Recently, I posted a link to this article: Planning to Share Versus Just Sharing. The post struck a chord with me, because I have been involved in so many initiatives in my organization to plan how to share. We are a nonprofit with a large contingent of academic staff; we believe in sharing, theoretically. We are an international nonprofit with field offices and remote workers around the world, largely working independently; we see the value of sharing, theoretically. So why, in the 7 years that I have worked there, has sharing always been such a struggle?
The article I linked to lays out a lot of the reasons why, so I won’t go into those. But I do want to talk about the lightbulb moment I had after I read this, something I should have already known from participating in various forms of social networking. The key is not to plan to share; the key is to just start sharing and see what happens. The serendipity that occurs is something that cannot be planned.
I still remember an ill-fated venture I was involved with at my organization to organize communities of practice. Communities of practice, if you are not familiar with this knowledge management term, are groups of people working in the same area who share their learnings and best practices with one another. It’s a good concept and one that everyone expressed a lot of interest in fostering at our organization. But the initiative just bombed. Why? Because we spent all our time planning, making rules, forming hierarchies, having meetings, deciding who was in charge and who could join, and we didn’t spend any time just doing it. I knew at the time that informal networks could not be structured but had to just emerge, but I had no idea how to encourage that or even where to start.
More recently, our smaller team has been struggling with how to share with one another. We are distributed over many countries, but we are tech-savvy. We are a fairly good representation of 21st century knowledge workers. We spent some time discussing video conferencing and team mailing lists and regularly sharing status reports, but nothing really seemed to take off.
Then one team member tried out a social networking tool called Yammer and invited other team members to join. Pretty soon, sharing was going on, organically, no planning required. We generally share in two ways: by broadcasting to the group what we are working on at any one time, and by throwing out open questions to the group. It works remarkably well to keep us connected and abreast of what we’re all doing, and it’s a lot more efficient than our old standby, email. Granted, not everyone on the team is using it yet, especially not all of our field workers, but we have to start somewhere. The key is to just start.
What is exciting is that other members of our organization are also coming in and participating. This adds a new dimension and level of connectivity that our isolated team–particularly we remote workers–have not previously had.
Yammer is fairly similar to Twitter, except the network is closed only to people in the same domain (with the same organizational email address). It has a desktop application and a web interface. It is a decent tool–there are things I like about it, and things I don’t–and I am sure there are plenty of others that could also do the job. This just happened to be the first one we tried, and in true social networking tradition, it was good enough so we stuck with it.
One thing I do like about Yammer is that it collects on the web interface all the links, files and images posted by the network for later reference. It also supports tagging on the fly and makes it easy to find all posts under a single tag. Some features, such as groups, could use some improvement, and there are no presence indicators, which makes it hard if you are trying to reach someone in particular. Yammer won’t replace IM and email just yet, but it comes close.
I am even happier that our team is sharing, dynamically, organically, instinctively, without need for structure or rules. It has already improved my remote work experience. I look forward to seeing how it evolves.