Evangelizing in the Empty Quarter

Lots of recent observations, conversations, case visits, and anecdotes about the adoption of Enterprise 2.0 tools are starting to yield some conclusions.  It seems that when companies make these technologies widely available behind the firewall, the only two groups that quickly start using them are techies and newbies.

‘Newbies’ here means new entrants to the workforce; as I wrote earlier, recent graduates find it natural to socialize, collaborate, and find what they’re looking for via technology platforms (think of MySpace, Facebook, Flickr, Wikipedia, LastFM, del.icio.us, etc.). In addition to point, click, drag, and drop, their baseline computer skills include search, link, tag, and post.

‘Techies’ are IT staffers, and also those people scattered throughout the rest of the company who are the natural early adopters and advanced users of whatever technologies are available. My first job after my MBA was as an operations management consultant. I quickly learned to look around at each new client and find the folk who programmed Excel macros or used Filemaker Pro or Crystal Reports (yes, this was a while ago). They always had the data we needed, or could find it for us. They were the techies, and there were never enough of them.

If these observations are accurate, then a graph with technophobia on one axis and years since graduation on the other reveals who’s more and less likely to use Enterprise 2.0 tools if they’re made available:

Enterrpise 2.0's empty quarter

The ‘empty quarter‘ of non-adopters is the upper right-hand section of this graph. These are the folk who are relatively unlikely to pick up new tools and run with them. 

But so what? It’s unrealistic to expect 100% adoption of any new technology that’s not mandatory, so there’s always going to be an empty quarter (I have it on good authority, for example, that there are still faculty at Harvard who have their emails printed out and brought to them.). Given this, why should a business leader care about Enterprise 2.0’s empty quarter? After all, it’s only going to shrink over time as newbies continue to enter the workforce. In addition, some of the people in the empty quarter will probably benefit from the new technologies, even if they don’t use them. They might read another employees blog and learn something, for example, even if they don’t blog themselves. So why not just leave the inhabitants of the empty quarter be?

The main reason not to is the fact a huge amount of a company’s accumulated knowledge and expertise resides nowhere else except in the heads of the empty quarter’s inhabitants. And as I and others have argued previously, Enterprise 2.0 technologies are great tools for making this knowledge and expertise more accessible throughout the organization. They do so in two ways. First, they serve as persistent and universally visible (behind the firewall, anyway) repositories of whatever information people have taken the time to enter. Tagging and linking make this information provide structure to this information, making it easier to search and helping the cream rise to the top.

If the inhabitants of the empty quarter just continue to collaborate via email, the information they exchange is not globally persistent or visible, can’t be accessed or referred to by others, and doesn’t stand the chance of becoming part of something bigger and better. It essentially vanishes without a trace. Of course, there are times when this is exactly the goal; we all want the option of communicating through private channels, so we’ll all continue to need email. But when we want to share information it makes great sense to put it up on a blog, wiki, or other Enterprise 2.0 platform rather than emailing to a long list of recipients.

The second way that Enterprise 2.0 tools help propagate knowledge and expertise within a company is simply by letting people find each other. Imagine a company where a lot of people have internal blogs, and where a lot of collaborative work happens via wikis, group spreadsheets, etc. And imagine Google-level search capability on the company’s Intranet. How hard would it be for an employee, even one who had just walked in the door, to quickly find just the right person to bounce an idea off, help with a problem, tell whether a prospective vendor is reliable, or recall what happened the last time a similar project was launched?

The great majority of companies today are far from this scenario because their empty quarters are so large. Are there effective ways to evangelize within it and convert people to Enterprise 2.0 tool use? One strategy is to keep working on the tools themselves, making them more obvious and easy to use. This is certainly a good idea, but I don’t have a lot of confidence that it’ll bear a lot of fruit in the empty quarter. Old habits die hard, and the 9X problem of email is particularly acute among non-techies.

A more promising strategy, I believe, lies at the intersection of coaching, leading by example, and policy-setting. Of these, policy setting is the least obvious and most risky — what would a pro-blogging policy look like, and what would keep it from backfiring? I’ve heard a couple clever examples. A Google employee at a conference I attended, for example, said that employees there sent a short (five line) email to a specific address each week, telling what they’d done. These became part of a searchable archive. 

I haven’t yet been able to verify that this is a widespread practice there, but if it is one of its smartest features is how lightweight it is. A five-line email is perceived as freeform and fast to compose, so it’s not a burdensome requirement.

Other lightweight Enterprise 2.0 policies might include:

  • Maintain a blog for your group / department. Identify who’s in charge of it, and update it at least once a week.
  • Maintain a blog for each project your lab is working on.  Post whatever non-confidential information you’d like your colleagues to know about each one.
  • Keep your personal page up to date.  Make sure it lists your areas and industries of expertise.
  • Use the wiki to make sure your portion of the org chart is up to date.

I suspect that these policies will work exactly to the extent that managers follow up on them and see if they’re being followed.  This is where coaching comes in —  the right way to foster adherence to Enterprise 2.0 policies is not by yelling at those who fall behind, but by nudging them a bit and reminding them why it’s important to comply.  And leading by example, of course, is an unparalleled way to build credibility.

What else works?  If you’ve succeeded at evangelizing within the empty quarter in your company, how did you do it?  Leave a comment and let us know.