Enterprise 2.0 advocates seem to be splitting into two camps, one side supporting organizational effectiveness and the other individual productivity. Here are five reasons why you should side with group that wants to empower knowledge workers.
This week’s podcast of This American Life opens with a story of a policeman who arrives at the scene of a traffic accident to discover that the driver was a chimpanzee, dressed in a sweatshirt and jeans, who had freaked out in a thunderstorm, thrown his handler to the back of the van, and taken the wheel, only to crash into a streetlight.
As the cop arrives in the pouring rain, with the chimp hooting and screaming and the handler reeking of rum, he thinks to himself, “Now What? They never covered this back at the Academy…”
The point of the story (if one can be extracted from such a surreal turn of events) is that sometimes strange and unexpected things happen, and you will have to deal with it somehow. At some point, you have to operate with no map, no process, and often no idea of what to do next. You will have to use your best judgment.
This story got me thinking about the way people work. About business as usual. About information management systems, and business processes, and taxonomies. And the reason is… those things are all made by monkeys.
Nah, just kidding. The reason is that all of these things are maps — they’re operational guidelines for how to correctly perform tasks at work.
People are good at following processes. We’re naturally creatures of habit. There’s a comfort to be found in knowing just how to handle each event as it occurs. Although we possess the most complex brain on the planet, we’re really pretty lazy, and if possible, we will try to avoid using it. (We’ll just do what we did last time. After all, that worked out okay, right?) Harnessing this notion of “standard operation procedure” has proved spectacularly successful, particularly in manufacturing and construction.
“Bob, your job is to tighten these 4 bolts here as the car goes past, okay?
Either taking advantage of this success, or just doing what we did last time, we decided that perhaps the whole world of work could be automated. That we could encapsulate a bank or an insurance company as a giant binder full of operational practices that could be consulted at any time. A kind of information production line, just like the way we built cars.
But unlike the production line, the inputs into a knowledge system are much less predictable.
Manufacturing and construction are constrained by physical limits. There are well-defined boundaries. When things go wrong, it’s obvious — at least to a trained eye. Knowledge work is different. It’s creative, abstract, and often deals with situations outside the ideal and outside the norm. It’s about handling exceptions, not following recipes.
And curiously, it’s the successful handling of these exceptions that defines the success of an enterprise. Thomas Watson Sr famously said “If you want to succeed, double your failure rate”.
He wasn’t talking about process mistakes — like forgetting to tighten the fourth bolt — he was talking about those awkward times that you find yourself with No Map.
Rules are for fools — and the guidance of the wise. And when we’re making decisions for our organization, be it building a process, buying information systems, or implementing a taxonomy, we need to take this as our golden rule.
For the less mathematically inclined, you can skip ahead to their summary of the changes. The new thinking on how to evaluate the impact of a social network (emphasis by ThoughtFarmer) is to:
This is excellent advice. And it might help to explain why we’ve found that the most successful Enterprise 2.0 roll-outs tend to be bottom-up, emergent efforts.
As Infovark moves into its third year, people often say to me, “Er, when are you going to ship something?” and “What is it you’re building, anyway?”
And you know, as much as I’d like to launch the product right now, I can’t. Infovark isn’t finished.
When Dean and I started in October 2007, we thought that we’d be able to get a public beta ready within about 6 months. We were really wrong. Here’s the link to the sad trombone.
In the absence of a product announcement, Dean and I have been talking a lot about the problems we’re trying to solve (in between furiously refactoring, debugging, re-bugging, etc.). And as we move into a new year — one that will definitely see the first public release of Infovark — I thought it might be prudent to re-visit exactly what it is we’re building, and why. So here’s a few of the questions that we’ve encountered over the last few years of running our start-up.
What is Infovark?
Infovark is a smart software agent that lives in your computer. It follows you while you work, remembers things, and learns a little bit about what you do, who you work with, and the documents and emails that you create and use. It then uses this information to build you a spiffy personal website that’s all about you, your work activity, and your stuff.
You can make your website available to your colleagues, so that they can browse your Infovark, leave comments, post updates, and access the information you choose to share with them.
Why would I want it?
Because you are busy, and you don’t have time to answer repeated requests for information, or spend ages digging around for answers. Infovark helps you find things that you work with, and share them with your colleagues. Infovark also provides you with insights based on your work patterns. For example, It will suggest related documents for an email you’re reading. It will help you determine which is the most recent version of a document. It’s very helpful.
If you’ve ever thought that you could benefit from having a personal assistant, or someone who took notes for you, then you will love having Infovark on hand.
Will it run on my computer?
If you’re running a version of Windows from the last 5 years, then chances are pretty good that it will.
How do I use Infovark?
Once you install Infovark, it asks you a few questions about what you do and don’t want it to include. (This process doesn’t usually take too long.) And then, you just get on with doing whatever it is you do.
When you get stuck, lose, or forget something, you can ask Infovark what it knows about it. If your friend at work also has an Infovark, you can browse to it instead of their Facebook page. (If you want to do work stuff, that is. Infovark doesn’t support throwing sheep.)
Does this mean that all my stuff is always shared?
No, only if you let it be shared. You can keep Infovark and all of your information to yourself if you like. You can also tell Infovark to ignore whole folders or files, so that it won’t consider these when making recommendations or suggestions.
Does this mean my Boss can spy on me?
The content that you choose to share will be available to your colleagues, including your boss. So, if you’re the kind of person who doesn’t actually add any value to an organization, and likes to avoid doing things, then you probably shouldn’t install Infovark. It might make you look bad.
On the other hand, if you’re delivering awesome work, and you want other folks to know about it, then Infovark is a great way to get the word out. Sending an occasional reminder about your valuable contributions couldn’t hurt during the next annual performance review, could it?
I thought you guys were all about solving Enterprise Problems. How does this help?
Enterprise Software is unwieldy and complex because it abstracts all business processes into a single piece of software. It’s designed to solve management problems as seen from the executive level. But the real work happens on the front lines, at the individual level — where we all do our jobs.
With your permission, your Infovark will contact other Infovark agents within your organization, allowing you to share, search, and collaborate with your peers. In the process, Infovark builds up a realistic, organic representation of your organization’s knowledge and insight from the ground level. We think that enterprises are made of people, and genuinely useful enterprise software has to acknowledge that fact.
We also have future plans for an Infovark Team Server that will aggregate individual Infovarks and provide a more holistic and structured approach to information management.
That’s all well and good, but when can I have it?
Soon! We have one more private beta to go through, in Feburary this year — look for our public beta sometime in April. (Really, if we don’t get to share this with somebody soon, we will explode.)
Meanwhile, Dean and I will endeavor to keep posting our thoughts and ideas here as we go. You can also drop by our other Infovark blog, The Underground. The Underground shares our experiences as programmers — and contains some more technical details about our approach.
A big thanks to all our readers, and smart folk who’ve left comments for us over the last year. We love hearing from you. Happy 2009!