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How can companies create systems that motivate their staff to learn from each other?

Written by: Alex Hunting

Published on: May 15, 2015

Why Yammer believe their solution has failed

 

Last week I went to the annual Responsive.org meet-up at Microsoft’s London headquarters. Never having heard of the organisation before, I was attracted by the short yet seductive event synopsis which promised a series of lectures and workshops around “Responsive Organisations.” In their words, these are organisations “built to learn and respond rapidly for the open flow of information, encouraging experimentation and learning on rapid cycles fuelled by a network of employees, customers and partners motivated by shared purpose.”

I expected to find a group of attendees and lecturers who worked for a rare breed of organisations that might fit this description; small consultancies, young digital agencies and fledgling start-ups who would represent the early adopters of a business model which made so much sense in theory but had few success stories in practice – especially within large complex multinational organisations. Five conversations in, I’d met internal communication executives from Sainsbury’s, Argos, Tesco, DirectLine and GSK. They all shared two things in common. Firstly, a palpable belief that their enormous organisations could adapt to increasingly competitive markets which were shifting daily.  Secondly, they had all implemented an internal Yammer network which they hoped would help get them there.

The event started when the ex-Yammer, now Microsoft employed, responsive.org co-founder Matthew Partovi took to the stage and proclaimed, “Yammer has failed!” I looked around to see a few bewildered faces in the crowd. Patrovi explained that, although Yammer had been acquired for $1.2 billion two years ago having attracted almost 8 million users, the majority of the companies using the networking service were failing to act any more responsively to their rapidly evolving markets. Knowledge-sharing, collaborative learning and any resulting innovation wasn’t being fostered in the way that Yammer engineers had hoped for when they designed the network.

Reading more about Yammer and their co-founder Adam Pisoni, these sentiments are shared across the organisation. In a recent article with Fast Company, Pisoni explains that industrial organisations built on hierarchies separate the thinkers who have ideas and the doers who execute them:

“You want the doers to have as little flexibility and empowerment as possible. They aren’t supposed to make decisions; they are supposed to execute their task as efficiently and predictably as possible. But efficiency is only great if you can plan for the long-term. If you know what you’re going to do for a long period of time, you can really get into the nuts and bolts of how to do it efficiently.”

In the current market, where consumer habits and behaviours are constantly in flux, the doers, who are often closest to the customers, can add value as thinkers. But, this only comes into effect if companies are built to share their knowledge and harness their ideas. Enter solutions like Yammer; a tool that in theory allows people on the ground to communicate with each other, head office and even departments far removed from their own to share experiences, customer knowledge and best practices. But, as the Tescos, Argos’ and GSKs of this world outlined during the responsive.org meet-up, realising the need for more collaboration and then introducing a knowledge sharing tool doesn’t guarantee employee engagement. Yammer have built a tool that works for an already responsive organisation, not for a work in progress, which is why many of their customers are still failing to transfer knowledge from the ground up.

The challenges companies face trying to implement systems for sharing and managing knowledge

 

Listening to these companies talk about the challenges they faced implementing systems to manage and share knowledge in their quest to become more responsive, I compared their pain-points to many of the challenges Beyond have had to overcome when building these systems for our clients. Very broadly there appear to be seven common blockers that inhibit organisations from successfully implementing knowledge sharing systems:

1.     Knowledge sharing systems are forced onto employees rather than designed around their needs or built with their input, resulting in a lack of engagement. In our experience people don’t mind change, they mind being changed.

2.     Employees prefer to continue using closed knowledge sharing technologies they’re used to because the benefits of the new system aren’t immediately made clear to them through effective on-boarding. Employees continue communicating through private channels like email, Google chat, PA’s or bookmarking inhibiting cross-company learning.

3.     Knowledge sharing systems often have a poor user-experience that isn’t designed specifically for the individual organisation. Poor functionality, confusing navigation or an unintuitive content taxonomy drives users away.

4.     Technical lock-in can make it hard to integrate existing document storage systems with internal social sharing tools. Companies have already spent a lot of money on implementing and securing other systems which they don’t want to scrap or rebuild.

5.     A cultural fear of sharing knowledge outside of known contacts. Employees resist or are actively discouraged from sharing knowledge outside of their teams or offices.

6.     Failing to implement incentives that rewards content producers and rates useful knowledge inhibits the flow of useful information. If you gamify and reward engagement on these platforms then you can drive more responsive behaviours. It can be as symbolic as a badge on your online profile or more formally tied into employee appraisal process, as long as it is meaningful to the participants.

7.     Most knowledge sharing systems aren’t built to evolve based on user feedback. Employees aren’t given an opportunity onsite to give feedback or rate features and regular updates of the platform aren’t factored into budgets and project roadmaps.

Fostering buy-in for knowledge sharing systems through collaboration with users

 

While Yammer would claim that their users need to change I would suggest that a focus on the correct implementation of a technical solution should drive the right behaviour. At Beyond, we have designed and built knowledge sharing systems for clients in knowledge-intensive industries ranging from pharmaceuticals and investment banking through to media and technology – and all of them have looked and worked differently. These aren’t off the shelf companies so there isn’t a one size fits all technical solution that can be used. Although we’ve implemented Yammer, Sharepoint, Kaleo and Drupal and Jive technologies, they have been chosen and adapted very specifically for our client’s businesses and cultures. Although we’ve experienced many of the same blockers when designing knowledge management and collaboration systems, the solution to those problems for each client has been unique.

While Yammer would claim that their users need to change I would suggest that a focus on the correct implementation of a technical solution should drive the right behaviour. At Beyond, we have designed and built knowledge sharing systems for clients in knowledge-intensive industries ranging from pharmaceuticals and investment banking through to media and technology – and all of them have looked and worked differently. These aren’t off the shelf companies so there isn’t a one size fits all technical solution that can be used. Although we’ve implemented Yammer, Sharepoint, Kaleo and Drupal and Jive technologies, they have been chosen and adapted very specifically for our client’s businesses and cultures. Although we’ve experienced many of the same blockers when designing knowledge management and collaboration systems, the solution to those problems for each client has been unique.

At Beyond we use our Applied Creativity process to build a solution that we know will make our user’s experience enjoyable and smart. The only way to achieve this is by including our users in our process.

In part we use our research and analytics capabilities to uncover our users pain-points, behaviours and influencers so we can design a system that will fit and adapt the company’s culture. As importantly, we insist on involving people from all levels of the organisation especially front line staff, who are learning from customer interactions every day. But this isn’t just so we understand our client; this helps our end-users buy into the project and influence its design so they will be ambassadors of the system when it launches.

From these insights we form a strategy to guide creative thinking to solve challenges around key platform functionality, content themes and on-boarding mechanics. Using a hybrid team of skill-sets from across the disciplines, we use a series of idea generation techniques with focus questions to generate hundreds of ideas in a short space of time. We believe widening the disciplines and perspectives in the room during a creative session drives better results so that’s why we train and invite clients to join us as well. They know their company’s issues and opportunities better than anyone so we want their input.

The process isn’t finished once the first version of the system is built and goes live. Therefore it is important to build in KPIs to track goal attainment and feedback mechanisms to ensure ongoing optimisation of content and usability.

Great user experiences drive motivation while reducing friction. Ultimately, the best way to motivate people to adopt new behaviours is by designing systems around their existing behaviours rather than hoping they’ll buy into new ways of doing things.