It’s a given that competitive businesses will employ a lot of smart people who have wrought out a lot of knowledge about how to build a better mousetrap.
Yet it’s also a given that companies succeeding at building better mousetraps grow fast. Consequently, the smart people who have helped drive success will become increasingly separated from each other and the knowledge they need, as even bigger siloes form. A major headache for managers is not that their organizations lack knowledge, but rather that said organization cannot be easily mobilized.
That pain becomes even more acute as teams become more distributed and the majority of work activities gravitate online. Those same smart people create gigabytes of files containing valuable knowledge about the business problems the company faces, only to stash it all away on a drive somewhere. Meanwhile, the know-how that allowed them to address those business problems remains tacit in the minds of persons you’d never even guess knew how.
“If only we knew what we knew” is no longer a humblebrag. It is a serious fault that puts entire competitive positions at risk of failure. And there is little that traditional business software can do to give managers control over this problem, let alone fix it.
Building a better mousetrap for collaboration
Collaboration software, often called social tools, has emerged as a special category of business software to meet this challenge. It recognizes that the online environment is both the workspace and the workplace for digital workers. While that environment facilitates collaboration across teams, it also cuts them off from the rest of the company, the information they need, and the know-how to put knowledge into action.
Social tools solve this problem by embedding a social app into the online workspace, functioning somewhat like an internet bulletin board, but with much richer database and communication features. It can be a module in an existing enterprise package such as Microsoft Yammer or Salesforce Chatter. Or it can be a self-standing app, the most well-known of which is Slack, although there are many others.
The effect is often described as an online water cooler, where employees can gather informally and chat about what they are working on and what’s going on in their lives. Thus, everyone in the company can have visibility into what everyone else is doing, and feel more comfortable reaching out and consulting with one another. Management gains a clear line of sight into everyone’s activities and can better connect people with resources. Productivity benefits include eliminating duplication of work, reducing cycle time, and increasing engagement among remote workers and offices.
The wrong kind of disruption
The target users of social tools often work in environments where everyone is trying to produce disruptive technology. Yet when it comes to technology disrupting their own work, they don’t take too kindly. Slack in particular has received much negative attention for creating dysfunction in the workplace. There’s even a special word for it: Slacklash.
It’s not that Slack is another useless piece of business software that just takes up space on your device’s desktop. Rather, it can easily morph into a software beast that ends up doing the opposite of what it is designed to do, and takes over the space where work is supposed to happen.
The popular business press is full of such horror stories, usually falling into one of these categories:
- “57 channels and nothing on.” In other words, the app adds a new layer of distractions to the “always on” nature of digital work
- “Time to feed the machine again.” The app becoming so burdensome to use that it becomes an end unto itself rather than the means to get work done
- “Noise gets amplified, while signal gets drowned out.” For example: conspicuous contributors getting undue credit and visibility at the expense of the less conspicuous; excessive chatter on trivial matters making it difficult to locate important content
- “Not wiping your feet before entering.” That is, the usual bad behavior and poor etiquette on internet communities being brought into the workplace group chat
- “Social wins out over collaboration.” Community is characterized by disorganization, chaos, shallow content, emoji exchanges, excessive alerts, and information overload.
Building the right kind of Slack into your organization
For all the headline-ready reports of dumpster fires, there are just as many success stories of organizations using Slack effectively. What are they doing right that allows them to turn the black box of how work gets done into a glass box?
For starters, their leaders make as solid a business case for Slack as they would any other enterprise software purchase. With such focus also comes concrete organizational objectives, along with metrics to determine whether it is meeting those objectives.
Consequently, the organization’s leaders are able to communicate very clearly what is out-of-bounds in terms of conduct, while laying out simple guidelines of what is in-bounds (usually “informal,” “brief,” “helpful,” “friendly”), and letting the teams develop their own norms. They are especially good at demarcating what is “formal,” and therefore belongs in an email rather than on Slack.
They also have an unusually keen sense that successfully implementing Slack is itself a collaborative and social activity. Therefore, the traditional Phase 0 is spent assembling a critical mass of users, and providing the resources to help them configure their settings wisely, and update them several months after go-live. The organization’s leaders commit to being regular users themselves, modeling the behavior they would like to see.
Once live, they manage with a light hand, keeping the atmosphere informal, and tolerating what might appear to be off-task or non-productivity while letting content accumulate. They want to create that magic space where people connect, and realize that it might take a few months of lurking before some are ready to connect. “Who” is just as valuable information as “what.”