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Learn to Walk Before You Run

Image courtesy of Flickr user karen.j.ybanez

“Why aren’t people using it?”

That’s the question I was recently asked by a colleague working on a project where they had just deployed an internal wiki.  They identified a need to bring people people together in a collaborative environment.  They knew they didn’t have the capability in-house.  They researched the latest collaborative software.  They read an article on Intellipedia.  They said, “that’s what we want!”  They installed a wiki.  They created links to user guides.  They issued memos to their users telling them that this collaborative tool that they’ve all been clamoring for is now available.  Then they waited.  And they waited…

They soon discovered that their users weren’t actually, you know, using the wiki.  They were baffled – they had given their users the capability that they were asking for; they gave them directions for how to use it; they even had their leadership send out messages to the user telling them to use this tool.

“Why aren’t people using it?”

What they didn’t take into account was the fact that a majority of their users were of the Silent or Baby Boomer generation, they were academic researchers who were rewarded for individual published works, and they were very aware of copyright and intellectual property rights.  The problem wasn’t that the users didn’t know how to use the wiki; the problem was that the users didn’t know how to collaborate.  Everything in their nature told them that individual contribution was of the utmost importance.  Everything they’ve ever learned was about protecting and publishing their intellectual property.  Asking this group of users to go from this to using a wiki was a gigantic step that they weren’t ready to take.

Before rolling out ANY type of social media application, whether it’s blogs, or a wiki, or microblogging, make sure that you do an assessment of your user culture first.  Are they rewarded or punished for collaborating?  What collaborative tools, if any, do they already use?  Is risk-taking rewarded?  How do leaders react when their strategy is questioned?  How is the organization more hierarchical or flat?  These questions need to be asked before rolling out any type of social media application.  The answers to these types of questions will help inform what tools will help you achieve your goals.  You have to figure out what your end goal is and then determine the tools and processes will help you get there.  Not every user base is ready to just jump right in and use a wiki.  They need to first learn how to walk.

That’s why I love a tool like Yammer.  Yammer is a microblogging application similar to Twitter, only it’s focused on businesses.  Think of it like an IM platform where every IM you send is open to everyone else in the network.  Instant Messaging has become so ubiquitous that almost everybody is, at a minimum, familiar with the tool and how it’s used.  Moving this basic concept to an open platform is a much smaller step for most people than collaboratively editing a document on a wiki.  Sending a message using Yammer is a combination of sending IMs and sending questions to email distribution lists.  It’s a much more manageable concept, especially for organizations who aren’t prone to collaboration.  Whether your organization ends up using something like Yammer for the long term isn’t all that important at this point – the most important thing is that people are learning how and when to collaborate with others.

If your goal is to create a truly collaborative environment across your organization, remember that a community like Intellipedia just doesn’t grow overnight.  It takes years to move that many users down that road.  Start small and start with something that’s familiar to your user community.  Teach them to walk down the road of collaboration before you expect them to run.

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