Build company knowledge by taking conversations out of email

on October 13, 2008

Ross MayfieldRoss Mayfield is the cofounder, chairman, and president of SocialText, a social business software platform.

Summary (Ross Mayfield):

  • You can’t dictate collaboration within an organization. Find a small area where it would excel, introduce it, and then roll it out in concentric circles to other groups that have interest and can provide unique value.
  • Collaboration needs a clear business purpose. You can’t have collaboration without a goal.
  • Take all content out of email to build a company knowledge base of the revolving door of employees, plus a back channel on what the company thinks on a given issue.
  • If one significant person changes their process to be more collaborative and open, it can change the process for an entire organization
  • PR has evolved to add value in conversations and be agents for collaboration. It’s not just about connecting clients with press.
  • When you ask for permission to market to your audience, immediately offer some value in return.
  • Even if someone’s collaboration intentions is purely to promote themselves, still engage if there’s a connection to your brand.
  • Collaboration needs to involve multiple individuals within an organization and not just one person, because that one person is just a resume away from leaving and taking that company goodwill with him.

Full article:

Pushing close to 5000 followers on Twitter and a popular blog, Ross Mayfield has been a leading voice in the creation and development of collaborative media. He’s the cofounder, chairman, and president of SocialText, the first wiki developers back in 2002, said Mayfield. Today, SocialText develops and sells a social business software platform.

When Mayfield first started SocialText, before he even incorporated, he wanted to share the process of building his company by launching a company-wide blog. His coworkers had already been comfortable blogging as individuals, but now they were going to use it as an open development platform which was very rare back in 2002.

“I say ‘share the process’ because one of the mistakes most people do is they think about blogging as an activity of promoting outcomes,” said Mayfield, “That’s a very different thing. It’s a press release mentality to say, ‘We have achieved this, we’re launching this, here’s the big bang message we’ve been carefully working on in the laboratory, and now it’s ready for the mass consumption.'”

You can’t dictate collaboration

Collaboration doesn’t just happen by you announcing, “OK, it’s time for everybody to collaborate.” Mayfield advises companies to find a location within the business where a public social software deployment would really excel, by prototyping in private. Meaning, what internal project can you put a social platform on top of to get people into the groove of using collaboration software and see its benefits.

The example Mayfield points to is IBM who wanted employees to engage in public blogging, but before they did, they asked employees within IBM as to what their blogging policy should be. Instead of starting an email thread that someone would have to edit, IBM set up a wiki which acted as an editable document. It also established the all important company back channel.

“If there’s a crisis communications event that happens publicly, they will first turn to that back channel, privately inside the company, before airing things out in public,” said Mayfield.

Getting people to start using a new communications tool the way you want it used is not easy. I asked Mayfield what tricks he’s seen work to increase adoption of his tools and get people more involved.

“First, you need a clear business purpose. There’s no such thing as collaboration without a goal,” said Mayfield. We both attended the Enterprise 2.0 conference and this realization was often echoed during the sessions at the conference.

In addition, you have to invest some time and money in how the tool is going to be introduced. Some people are going to need training to get comfortable with editing their thoughts on your new software in public.

Social networking: from cheating to business collaboration

People take to the software differently, depending on where you deploy it (e.g. sales and marketing vs. engineering) and who you deploy it to (e.g. baby boomers vs. the Net generation).

“The Net generation just entering the workforce. They grew up doing their homework on Facebook and that’s called cheating. They come to the workforce, that’s called collaboration,” said Mayfield.

Recognize the differences for the environment that you’re adapting the software, said Mayfield. But as you’re training internally and getting people comfortable with the software, start rolling it out in concentric circles over time. An internal group that collaborates on a project will obviously have interest in that project. But there’s also a group outside of those creators that will have interest, and can provide their own unique value. Keep an eye on those groups and over time roll it out to them. Let them participate, and then look for the interest and the connection to roll it out to the next group. This is how collaboration can just grow and grow.

One person’s process change can change that of an entire business

Over the past six years, SocialText has evolved from a wiki-only type collaboration environment for knowledge sharing to a more vertically integrated process implementation for collaboration. Mayfield explained that SocialText’s software is deployed in a way to help them more productively get their work done, and knowledge sharing is a byproduct of getting their work done.

A video game news company called used to handle all of its communications and processes via email. A simple request to an art director to create a graphic could be an endless thread and flurry of emails. That art director decided to change HIS process. All he did is ask that all requests and edits for his work be placed on his wiki page. When the job was done, the person would be notified with a link within the wiki page as to where to find the files. That art director created a process where there wasn’t one before. He became so successful inside the company that he went on to publicly blog for the company as well.

Take content out of email so it has value and life beyond the inbox

One of the other huge advantages of taking content out of email and onto the Web is that it has a life and value when that person leaves. There’s so much knowledge and information that’s locked into each individual’s personal knowledge management systems. Companies need to break free of each person having their own “system” and set up one that everyone is comfortable with and has value for the whole company when employees are and aren’t there. “All of Web 2.0 is just taking things out of email that existed before and adding backlinks, pings, and restructuring them in a more transparent discoverable way,” said Mayfield as he admittedly oversimplifies the Web 2.0 environment.

As a personal example, I used to work at an ad agency and I produced a ton of content for them. Proposals, ideas, concepts, etc. All of that information lived on the hard drive of my computer at work. When I left, they simply formatted the hard drive instead of saving the information for later. They later called me asking for it, and I told them it was on that hard drive. Unfortunately, they erased my three years of information I created for that company with that move.

“People are sharing more than ever,” said Mayfield, “There’s new patterns of sharing by default. You see it particularly in the ‘net generation. Cause that’s how they’ve grown up, that’s what they’ve always done. They don’t necessarily see the reasons not to.”

Mayfield brought up the CIA who presented at the Enterprise 2.0 conference (I wrote about them and conducted an interview with them as well.). The model of the CIA is the complete opposite of open collaboration-type thinking, yet that’s what they’re doing. Traditionally, the CIA has operated under a “need to know” philosophy, they are slowly switching into a “need to share” culture, yet still with levels of security clearance.

Don’t let one person in your company possess the “King of Collaboration” title

Culture change can’t be the goal of a collaboration initiative. It has to be a byproduct. Those who share will be rewarded, and those who horde will be at a disadvantage, Mayfield said.

During my interview with Dana Gardner of Interarbor Solutions, he stressed the need to build a network of individuals to develop your industry voice. That it was detrimental to leave that up to just one person because they’re one resume from walking out of the company with all that built up goodwill. Mayfield continued that line of thinking by repeating results from studies that show that people trust individuals within a company more than they trust brands (source: Edelman trust barometer, six out of ten countries trust individuals as peers rather than institutions as reliable and credible sources of information). In addition, half of all individuals trust a rank and file employee more than a CEO of the same company.

PR has evolved to provide value in conversations, not just connecting clients and the press

Mayfield believes that the role of PR is actually increasing and not declining. “You have a much more decentralized, fragmented media landscape that organizations need help understanding,” said Mayfield, “You have a new role of a PR person as a public actor in the conversation.” PR persons are no longer agents to allow conversations between their clients and the press, but rather people that are providing value and developing relationships within the conversation. And PR is no longer relegated to training top executives to hit the top message points, but also the entire company who has interactions at lower levels like support or developer relations.

“An overall social media strategy needs to be diverse in its tools. It needs to be diverse in its empowerment of different individuals,” said Mayfield. While most of the social media being presented by the media and pushed is very public, Mayfield sees a trend to more intimate type relations like a social communications network between PR firm and client. Or maybe new relationships between PR agents and those that they’re contacting. For example, instead of setting up two separate interviews with two different analysts, why not get both of them in a room as you’re giving your presentation and see what new rises from that interaction. For more on the importance of developing a relationship for communications, see episode #3, Build your audience by sharing their ideals and beliefs.

As I implored Mayfield to give me stories of what it takes to get people to collaborate, he straightened me out by explaining, “There’s no collaboration panacea,” said Mayfield, “It really just takes some conviction to identify what the true collaborative problem is and get agreement from a group to try to solve it and with what steps.” To start that off, Mayfield suggest looking for those people that have already taken to online collaboration outside of the organization (e.g. say they started a local social network of cat lovers). These are people that feel comfortable with social tools and are passionate being a community manager. Let them lead the charge.

Permission to market to your audience

As you’re developing a relationship with your audience, when you ask them for information like how to get a hold of them (e.g. contact information), you need to immediately reply back with some value (e.g. an invite to an event, or a trial of a product).

“[Ask yourself], ‘What can I give away to let people distribute, reuse, attribute, bring sources back to you, not just find on the Web, but carry forward into social networks,'” said Mayfield. It’s also not just your direct business, but the goodwill you bring to the environment. It’s something Mayfield has been doing for years, and he’s hoping it’s what is going to keep him afloat.

Even if people just want to promote, engage in conversation

When I asked my traditional, “What are the worst mistakes you’ve made?” question Mayfield admitted that he didn’t initially see the value of engaging with people who were obviously just interacting with him for their own ego and to push forward their own initiative. People would come on, self promote, and Mayfield would ignore them. Today he realizes “You really want to engage with every conversation that relates with your brand,” Mayfield advised, “Even if you don’t want to necessarily draw attention to the existence of a competitor.” How open is your discussion about your competition is an issue Mayfield still wrestles with today. It’s different industry by industry. A general rule of thumb about sharing information is to share the process, not the outcomes.

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