By looking beyond our timelines and tweets and understanding just how information is distributed, aggregated and used, we can learn a lot about how social networks are modeled. Then, if we apply these models to our project teams and client communications, we just may derive a whole new way of interacting that solves even the most dogged team communication traps.
Break through the irritations of email, shared folders and lists
Think about all the things that Project Managers need to collect and share. First, there are project specs, changes, and status. Then there’s diagnosing and solving problems that come up during the life of the project. And, of course, there’s always a need to communicate milestones and accomplishments. For all of the above, the principles of social media can be extremely useful in managing the inflow, interpretation, and outflow of project information.
If you’re new to social media, the benefits will become clearer to you as time passes. Think of it as an opportunity to break through the irritations of traditional methods like crowded email inboxes, hard-to-find shared folders, endless versions of attachments, and email groups where project members get inadvertently excluded and updates get missed.
For example, one of the most rewarding aspects of social media is the ability to create virtual communities where the team can share ideas and monitor all aspects of the project in real time. Communicating in this way builds community, trust and morale among team members (especially important when you have distributed teams collaborating across distances).
Most shared spaces can be easily updated and indexed for later searches. This is often done by the use of tags. Imagine, for example, the team uses the tag or label “#scope” every time there is a conversation about project scope. Then you could simply search for that tag and the entire history of scope-related conversations are brought to the forefront for review as needed.
What today’s popular platforms can teach us
Let’s take a look at some of the most popular social network platforms used today (and then some that are not so pervasive) and see how we can apply these models to our own projects:
Deliver Real-Time News (like Twitter)
Twitter is a strange bird (sorry). At six years old, it has at once remained the same (still 140 characters) yet evolved into so much more than what anyone would have imagined. Twitter has played an incredible array of roles from a few random chirps in the night and geeks talking to geeks to a place for following celebrities, political campaign platforms and even a global news outlet. It’s the last one I find most interesting and perhaps the most useful for our project teams.
More and more we’re hearing stories break on Twitter. Consider citizen-reporting during the uprisings in Iran and Egypt -- stories reported via social media long before traditional media picked them up. It’s news reported by people IN the moment and reported real-time, not relying on a traditional news outlet that has planned to hopefully be at the right place at the right time.
For the same reasons why teams are often more productive when sitting in the same room, Twitter-like communications can serve a team’s need for quick, relevant information. Consider all those one-liner emails that clog your inbox and what it could mean to you if you could subscribe to just the ones of interest?
@projectmanager122: Impromptu demo today at 3pm #clients
@the_it_guy44: QA server getting a drive replacement; will be down 7pm-8pm #tech
@busy_BAgirl: time for a brain break. Foosball in the lounge in 5. #fun
@projectmanager122: AWESOME demo; congrats team #clients
Hashtags, keywords preceded by the # (i.e. #iterations), can be used to index and filter topics. Clicking on a hashtag in a tweet will collect tweets that use the same hashtag, allowing the reader to track conversations. Tools like TweetDeck help users manage multiple conversations at once, by serving as a real-time news dashboard.
If you want fast, short (140 characters max) team interactions with easy indexing of topics, Twitter is a good option. This is a great alternative to group emails in which people can get trapped in an endless chain of irrelevant “Reply to All” responses.
Build a Community (Like Facebook, Yammer or Google+)
Many professionals don’t want Facebook anywhere near their professional life – or vice-versa. Whether you have 10 or 1000 friends, there could be a lot going on with your Facebook timeline, so discerning work-related posts would be tough. However, there is something to be said about that unified space like Facebook’s timeline. Where Twitter is designed more for messages in-the-moment, a Facebook-like timeline brings together the activities of many in a persistent stream. Yammer, Facebook’s sibling in the corporate world, provides a similar space while staying focused on the company.
With Yammer, you can share announcements, create a team calendar of milestones, create pages for different interests, and upload documents. Also consider posting your team norms, latest screenshots of the app for team members to comment on, and sharing video updates or team photos.
Consider capturing project moments in a timeline. Someone out for a day? They can browse the timeline when they get back to see what they’ve missed. Looking to provide real transparency to your stakeholders? Let them see the project timeline to better understand the nature of the work being done. Over the course of an iteration, the timeline can reveal interesting patterns of communication and events, a good reference during a retrospective.
Yammer allows for more in-depth updates as its characters are not as limited as Twitter. Comments can also be grouped into a “thread” beneath each post, allowing for a more conversational tone. If sharing longer messages, conversations, videos or pictures is preferred, Yammer may be a better option.
Create a Free-Form and Flexible Space (like a Wiki)
At around 17 years-old, the Wiki is likely the oldest platform discussed here. It’s original intent, according to its inventor Ward Cunningham, was to be “the simplest online database that could possibly work.” It is a space in which users can add, modify and delete pages and content using a simple markup language. One of the more compelling features of a wiki is that its structure and content is created and maintained by the users themselves as it is grows and is being used. Therefore, there is no “build it and hope they come,” rather it gets built only if someone feels it’s necessary.
Wikis are flexible and can serve as the backbone for a small team’s shared notebook or an entire corporate intranet. You can host a wiki on your own server or use a service company that offers hosted solutions that allow you to sign up and get started immediately. If you want to create a space for your team, but don’t want to dictate how it’s organized or actively manage it as an administrator, a wiki is a good option.
Deliver Material in an Engaging Way (like Vimeo, YouTube and Podcasts)
Studies show that more and more people prefer video to text with certain types of information. Video also creates more of a personal connection which could be particularly useful for distributed teams.
Depending on how polished you want your final product to be, video can introduce quite a bit of work and technical challenges. How do you record your video? Cell phone, laptop camera, video camera? How do you get it from that device online? Is it a big video? Do you have storage? Do people have the right technology to watch it? A newer smartphone combined with YouTube or an Apple computer with the iCloud service are good combinations to keep things simple. Let your audience know your videos are intended to get them better information, sooner and in a more compelling way – and you’re not looking to create the next summer blockbuster. Keep this in mind and you can introduce something fun to your communication mix.
If you have distributed teams, set each group up with the means to create video updates and encourage them to do so on a regular schedule. Not only will your status reports be more engaging, but putting faces to names creates a closer, more respectful team which is invaluable when you hit the inevitable bumps in the road.
Crowdsource Intelligence (like Escort Live Nation)
When thinking about this article, I spent time thinking of all the social networks I’ve participated in. One not-so-well-known network made me realize how much more we can still benefit from social concepts in our working world.
Have you heard of Escort Radar’s Escort Live Nation? If you drive a fast car – or drive a slow car fast – you may want to check it out. Via Bluetooth connected equipment and GPS technology, drivers can report stoplight cameras and speed traps on the road. Those reports are then stored in the cloud. In real-time, other drivers are notified of these reported locations as they approach them. Members of this community are “helping” each other out, gaining more insight and more value the more they participate.
What can our project teams gain from a similar model? What if our team members created alerts when they come upon something worth noting. Maybe they drop a label on a file or part of a document. Perhaps it’s a feature, process or metric that needs to be addressed. As others “approach” this area, they can be made aware that someone else on their team thought something should be looked at. If we could do this in code or documents and aggregate the alerts, would we see patterns that we might otherwise overlook? Every project could use extra help with an early warning system.
Where to next?
When choosing which social concepts to try with your team, first consider the types of problems your team needs to solve and how you like to communicate. If you’re looking to adopt a platform, this information will help you determine your best bets for adoption.
While I know of no tried and true road map for what works best for most teams, agreeing on what to use and developing standards and general guidelines should be the first steps. Use what’s comfortable for your team. Get a sense of what they use outside of work to get a sense of HOW they are communicating.
Use this checklist to gather information from your team as you develop your plan:
How sensitive is the content that would be shared?
Twitter is an example of a platform that offers capabilities to secure tweets and send direct messages away from the public. However, there remains some risk that someone may inadvertently send a message to their public stream. If this is a concern, look toward a closed ecosystem in which you know the content will remain safer. Yammer and a self-hosted Wiki are examples of such private spaces.
Is your communication unidirectional or bidirectional?
If you are looking for a new way to communicate status, Vimeo allows for password-protected videos or setting access to other specific Vimeo accounts. But, if you are looking for a new way to get your entire team talking together, Vimeo’s commenting area isn’t the best fully-interactive community space. Look for a platform with a forum-style area such as a LinkedIn group or Wiki if you want your team to post updates, comment and converse in a free-form way.
Do you have a social platform budget?
While most platforms have versions with basic functionality, tiered pricing can get you more. Gather your list of platforms and tiered pricing structures to get a sense of what it will cost you to get what you need. The pricing alone may dictate where you start.
What platforms do your team members use today?
Sure, there are statistics that tell which demographic is using any given platform, but my experience says “you never know.” Take a poll – not only on what people use, but gage levels of interest in trying something out. Introducing tools always introduces the challenge of adoption, so you may need to think about how to get people engaged once you’ve got the pieces in place.
Keep it Personal or Make it Professional?
Work with your team to determine what information will be shared and whether team members should use their personal accounts or create professional accounts.
While there’s no right or wrong answer, some professionals choose to use one account while others may have several, each serving a different purpose. Again, the key is to determine which route to take and make the rules of engagement clear.
Take the Plunge
Many of the project managers I meet are excited about the prospect of using social concepts to improve team communication. Because most of your team is probably already comfortable with social media, it shouldn’t take too much effort to get everyone on board.
As a former developer, project manager, and client partner, I’ve been around software teams long enough to know that most problems result from communication issues on some level. Social media is an extraordinary opportunity to improve team collaboration at all levels.
Collaboration should be fun and the space should be open for ideas and support. The human predisposition to be social works in your favor since only one person posting updates or commenting on blogs can quickly dampen the collaborative spirit you’re trying to create.
Bottom line: For teams across the organization, from marketing to customer support to IT, social media has already erased the line between personal and professional interactions. Now that the landscape of tools currently available can get you up and going quickly, it’s no longer a matter of when social media will fully integrate itself but how.
Learn more about this topic at Project Summit in Chicago on Nov. 12
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