Why Not Widen the Flow?

by Andrew McAfee on January 14, 2008

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.

 

  • http://www.hubspot.com Brian Halligan

    Hi Andrew.

    I think your assessment of “in the flow” versus “above the flow” is quite an astute framing of the issue. A couple of thoughts from a couple of angels for you…

    We use a wiki here at HubSpot and it is an “above the flow” solution for us that is sporadically used, but in my mind, is very valuable. The reason it is valuable is that it contains some of our company’s most valuable thoughts/notes and our emerging learnings about new processes, competitors, products, etc. We use it to store things that would traditionally have been put on a shared drive somewhere, but now can be collaborated on. I personally store my notes on there, so others can view them and add to them. These notes go from being very loose to getting tightened up over time.

    We use email for “in the flow” collaboration at HubSpot. I have tried to do some “in the flow” collaboration using wikis, but it is a fair amount of change that I need to go through and a fair amount of change that everyone on the project has to go through relative to email.

    When I worked at Groove Networks, most of our customers used it as an “above the flow” solution. One of the problems we had a Groove was getting enough active usage at our customer sites. I think the reality is/was, that companies are not good at knowledge management — the incentive structure just isn’t there for people to share “above the flow” insights with the rest of their enterprise, except in rare cases. I have read often that between 1 and 10% of people are willing to contribute to this type of thing.

    It will be interesting to see if over time, tools like wikis move from being above the flow to in the flow. If they stay above the flow in enterprises, I think they will be vaulable, but if they move in the flow and break the email stranglehold, that will get really interesting.

    Brian.

  • Kerry

    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 thatÂ’s right in front of them. Instead, theyÂ’d truly like their people to spend some portion of the work week looking around, helping others, communicating and using their expertise, etc.

    Correct, managers do tend to want their staff to think beyond their immediate tasks. But, there is always a but, they don’t link rewards to that behaviour, so only those who are already disposed to those behaviours will adopt them. Often the ‘perceived’ rewards work counter to such social networking, which drives it into an informal, more hidden mode. Wikis will tend to reveal such networks, but only if the rewards are aligned with encouraging that behaviour. If the rewards aren’t aligned with above-the-flow work then those activities will tend to stay hidden and the wiki will not be fully utilised. I think most organisations have people doing above-the-flow stuff, but in most it is below the radar and only revealed by social network analysis.

  • http://www.flowcentric.net Pieter van Schalkwyk

    We use have effectively replaced our CRM solution with an “in-the flow” wiki for unstructured and collaborative content and our BPMS for structured “in-the-flow” processes where we need well defined processes for compliance and control.

    The CRM wiki on SharePoint (indexed by customer) mimic the unstructured nature of the business development and sales processes in our organisation. It provides them with an environment that doesnÂ’t constrain comments and feedback. These wiki pages are hyperlinked to a few simple management dashboards (SharePoint and Excel based) to provide details on each customer account if required.

    We have extended these “in-the-flow” CRM pages to the accounts department where they provide feedback on account follow-up actions etc. It has proved to the most effective collaboration and information management tools that we have ever implemented. People in those departments know that managers don’t as for information, they just look in the customer wiki. We enforce it and it is used enthusiastically by everyone. Change management associated with new system implementation was non-existent. It took only a couple of minutes of training and one demonstration to the managers to show them how to use it.

    Managers subscribe to the CRM wiki with RSS and get immediate notification after customer or partner meetings, they are aware of any status changes on opportunity and can make decisions on management intervention etc. They also know the payment status of any client at any point in time with scrutinising the financial system or phoning clients. In-the-flow wikis are a big part of our day to day operations.

    We also use “in-the-flow” SharePoint based blogs as part of our Scrum software development methodology and every person in the technical team blog daily on tasks completed the previous day, the one planned for today and any impediments that requires intervention. These tasks are once again hyperlinked to our software development and project management system to provide the tasks details if required. Our daily scrum meeting is a 15 minute stand up meeting where the blog is projected on the big screen and team members quickly comment on their entries. It is highly effective.

    We are not as successful at “above-the –flow” for some reason. It seems that any task outside the conventional boundaries of the “job” is approached differently. “If it is my job and I am told to use new tools, I will” seems to be the approach where everything “above and beyond” is approached differently. How, I am not sure and I will continue to read your blog to see if we somehow magically discovers how to do it.

  • http://www.namastenetizen.com/collatodo/ Kishore Balakrishnan

    So to ask the question again, why not put above and beyond squarely in the flow?

    Please see The accidental innovator @ ( http://www.economist.com/business/PrinterFriendly.cfm?story_id=10328123 ) ..Evan Williams accidentally stumbled upon three insights. First, that genuinely new ideas are, well, accidentally stumbled upon rather than sought out; second, that new ideas are by definition hard to explain to others, because words can express only what is already known; and third, that good ideas seem obvious in retrospect..

    Is it because of the non-availability of a sexy/simple/useful tool like twitter in organizations that 1) lets people in organizations record their dreams and 2) every else to promote/demote/validate/encourage them ?

    Such a simple system will let dreamers connect and indirectly encourage everyone to dream :-)

  • http://www.namastenetizen.com/collatodo/ Kishore Balakrishnan

    So to ask the question again, why not put above and beyond squarely in the flow?

    Please see The accidental innovator @ ( http://www.economist.com/business/PrinterFriendly.cfm?story_id=10328123 ) ..Evan Williams accidentally stumbled upon three insights. First, that genuinely new ideas are, well, accidentally stumbled upon rather than sought out; second, that new ideas are by definition hard to explain to others, because words can express only what is already known; and third, that good ideas seem obvious in retrospect..

    Is it because of the non-availability of a sexy/simple/useful tool like twitter in organizations that 1) lets people in organizations record their above-the-flow dreams and 2) every else to promote/demote/validate/encourage them ?

    Such a simple system will let dreamers connect and indirectly encourage everyone to dream above-the-flow :-)

  • http://www.e-gineer.com/v2/blog/ Nathan Wallace

    I’ve written a case study of our Wiki Intranet here (http://www.e-gineer.com/v2/blog/2007/08/our-intranet-wiki-case-study-of-wiki.htm), and then did a follow up piece on the barriers to collaboration (http://www.e-gineer.com/v2/blog/2007/12/building-enterprise-20-on-culture-10.htm) which reaches the same conclusion that the important thing is to “own the flow”. Great to see that others are thinking and finding evidence along the same lines.

  • http://www.shoptalkmarketing.blogspot.com John Caddell

    Andrew, as always a thought-provoking post. Rather than mandate use of tools, a way to bring “above the flow” activities into the flow would be to set requirements to do something specific with the tools.

    An example would be the idea of reflection. Requiring workers to post, perhaps once a day or once a week, something they learned, something that surprised them about the organization, or something they wish they had known, might yield more content than simply “use the wiki.”

    And, as with any new tool, use of the tool creates competence. The postings would get better and better, and the value out of them would increase for all employees.

    Another hurdle to using these tools in the work context is that to be most useful they need contributors who are good communicators, especially using the written word.

    That’s a skill that is really lacking in most workplaces, especially technical ones.

    regards, John

  • http://www.ramius.net Veronica Giggey

    While I have no empirical evidence, the motivations to contribute are of course different for each market segment. For example:
    1. Innovators and Early Adopters will contribute “in and above the flow” for all the reasons we have read in the past. We can take lessons learned from open source and the different motivational theories (Peter Kollock’s work)
    2. Early Majority, will probably begin to contribute in the flow and have some minor contributions above the flow
    3. Late Majority, will contribute for in the flow processes
    4. Laggards are likely to struggle in both scenarios

    I think the question can probably be a bit more specific. Like “can you reach critical mass with an above the flow process”, “do the diffusion of innovation rules apply the same”, “is the chasm bigger for above the flow”

    It would be unfair to speculate, but a good set of research questions.

    -Veronica

  • Carl D

    As I see it, the challenge with wikis and other new technologies aren’t so much whether they’re better or worse, it’s just that they’re different. So when you’re adopting the new tool, you have a considerable time where you’re dealing with (at least) TWO sets of tools, and have to do more work at the personal level because of that.

    I’ll also point out that people have adapted, perhaps too well, to the event-based work style. Work is often done in micro-spurts, for the few seconds or minutes it takes to create the e-mail response. Then the issue can be ignored until another event creates a flurry of activity.

    Wikis tend to require the individual to make decisions about when and where they will apply their effort. So it requires actual time management skills, consciously prioritizing and making decisions in advance. I see a lot of people who don’t have that skill very well developed anymore.

    I like your distinction of in-the-flow versus above-the-flow, and expect to be able to use that in my work.

  • http://www.groupswim.com Jason Rothbart

    I think you hit the nail on the head. Frankly, my experience suggests that very little “above-the-flow” knowledge capture occurs unless it is someone’s specific job or they have specific MBOs associated with it. Every now and then, you’ll find a good corporate citizen or expert who go out of their way to document something useful for everyone else or the customer base. However, this is the exception and not the rule by a long shot. This applies to all tools/methods for knowledge management or collaboration, not just wikis. I also agree that if you can structure work and its associated tools to capture knowledge “in-the-flow”, you reap significant benefits.

  • http://enterknowl.blogspot.com/ Simon Carswell

    I very much agree that in-the-flow is the way to go. It’s where emergence will come from. And it works by means of that free-market concept of ‘enlightened self-interest': I do something to benefit myself but coincidentally it benefits others, too. I keep my notes on a blog or wiki, instead of in a Word document in my home drive, and others can find them easily. I keep my bookmarks in del.icio.us, and others can find their way to links useful to them. This Knowledge Management 2.0 – where knowledge isn’t managed at all, but emerges.

  • Bob ILiff

    Since we are using the analogy of flow, I believe that project workers merely want an inflatable raft to throw things in and out of, and to load an unload collaborators as they flow to the project’s end. When management imposes or implies that these rafts must look like Royal Barges from above (the flow), the project teams head for the woods. I suspect we might all be better off if the Respositories happened as the simple result of washing out the rafts for reuse.

  • http://eedious.blogspot.com friarminor

    Speaking from experience, collaboration is really a difficult sell within companies despite what many would preach about. If not organizational hierarchy, there is what I’d call idea hierarchy wherein persons deemed more valuable would often seem to have a birthright on the last say. But it doesn’t mean this can’t be corrected though.

    Maybe it would be better to sell the idea of collaboration, not the product as the gem. It puts pressure off participants and eliminates grandstanding of some sort.

    Anyway, I’m sold on ‘in the flow’ and have already posted a link to this in our Intranet.

    Best.
    alain

  • http://michaeli.typepad.com/ Michael Idinopulos

    Thanks for the reference! I’m glad to see that the post resonated with you and your readers. I think you’re absolutely right that we ought to be trying to put in-the-flow content in a place where it’s usable, as opposed to pestering our colleagues to make more above-the-flow contributions. In fact, that was one of the a-has that I had when I first read your work on the DrKW wiki. By doing work on a wiki, they made it easier to find experts, identify colleagues with shared interests, reuse valuable artefacts, retain knowledge despite employee churn–all the things that knowledge management had been trying to do for years. But they did it in the flow rather than above it.

  • http://www.tomoye.com Eric Sauve

    Great Article!

    In the flow vs. out of the flow is right. The issue relates to how to inject something in the flow that is not already there. Changing workplace culture, practices and behaviors is really a long haul proposition, which is why the role of E2.0 should really emphasize adding value to not only existing work processes, but existing technologies/ technology approaches. How do you for example add Web 2.0 to traditional project management approaches? Would it be interesting to do so?

    Cheers,

    Eric

  • John Franke

    I would like to start out by saying that I love the analogy of “in the flow” vs. “above the flow” – I think it very accurately describes the difference with the way these tools evolve in an enterprise environment.

    From my experience I feel that using these tools “in the flow” is the result of early adopters finding a more efficient way to do something that is already part of their ‘normal’ job. (i.e. project management, requirements gathering, documentation, etc…) As these use cases emerge and governance models are defined these tools will ultimately become the obvious (or mandated) choice to achieve your normal work.

    I don’t believe it is possible to put “above and beyond squarely in the flow.” As soon as you make something part of someone’s job it is by definition no longer above and beyond. The desktop PC was once an above and beyond tool – now it is the norm. People that consistently go above and beyond will continue to find something new to early adopt as soon as the latest and greatest tool becomes the norm. Perhaps it can be argued that the only people who have above and beyond in the flow are those with words in their titles such as innovation, inventor, or R&D.

  • http://apostropheson.wordpress.com ‘son

    What a great discussion. Just yesterday, my team at work was discussing the need for better communication. As usual, I advocated use of our corporate wiki. Everyone agreed that we needed to use it more, but they all had reservations because they didn’t feel adequately trained to use it. I volunteered to give them training. That being said, I doubt that training will have any effect on their use of the wiki. They haven’t conceived of the wiki as part of their normal work flow. I had this insight yesterday, then stumbled across this blog page today. What a fortuitous event.

    I work in the field of healthcare informatics. The number one frustration in our field is how to get healthcare providers to incorporate technology into their work flows. We (the geeks in informatics) continually complain about Luddite doctors, yet we ourselves are trapped in rigid work flow (e.g., email, Word, Excel).

    I love the idea of using real compensation to motivate usage of wikis and other social software. (I like to refer to these applications as “anarchic technologies”). I’ll make a pitch for this to the management staff at work (though I’m quite confident that behind my back “management” will complain about how crazy I am). I also agree that an effective compensation scheme doesn’t focus on a single application. The concern I have is how to quantify usage. The wiki that we use at work (Confluence) doesn’t appear to give any statistics on usage by individual contributor. Perhaps the administrators have access to such a feature. Do you think that the existing social software apps provide enough tools to quantify usage?

  • http://forum.iwenzo.de Elektronik und Reparatur Forum

    What a Great Article!

    In the flow vs. out of the flow is absolutly right.

  • http://www.kumita.de johnny

    Yes you’re right. Thank you.
    regards

  • http://ferme.si/ Jan

    Hm, all I can say is: “Great article!”. I discussed about this topic with my girlfriend a week ago, now you gave me a material for hours of discussion.

  • http://www.kineticdiecasting.com/ casting

    * 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.

    Thanks for the information :bug:

  • http://www.check-sms.de Dave

    Big thanks for this Post.

  • http://www.sms96.de/ Thomas

    Yes I say too, thank u for the Grwat Information :)

  • http://www.100topbpocompanies.com/IT-Outsourcing.html IT Outsourcing

    Great post. I read it like 3 times, still not able to figure out in the flow and Above the flow wikis. Maybe i’m too non techie to understand.

  • http://www.seo-1-marketing-services.com Seomul

    Awesome article and analogy. One of the most depressing part of my life was to work for an old mentality paper mill. They just refuse to embrace technology.

  • http://www.all-sms-free.de gratis sms

    Hi Andrew,

    Thank you for your article. You are right.

  • sandcasting

    GOOD SAND CASTING

  • sandcasting

    Thank you for your article. You are right.

  • moroccanfurniture

    Very interesting, if you guys see it that way i won't agree more…i've read many posts similar to this one but none of them close to what i've read here…

  • Anonymous

    Very interesting, if you guys see it that way i won’t agree more…i’ve read many posts similar to this one but none of them close to what i’ve read here…

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