Collaboration & Knowledge Management
Last week, Publicis announced Marcel. Marcel is an AI-tool (or bot?) that will connect colleagues around the world and allow for search of content throughout systems among 80,000 employees. The project will be funded by pulling up to $2m in spending from award shows for a year.
The main use cases are:
- Find colleagues with the right skills and experience for projects.
- Collaborate on projects with them.
- Search for relevant material throughout the company.
It’s far easier (and cheaper) to develop an internal community and tag documents properly.
This means creating a sense of pride in keeping your work updated, relevant, within the workflow of others, and properly tagged.
It means keeping your internal profiles updated and tagged with relevant experience and information.
It shouldn’t be enough to deliver award-winning creative for a client, you need to properly document and store it for others working on similar clients in the future. You need to update the vendor information, prices, and how well they did. You need to update your own profile too.
This needs to be written into individual goals and performance reviews too. You need to persuade small groups of the time they can save and people they can help by properly tagging information. Encourage people to acknowledge when existing documents helped them. Ensure updates shift to new employees when current colleagues leave.
All of this takes time. But it takes far less time, far less money, and is far more effective than developing a talking AI robot.
Two weeks ago, we hosted an exclusive community event with Lithium to bring 20 of the highest ranking community people together to discuss and share issues in a safe, private, environment. We all learned a lot from it.
The remarkable thing here is just how cost-efficient this is. People leave with a sense of not being alone, a collective validation of their efforts, and an assortment of new ideas and thought processes. Most of all, they get a group of people they can contact for help in the future.
I’ve lost track of the number of solutions private peer groups have helped us with over the years. This ranges from the prices of different platforms, opinions on prospective recruits, feedback on different implementation vendors, information on potential leads, heads up on possible problems, and solutions to some of our toughest challenges…along with all the emotional support.
It’s hard to talk about some things in public. This is especially true in places where community members, colleagues, or your friends might read your innermost fears.
I suspect there are opportunities in every sector and for each of our careers to build more of these. It doesn’t cost much and can save you huge amounts of time, money, and prevent mistakes.
p.s. blog post from Joe here.
Leading up to our event last year, our event organizer asked us to make a dozen or more decisions per week (food, sponsor placement, filming vendors, microphone setup etc…).
This happens often. The expert has to ask an authority (client/boss) to make a decision.
This isn’t a good thing.
It was far easier to give her a budget, a few loose limitations (legal issues, branding) and let her use her expertise to create the best event possible. She knows far better than us.
It feels good to be asked to make a decision. You feel important. You feel your knowledge and expertise is the key ingredient to a successful outcome. You feel respected by your team.
The reality is your decisions are likely to be worse than the people on the ground (or closest to the project). Decision-fatigue sets in. It becomes a mental burden. Important decisions stack up when you’re on vacation (and even when you’re in the office). Your team feels less ownership and enthusiasm towards the project. You are perceived as a controlling micro-manager.
One goal of collaboration is pushing as many decisions as possible down the chain of command. This means resisting the urge to make a decision. Instead, you explain and discuss how to make good decisions. What data and evidence should you consider? What kind of risks are you happy to tolerate? What kind of budget and resources require approval from higher up? What kind of fail-safes need to be in place?
There will be mistakes, for sure. I’d estimate we’ve made mistakes that have cost us thousands of dollars. But that’s a pittance compared to the value of making better decisions, retaining top talent, and having a team that feels ownership over the work they do.
Don’t measure the success of decisions by singular outcomes, but whether the best possible decision was made based upon the information available at the time. If you can teach your team to make better decisions you will get better outcomes.
Last Saturday my wife and I went to a cafe for breakfast. It was mostly empty. One employee was showing another how the till (cash register) worked.
Then she showed her which options linked to which menu items, how to serve customers, where to sit customers, which tables referred to which customer numbers, what food items were/weren’t available, what time they opened, what time they closed, how to handle customers with limited English, the different types of tea, what taxes she had to pay etc etc…
You get the idea. The new employee was completely frazzled and drowning in information. Customers could see it, the service was slow, and the experience was bad for all involved.
Most teams are like this. They add a newcomer to the project and then overwhelm him/her with a huge amount of information in a short amount of time. The newcomer is expected to acquire years of knowledge in a day or two.
On my first day in one of my first jobs, I was taken to a meeting room upstairs where the entire team went through every project for every client while I scribbled notes (and pretended to understand the vocab).
It doesn’t lead to a great first day for the newcomer and not a great return for the project. Ever heard stories of employees quitting on the first day/week? This is why.
If you’re adding a newcomer to the project, give them a small piece of work, the right amount of information, and let them get to grips with it and produce something good. Do everything you can to make them feel like a competent, productive, member of the team as quickly as possible. Gradually expand from there.
Like adding someone to a community, giving someone too much information too soon leads to bad results. Maintain a high level of competency and expand steadily.
It’s often hard to reach one or more of our team.
This is deliberate. We spend many hours each day not checking Slack, Skype, email, or any social media tool. We’re busy, like you, getting real work done. If there is truly an issue which needs an urgent response, we all have each other’s number (hasn’t happened yet).
Collaboration tools trick us into thinking we need to be easier to reach. They suggest we should be constantly interacting and sharing ideas/opinions on each other’s work. It’s a myth.
We need to be harder to reach. We need to find more time to do deep work. This is work that involves deep thought, research, careful implementation. You can’t do that with constant interruptions and external pressure to check for new questions every few minutes.
It feels good to answer a question. You feel you’re adding value and being a helpful team player. But the cost is really high. Especially when it interrupts the work you were hired to do. You weren’t hired to answer your colleague’s questions, so don’t spend most of your time doing it.
The best collaboration tools don’t encourage people to ask and answer questions every few minutes. They make it easier to get the information without asking questions.
If I do have a question, I can send a message on Slack and wait for the person to reply. If I’m on an urgent deadline (and believe this deadline trumps whatever the recipient is working on), I can call and get an immediate response. This doesn’t happen because few deadlines are truly urgent (and we don’t leave truly important work to the last minute!).
Slack is a great tool to pick up your messages, respond to questions, and update what you’re doing (between periods of deep concentration). Anything beyond that is better served by scheduling a call or meeting in person. The best way to show respect for someone’s work is to give them the time and headspace to get on with it.
Read this post by Dave from Agilebits.
“The reality is we could make Slack work for us but it would require constant policing. I simply don’t want to be that bad cop, and I don’t want to hire a police force either. Furthermore, Slack was not designed for the deep, meaningful conversations that are needed to move 1Password forward.”
One of the startling results of our survey is most organisations spend precisely 0 hours training their employees how to collaborate. Yet everyone seems to expect new colleagues to be great team players from day 1.
Consider that for a second. New employees learn who their colleagues are, how to do their work, where the break room is, and even how to safely lift heavy objects…but no-one tells them how to be an effective team member.
What tools should they use for which purpose? Who needs what information and when? How should information be delivered? What are the intricacies of the tools we should know?
If you don’t train now, you will need to police later. And policing isn’t fun.
Which of these do you think will have the biggest impact upon collaboration:
1) Letting employees use social tools (slack, instant messaging, blogging) to communicate with one another instead of email?
2) Ensuring employees know where to find every document on a shared drive and keeping them updated?
Once outside of the social business bubble, it’s not even close. The biggest frustration isn’t that employees have to use email to speak with one another. The biggest frustration is losing time and opportunities searching for documents they can’t find.
The temptation will always be to gravitate towards adding a new exciting tool to the mix so people can communicate better. But going from email to slack isn’t going to have anywhere near as big an impact as figuring out the best way to tag, share, and store the documents you already have.
Of course, saying you’re going to go through your documents, figure out the best file structure, and train employees to save documents properly is about as exciting as cleaning out the garage. New shiny tools and becoming a social business is far more fun.
Email certainly isn’t the best tool to use for anything, but it’s probably not broken. Your shared drive however is probably a jungle of redundant information people have to wade through to find what they need. I’d fix that first.
Imagine a team sales meeting to brainstorm how to:
- Better identify real prospects from non-buyers.
- Quicker identify decision-makers.
- Increase the price point of a product or service.
A brainstorming meeting like this will often consist of each person sharing their opinions around a vague structure hoping to stumble across some magical insight.
Unless anyone in the room is an expert at sales, identifying decision makers, or has a proven track record of increasing the price point, the meeting is simply a cluster of opinions from which to make a decision (and if someone is an expert, let them make the decision).
I’d use the same time instead to research the best way to achieve these goals. This means each person talks to experts they know, researches the topic online, reads a book on the topic and then presents their best ideas a week later.
You can then discuss the feasibility of each idea in the meeting and come to an informed decision really quickly.
You can save a lot of time and come to much better meetings if each person is properly informed.
Make a list of what your team does that drives the biggest results. Then make a list of what you plan to do in the future.
From this you can build out your team’s knowledge acquisition plan.
For example, let’s imagine your team writes content to persuade members to take action. You might want to learn the top techniques used by journalists to tell a story, copywriters to persuade people, and nonprofits that solicit donations via their written material. You might also want to learn how to rank highly for relevant search terms.
This is all knowledge you can get from experts in each field.
Now imagine your team is about to do something they haven’t done before (e.g. run a conference). You want to learn what you need to know. You also want to know how to negotiate the best deals, deal with union labor, avoid being charged for wifi installation (believe me), find reliable suppliers, how to generate immediate interest, attract bulk-purchases, comply with local laws, and stay on time (harder than it seems).
Now seek out the experts and experiences that will ensure your team acquires exactly this knowledge. Look for conferences that tackle these challenges instead of generic themes. Find training courses that cover these issues. Pay experts a few thousand dollars to mentor your team for a day or two. This kind of knowledge is exactly what’s going to move the needle for you.
Too often we give team members a training budget and tell them to spend it. That’s a dumb idea. Far better to identify what drives results now and what you plan to do in the future and ruthlessly pursue the best knowledge for both.
Most collaboration problems are workflow problems.
An organisation tries to force employees to use tools outside of their regular workflow. The employees rebel. This ends up with some caving using the new system and others resisting clinging to the old system. The organisation gets the worst of both worlds.
A workflow is a routine of working. For most people, that workflow is still based around email. Email lets you communicate, prioritise tasks, share files, collaborate, and schedule activity etc. It’s not the best tool for any of these, but it’s simple, accessible, and highly adaptable.
You can get most of your work done without leaving a single window.
Don’t underestimate just how important that is.
Too often organisations find a better tool than email and decide to upgrade. Trello becomes the to-do list. GDrive is where you store files now. Slack is where you chat. Google Docs is where you collaborate on documents etc…
Now people who could have done everything in one window are jumping between several. That feels incredibly disruptive to getting work done.
The best collaboration practitioners out there know there are better platforms but realise that minimizing workflow disruption is usually key. You can make big changes with small groups or small changes with big groups but it’s hard to do big on big.
This is where you exercise creativity. Sometimes the solutions are dead simple. Nancy and I discovered one client’s employees were never going to visit a community to store knowledge. Instead we used a simple ‘cc’ address that filtered, tagged, and stored the knowledge for curation later. At FeverBee we would never get round to updating Salesforce, so we introduced an automatic BCC plugin for gmail. Other times we use tools like Zapier to stitch together specific sentences in Slack or instructions via email to update systems elsewhere (Salesforce, Trello, Mailchimp etc…). Again, keeping things in the workflow.
Understand that most collaboration problems are workflow problems. Either gradually help individual teams within the organisation make a big change or simplify the change for the entire organisation. Minimise the disruption to workflow by being creative and embracing integrative tools. It’s a lot easier to make improvements this way.
p.s. If you have the time, we would really appreciate learning how your team collaborates here.
Would you rate yourself as a good collaborator?
- Do you understand the unique value you bring to a project? Do others agree?
- Do you resist documenting that unique value to stay unique?
- Do you share expertise when asked without trying to take over or reinvent the entire project?
- Do you get yourself up to speed before you contribute and try to understand why things are done that way?
- Do you get the job done or go the extra mile to ensure it’s as good as it can be?
- Do you work to build good relationships with other team members?
- Do you adapt to other collaborators’ way of working or do you demand they adapt to you?
- Do you clearly communicate when the project will be done and keep people updated?
- Do you clearly identify everything you need in advance or drop challenges on others at the last minute?
- Do you claim your time is more valuable than anyone else’s?
- Do you notice and uncover when other collaborators are uncomfortable?
- Do you listen and embrace feedback or do you resist and deny it?
- Do you give unsolicited opinions before checking if they’re wanted?
- Do you leave projects when you’re no longer needed?
- Do you compromise your point of view when necessary for a team to complete a project?
- Do you make other collaborators feel better about their work or do you bring them down to demonstrate your superiority?
Now ask the rest of your team how they would rate your collaboration abilities.
You might be surprised.
At the UN, we had a weekly staff meeting. 20+ people would cram themselves into a room and share what they’re working on that week. Everyone else chimes in with their opinions.
Can you think of a worse way of working?
You get the opinions of people who have not been as involved in your project, who don’t have your level of experience, who don’t understand the goals and constraints as well as you (in one meeting our community strategy was critiqued by a staff member from the souvenir shop).
Now imagine the position this puts you in. You can either accept poor quality advice to the detriment of your project or you can ignore the opinions of your teammates and potentially hurt your working relationships.
This is a terrible way to work. Yet it’s the very situation many bosses, team leaders, and professionals put their teams in every single week. Not only are most team meetings a staggering waste of time and money (20 people earning $50 per hour makes each meeting cost $1k. Multiply this by 52…and you start to get the idea), they hurt the very projects they’re trying to help.
Big group meetings to keep everyone informed are the worst way to keep anyone informed. Almost half the group wait for their turn to speak, others are working on their laptops (defeating the point entirely), and those that are listening are likely to be interested by 10% of what is discussed.
If you need to keep everyone informed, share a Google doc. Ask everyone to submit what they’re up to and send it out as a PDF the end of the week requesting a digital signature when each person has read it. You can save yourself $52k a year. Project tracking-apps like Trello work just as well too.
This works just as well for almost any plausible reason to have a big team meeting.
- If you need expert opinions, solicit the opinions of experts.
- If you need to get approval, send the project to the person who gives the approval.
- If you need to bond the team together, do a team bonding activity off-site for a day.
It blows my mind in this technologically-gilded age we still believe that stuffing people in a room waiting to speak one at a time is seen as the best option.