19 October 2010

The Wisdom of letting Users “Figure it Out”

Back in July of this year, Computerworld, Networkworld and CIO all ran an the article “Telecom Giant Takes to Web 2.0.”  It was about Alcatel-Lucent’s use of social media tools.   The article opens with a quote from Greg Lowe, Social Media Strategist and Global Infrastructure Architect.  Lowe stated that the CEO told the organization to be more “collaborative.”  What immediately struck me was the response: go buy/implement a technology.

Based entirely on Lowe’s title, it appears that he is a member of Alcatel-Lucent’s Information Technology group.  Unsurprisingly, it appears as if the first reaction to the CEO’s statement was to find a tool to “fix” the problem; based on the content of the article, it wasn’t clear exactly what the CEO meant and whether another tool would be a solution foundation.  However, the approach described was a typical pattern:

  1. Find a tool that seems to enable individuals to solve a problem
  2. Make the tool available
  3. Let the user community figure out how to make the organizational changes necessary to actually solve the problem

The trouble with this general approach is that it is often a recipe for disaster. 

Much to the credit of Alcatel-Lucent, they seem to be successful in at least getting folks to use the new tool.  What wasn’t immediately obvious, however, was whether the tool solved the problem the CEO identified.  To be blunt, does tool usage indicate the problem was solved or just that people were using the tool?  In using the tool, does it mean that quality collaboration, that fundamentally improved an individual’s ability to complete their job tasks, occurred regularly?

To CIO magazine’s credit, they did link to an article that presented a similar situation at Phillips, called “My Enterprise 2.0 Rollout: 4 Keys to Success.”  Fortunately, this article presented a far more thought out and methodical approach to using the “2.0” technologies.  The difference between the two approaches boiled down to the following (even identified as “keys to success”):

  1. Develop a good strategy
    Phillips spent time trying to understand what they wanted to accomplish – not just “we need to collaborate better.”  Specifically, what will truly make a difference in our business?  If a business can’t improve productivity, reduce expenses or improve revenue, why implement technology solutions at all?
  2. Lead by example
    At Phillips, the executives lead by example and leveraged the tools in their own work.  This approach provides a fantastic benchmark for the rest of the organization.  As the article points out, it’s not about an edict from above, but rather a way for the leaders in the firm to demonstrate usage and, in a way, also publicly learn from those lower in the organization.  Frankly, if an enterprise wants to make any initiative successful, employees need to understand that management supports their efforts and their work won’t be wasted.
  3. Work with the user community
    Unlike the Alcatel-Lucent example, Phillips actively worked with the user community to ensure success.  The work involved in and the problems solved by the tool aligned directly to challenges within the organization; there were clear metrics for success
  4. Allow a bit of “organic” evolution
    The article calls this concept “loosening the reins.”  Phillips didn’t explicitly create policies to govern the use of the tool.  While it’s generally a good idea to incorporate governance into the use of these kinds of tools, the idea of allowing a bit of usage flexibility is critical.  In many cases, there is insufficient data to truly understand what might or might not work in the enterprise.  Further, a certain trust needs to develop between the firm and employees – the firm needs to trust employees will use good judgment and employees need to trust the firm is making the tool available to improve productivity.  Ultimately, to be successful, there needs to be a good mix of established, general guidelines for appropriate use, as well as flexibility to enable “out of the box” usage scenarios.

When contemplating how to approach implementing these collaborative technologies in your organization, consider the four points above. The "build it and they will come" approach to technology doesn't work. However, it is a pattern that many in IT use to mostly their detriment. It's time to change the approach.

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