October 9, 2008

Microblogging: Private Conversations at a Live Mike

In ReadWriteWeb's report on microblogging at BestBuy, Laura Fitton (of Pistachio Consulting) writes about her conversation with Gary Koelling and Steve Bendt regarding their implementation of Mix. Mix (built on HeadMix) is described as an "enterprise microsharing application," which is intended to faciliate networking, problem solving and idea sharing among Best Buy's 160,000 employees. According to this report, Best Buy's deployment is the first of its kind at a large company.

In reading through the report, a couple of things struck me. First, Koelling and Bendt acknowledge the weird dynamic that gets going with microblogging: you're having quasi-personal conversations in a forum where you can be overheard by the world. While it's easy to forget that fact when you're in the middle of some witty Twitter repartee, none of this is private. Interestingly, a quick check on Twitter indicates that there seems to be a wide range of responses to this fact of microblogging life. Some users are extremely circumspect or even cryptic. Others appear to damn the torpedoes and blab full speed ahead, with little regard for the consequences.

When you transplant this issue to the work environment, you find the problem compounded. Here's how it's described in the Best Buy context:
There are what, 160,000 employees at Best Buy? It’s like a few of you are thrown into a dark room together. You don’t really know who anyone is or who to trust. You’re told it’s okay, they’re all employees, go ahead, talk. But trust is an issue. Who are these people? How do we know them? What can we say?
This is a challenging context in which to try to foster the open exchange of information. Unfortunately, the report doesn't explain how the system's designers plan to increase the levels of trust. As I've noted earlier, trust is a critical element without which collaboration is virtually impossible. And, in our KM 2.0 world, collaboration is key. It will be interesting to see what the adoption rate is at Best Buy and whether the quality of the information exchanges meets expectations.

The other striking thing for me was the basis on which the designers chose HeadMix. Besides liking the developer team and the flexibility of the application, the other positive attribute in their estimation was the application's ease of use:
We liked that it’s simple, but had the extra features when you wanted them. It sounds goofy, but we really liked the Outlook plugin — that’s where our employees live. That will make it easier to use.
Here, they clearly were trying to reduce the barriers to entry -- to the point that they allowed easy access from Outlook. These folks are not microblogging purists who insist that if you want to use the tool you too must be a true believer who is willing to leave the Outlook cocoon in order to microblog. Instead, they made the boundary between the two applications permeable. There's an important lesson here as we consider how best to integrate new knowledge management technology into existing work flow, calibrate it to user comfort levels, and thereby increase user adoption.

Koelling and Bendt established themselves with their implementation of Blue Shirt Nation, a social networking tool for Best Buy employees. It will be interesting to see how they overcome the trust issues to achieve a productive company-wide conversation via Mix.

8 comments:

Daniel J. Pritchett said...

I see the same thing re: tool integration here at work. I would really like to try out some standalone wiki packages but I'm being guided towards Sharepoint Wiki just because we already have Sharepoint licenses. That and our IT department won't want to listen to me explain how we need to set up a MySQL DB just to power MediaWiki.

In the end I'm happy enough choosing whatever tool gets me off the ground. I'd rather have a shabby wiki/microblog/whatever than none at all.

I took the same approach to my personal blog: I chose Blogger because it was the cheapest and easiest way for me to get up and running. I told myself that if I stuck to it long enough for the project to merit its own paid hosting that maybe I'd switch to WordPress later. I'm still looking at doing that in Q1 2009.

Mary Abraham said...

Daniel -

As with most things, it pays to keep things simple when implementing new tools. Cheap is good as well, as long as you don't make too many compromises to the user interface. With a lot of these tools, you can talk about them forever in the abstract, but it isn't until you try them that you begin to sense their power and utility.

- Mary

Mark Gould said...

Daniel, Mary,

I also have experience of IT putting the cart before the horse. They mean to be supportive, but it often doesn't feel that way. One of the challenges is to frame one's needs in a way that makes it easy for a specialist in one type of system (whether Sharepoint or any other) understand that what they can offer may not actually deliver what you want.

In IT terms, "keeping things simple" means finding ways of using the existing tools to do most of what the user wants. Something that may look simple to us -- a local install of Wordpress or MediaWiki, for example -- actually comes with a huge amount of baggage for IT. I think we should not ignore their concerns, but it is possible to find ways round them. (It is just a long and hard process...)

Mark.

Samuel Driessen said...

Nice post, Mary! I agree with your point to "integrate new knowledge management technology into existing work flow". At the company I work for we did research on integrating 'document management' in Outlook, because we 'live' there. That worked out nice.
About trust and microblogging in the enterprise. I don't get your point. Doesn't this simply work the same way as on the internet. You start a microblogging tool, follow the people you trust/know (not all employees in the company) and it takes off from there. Or is this too naive?

Mary Abraham said...

Mark -

It's probably worth spending some time talking or blogging about how to optimize KM's work with IT. How do knowledge managers get better at "framing" their needs? (Some of us would pay you for actionable advice on this!)

- Mary

Mary Abraham said...

Samuel -

Great idea to integrate document management and Outlook. Have you had any success integrating blogging or microblogging with Outlook?

As for the trust/microblogging issue, you can certainly limit yourself to following the co-workers you know. The problem is that regardless of whom you choose to follow, everyone can overhear your conversations. You might not mind that on the Internet where you have the illusion of anonymity. However, do you want that exposure with respect to your co-workers? I expect the trust (and embarrassment) factor could constrain microblogging in the enterprise.

- Mary

Laura "Pistachio" Fitton said...

Thanks for covering this Mary. As a note, the first excerpt pertained specifically to the Yammer approach, which literally "groups" everyone together by virtue of being an employee there, as opposed to a more Twitterlike gradual buildup, perhaps first of those you know, and then radiating out to those *they* know and at random intervals including some mix of total strangers, those with whom one has interests (but not connections) in common, etc.

But you're right to point out that nearly any internal microsharing system will have at least an aspect of randomness. To me, that is part of the secret sauce. But, you make a fair point that even on other microsharing platforms besides Yammer, there could be a degree of "who goes there?" mixed in as adoption proceeds.

Absolute agreement in the need to build these systems in with existing behaviors, workflow, tools and patterns. Microblogging purists be damned. I'm convinced that a large reason why Twitter is so catchy is that there are so many different interfaces that can be used to reach it.

Loved your post, will read more of the blog.

Mary Abraham said...

Laura -

Thanks very much for the clarification regarding Yammer. It's great to get information "from the source."

It will be interesting to see how widely the Yammer approach is adopted within enterprises. The trust issues can be enormous -- especially in competitive organizations. I suspect that the Twitter-like approach you describe will be an easier sell.

- Mary