing, delivering, editing, managing people and projects – all necessary to achieve success in any of these areas.

I think the new bridge tying these areas together is social technology. The social sphere has a distinct and valuable purpose in all of these areas. The ability to connect, publish, engage and respond to people all have a significant role in communicating, marketing, learning and sharing.

Some are not comfortable with the fuzziness of the new frontier of communication generalism but I say embrace this era! Being flexible and having the ability to be plugged into any one of these situations has tremendous value especially in today’s cash-strapped environment.

I, for one, have been anxiously awaiting the time of the generalist. In the past, it has been difficult to articulate the value that someone can bring to the table if you can accomplish a lot of things in a variety of areas without a so-called specialty. Now is the time for generalists to shine!

Measuring Trust

I attended a Social Media Roundtable yesterday morning and the question of trust came right to the forefront of the cultural debate of why companies should use (or don’t use) social media. A lawyer can poke holes into any argument for or against social media but leaders need to instill a culture of trust in order to see success with social tools and collaborative processes. They need to understand the risk attorneys point out but, ultimately, it is a business decision as to how and when these tools can be used.

A fascinating study was presented at this Roundtable: Edelman’s Barometer of Trust. I never thought trust could be measured but this study shows that people are tending to trust “People Like Me” more than their leaders. I find this shift of placed trust very interesting. Is this phenomenon a result of social media or have people always trusted their peers and social media enabled that to happen?

I would argue with the dawn of social media, people suddenly feel like they have a voice…maybe for the first time at least in consumer circles if not at work. This feeling of desired empowerment is trying to make its way into the business world and so a great struggle ensues in some companies. People want more say and responsibility and some leadership teams are hesitant to trust their employees with decision-making and expertise sharing.

Presenting this barometer of trust idea to leadership may help fuel the business case for why we should integrate social tools into our work processes and communication flows. The command-an-control, top-down method of operating is fading. In the years to come, “People Like Me” will be influencing our decisions and shaping the way we work and share. What an exciting time to be in the middle of knowledge management and collaboration!

Want True Collaboration? Wikify!

The most common question I get about web 2.0 tools is when should we use a wiki? I find this question most interesting. Even though Twitter has been around a lot less time than wikis, it seems like companies have figured out Twitter’s place in their tool box but wikis are still a head-scratcher.

We are so document-centric that it is difficult to understand how wikis could or should fit into the content management – collaboration puzzle. With most wiki software, you can attach files to a page within a wiki but I would not recommend using a wiki as a primary document storage vehicle. Instead, wikis are the ultimate collaboration tool, in my opinion.

When we think of the word “collaboration”, we think of working together, co-creation, teams and even innovation. Wikis are the perfect tool to enable the process of collaboration but require TRUST. To change others’ content, the users of a wiki need to trust each other that if something he or she wrote is deleted or edited, that the person making the change knows better. We also need to have thick skin to accept those changes. Most of us have come a long way from getting deflated at the sight of intimidating red ink our school papers, but one needs to foster a culture that can handle true co-creation just in case!

There can be no ego when using a wiki. Titles are checked at the door when you log in and every person’s opinion counts. If your culture does not accept this then wikis will be difficult to implement but not impossible. Sometimes, it takes new tools like this to prove efficiency and creativity to actually change a culture from being overly hierarchical to more collaborative.

The process requires commitment; the satisfaction is realized in the end result of a great piece of work co-created by many qualified minds. Below are some great applications for wikis:

  • Company Policies: collaboration on a small team (usually Legal and/or HR)
  • Training Guide: collaboration among a specific discipline or management level
  • Lessons Learned Repository: collaboration among one or more project teams
  • Best-Practice Language: collaboration among a project team (document assembly on the cheap)
  • Knowledge Capture/Transfer: collaboration among retiring / exiting population and future population
  • Institutional Knowledge Base: collaboration across the enterprise (great for acronyms, definitions and resource sharing)

Should We Be “Social” at Work?

Companies are aware of and understand they must embrace social media externally with their clients but also internally to engage their employees and inspire collaboration. However, some leaders are still wary of social media as a time-waster, and, despite the numerous companies we hear about everyday using social media, many companies have still not adopted it for legal and productivity reasons. They think their staff members will constantly be updating their Facebook status or tweeting and re-tweeting items all day long. But, what about using these tools or like tools behind the firewall for business purposes?

The fact is people want to communicate this way, and it’s not just for the younger generations. Seniors are the fastest growing population on Facebook. Whether you allow access to “Facebook” or you implement a Facebook-like application behind your firewall, this is an efficient, easy-to-use and engaging way to get people to share what they are working on, report on their availability for other projects and connect and build relationships with people inside the company. We used to encourage connecting with people at a training class or through the company softball team. This is no different; it just involves a computer or Blackberry to do the connecting.

Here are five steps to ensure “social” isn’t viewed as non-productive “socializing”:

  1. Don’t call your internal People Profiles tool “Facebook”; call it “PeopleFinder”, “Connections”, “BluePages” (if you’re IBM). These may sounds similar but don’t conjure the “Facebook” image necessarily. Or, if you implement NewsGator Social Sites, call them “communities” instead. Brand it something that doesn’t imply these tools are a time-waster.
  2. Don’t necessarily call these tools “social media” when pitching them to senior leadership. Call them “collaboration tools”, “team builders”, or, better yet, “efficiency enablers”.
  3. Establish business purposes for why tools like this are needed. A common one I’ve heard is: “The younger generations expect it, and if we want to attract talent we need to have these tools.” While this might be true, I have found that this isn’t always compelling enough as leaders often ask: “What about the 75% of our population that isn’t 23 years old?” Good reasons include: Understanding a person’s area of expertise and experience leads to better staffing of projects; being able to tell when someone is or isn’t available instantly saves time in making decisions or getting answers; connecting people to people speeds up problem solving and helps new people establish relationships faster thus decreasing their ramp-up time.
  4. Try to get one leader on your side. Determine who would be the most willing to not only approve and champion the effort but be one of the first people with a profile.
  5. To help with legal and leadership hesitations, create a decent policy around using these tools and ensure there will be a dedicated activity monitor. A Good Policy Example: IBM’s Social Computing Guidelines

Top Ten Myths about Social Media (the last Five)

#6 People will never adopt these tools; they like email too much. People still love their email. As much as people complain about it; they can’t live without it. Adoption of social tools is not automatic, which is why you need a purpose, a plan and some marketing and communication behind them. But, the benefits of instantaneous, not having to remember or create emails groups is very appealing. Even employees without computers are getting in the game. Truckers now use their mobile devices to update their status and respond to questions from fellow truckers. You couldn’t take that away from them if your tried!

#7 People don’t need any training; everyone knows how this stuff works by now! Despite all the hype, some people really don’t know how to navigate the tools or are afraid to try. Holding a virtual lunch n’ learn is not a waste of time to remove any barriers and get people started.

#8 Social media adds too many channels to an already complicated communication picture. Yes…social media do add more tools to what might be a heavy toolbox. The question should be: what can social media tools enable you to do that others can’t? Can you replace some of your existing tools with social media? Are you using a custom-built executive blog that a different technology could remove some of the manual work and enable others to join the blogging experience. Could a wiki decrease confusion that a project folder on a shared drive causes today?

#9 Every company HAS to have social media no matter what their challenges; it is the wave of the future. While I sort of believe this viewpoint for many reasons, I do think defining your needs and deciding whether or not social media meets those needs is the proper methodology. If shared drives or SharePoint sites really meet your needs, then maybe you don’t have a good business reason for starting wikis, and that’s okay. It’s about solving business problems, not just implementing the latest craze. However, if a company’s need is around collaboration, social tools are a perfect solution.

#10 Social media is a time waster.Even though social media is pervasive, a lot of leaders still feel it can be a time-waster and, therefore, block access to consumer sites and discourage the use of blogs internally except for managed leadership ones. Your employees are engaging with these tools anyway, and forcing them to do it on their mobile devices on lunch doesn’t help. Why not empower people to jump in on conversations on behalf of your company? And, using these tools behind the firewall won’t waste time…just the opposite. With its easy interface and instantaneous delivery, these tools SAVE time.

Final Note: When economic times change, people will have more employment options, and I think access to these type of tools and resources will matter to those seeking opportunity.

Top 10 Myths About Social Media (the First Five)

#1 You can just launch it and forget it. Yes. The purpose of social tools is to inspire collaboration and transparency, and its content should grow organically. However, you need a plan to monitor postings to ease your attorneys’ apprehensions and track usage for proof of success. 

#2 People will stumble upon it own their own. Despite all of the buzz around social media, not everyone will adopt it right away. Jump-starting posts and driving traffic to these tools is critical for success. 

#3 Leaders should be involved in every conversation to show support. Be careful here. Leaders should lead by example but they should start the conversation and then stand back and let the conversation happen between employees. Chime in from time to time but too much interference will be a barrier to some.

#4 Social media doesn’t need governance. Along with monitoring and measuring usage, determining who can post, reply, manage its content, report on content are very important parts of the requirements definition process. Can anyone start a blog? Maybe yes; maybe no. It depends on your needs and your organization’s culture. What content gets captured in a wiki vs. a SharePoint site? These questions also need to be answered ahead of time in your governance model to ensure people don’t get confused as to where to store information.

#5 People don’t really listen to what others’ have to say.  Au contraire! In a Universal McCann study, 72% of respondents used social media to research a company’s reputation for customer care before making a purchase. In a health study by Christakis and Fowler, social networks influence behaviors and even affect people’s happiness. People are reading and acting on what others have to say.

So, What Do I Use This Tool For Again?

So, let me get this straight. I use a wiki to create project agendas but a SharePoint site to store my project management documents. I go to YouTube for our corporate videos and Flickr to contribute to our “fun” employee photo library. Then, I jump to the discussion forums to share and comment on ideas but if I want to quickly ask a question of my colleagues, I go to Yammer. I should read and respond to blogs on various topics and share my expertise. Oh, then, I have to update my profile (should I update LinkedIn and Facebook too?). And, what do I use Instant Messenger for again? Help!

Yep. Another victim of tool fatigue.

Sure. You can provide a link farm on your Intranet so people don’t have to remember the URLs of each tool but each interface looks different and people will struggle to remember all the cutesy brand names for each point solution you have. You could also provide a quick reference guide – a When to Use What cheat sheet. This can work reasonably well.

But, I really think we need to define objectives as to why we have all of these tools. There is something to trying them out to see what sticks. I whole-heartedly advocate for that but, in the long run, consolidation and streamlining become important to support the efficiencies these tools were invented to create in the first place.

Your employees need you to ask yourself these questions:

  • Are people comfortable with other people changing their work? Then, by all means, implement wikis. If version control and levels of security are critical, then don’t.
  • Do you have to have Yammer AND Discussion Forums? No! Choose one. Are threaded discussions necessary to keep replies nested under the original discussion or are quick quips and limiting people to 140 characters essential?
  • Is there one system for storing documents and then set appropriate security settings? I hope the answer is yes but I know how difficult this can be.  Strive for this!  Don’t make people guess which system to store their documents in.
  • Can profiles, blogs and status updates be the same solution? Yes!There are tools like Jive and NewsGator Social Sites that offer this.
  • Integration, integration, integration. There is a reason SharePoint is so popular. It may not have everything but there are plug-ins that complement the interface for just about any need.
  • Try and limit to two solutions – One for storing my work as an individual and on teams, and one for information about me specifically…that’s it.

Keep it simple for the people who have to work. After all, these tools are supposed to help makes things easier not confuse people.

Avoiding Duplication with Social Media

I read a wonderful article in the June 2009 issue of the Ragan Report detailing some lessons learned from Southwest Airlines. Their Emerging Media group decided that they should have some loose guidelines for when to use which social media.

They decided for their business, they would use blogs for exploring deeper issues; Twitter for what they call “teasing” the news; and Facebook for spotlighting promotional events.

I think this strategy is smart. The purpose of social media tools are to make what used to be formal, informal. However,  social media, folksonomies and crowd-sourcing need some level of governance and guidelines to help this garden of information grow in a healthy way and not get overwhelmed with weeds.

I keep wondering how many more social tools will be released? I’m sure many more are on the way but shouldn’t those tools replace the old tools? Newer tools just seem to add on to our existing list of tools. I found that I had to create a “When to Use Which Tool” quick reference guide to help people choose where to go to store their “stuff”.

Just as a handyman needs to know when to use a money wrench vs. a socket wrench, we are expecting our knowledge workers to know when a blog is better than a discussion forum or when a wiki is better over a SharePoint site.

I think this gives tremendous opportunity to KM professionals. We can become (and, in most cases, have become) the explorer, scientist and all-around virtual collaboration tour guide through this journey into what I hope will be a better integrated and simpler suite of collaboration tools.