Why Not Widen the Flow?

My friend Michael Idinopulos, formerly of McKinsey and now with SocialText, recently launched the Transparent Office blog. I’ve always found Michael to be both thoughtful and pragmatic about social software in the enterprise, which I imagine comes from his combination of work experience and graduate work in philosophy. I plan to be a regular reader.

One of Michael’s first posts was about the distinction between using wikis and other social software ‘in the flow’ of work versus ‘above the flow.’ As he explains:

  • In-the-Flow wikis enable people do their day-to-day work in the wiki itself. These wikis are typically replacing email, virtual team rooms, and project management systems.
  • Above-the-Flow wikis invite users to step out of the daily flow of work and reflect, codify, and share something about what they do. These wikis are typically replacing knowledge management systems (or creating knowledge management systems for the first time).

Michael’s experience has shown him that in-the-flow wikis get heavily used (especially, I’d add, if they actually do replace previous collaboration technologies) while above-the-flow ones attract more sporadic contributions. He makes the great point that:

… the challenge of getting people to use above-the-flow wikis is an above-the-flow thing, not a wiki thing. Left to their own devices, people don’t collaborate very much in above-the-flow ways. That was one of the great (if depressing) learnings of the Knowledge Management movement.

One conclusion I take away from Michael’s insight is that business leaders, if they’re serious about Enterprise 2.0, should think of ways to put contributions in the flow, as opposed to above it. There are a couple ways to do this. The first, and most obvious, is simply to say something like "This project will be managed via a wiki, not email, project management software, etc." This doesn’t redefine anyone’s job; it just changes one of the tools used to do the job.

The other course of action is to change a job definition so that what was previously above the flow moves into the flow. A few of my fellow IT professors have launched wikis for their courses. Most of them report anemic activity, which is not surprising given how busy our students are. For them, wiki participation is clearly above the flow.

In Managing in the Information Age I address this problem head-on by putting wiki contributions squarely in the flow — they count for a major portion of students’ grades. This approach brings its own challenges, of course, but lackluster contribution is NOT one of them. And by the end of the semester the course wiki is a pretty impressive resource.

How outlandish would it be for a company to put participation in emergent social software platforms in the flow for at least some employees? In other words, why not put in job descriptions something like "being helpful at the enterprise level using digital tools such as blogs, wikis, folksonomies, Q&A forums, idea boards, comments, prediction markets, ratings, etc." 

There are certainly enough such tools that people wouldn’t have to feel pigeonholed into one kind of contribution. Not everyone is a natural blogger or prediction market trader, but the current E2.0 toolkit is big enough that it probably contains something for almost everyone. So what would happen if a company deployed a complete toolset and said to its employees "10% (or 25%, or whatever the ‘right’ number is) of your performance evaluation will now be based on your contributions in these environments." 

I get the impression that few companies these days think of their employees as assembly line workers who should be focused exclusively on the job that’s right in front of them. Instead, they’d truly like their people to spend some portion of the work week looking around, helping others, communicating and using their expertise, etc. In short, I believe that many if not most companies desire a good deal more lateralization and crosstalk. So why not put these IT-enabled activities squarely in the flow?

I imagine part of the reason companies haven’t done much of this yet is that to date it’s been hard for people to work above and beyond their ‘normal’ jobs. Doing so typically involved physical displacement — hopping on a plane, going to a meeting, etc. —  and so was time consuming, inconvenient, and often costly. Part of the reason I’m excited about the potential of E2.0 technologies is that they greatly lower, if not eliminate, the barriers to working above and beyond one’s ‘normal’ job. So to ask the question again, why not put above and beyond squarely in the flow?

This is a sincere question, and I’d love to know what you think. Please share your thoughts by leaving a comment.