It's not often you get to start a new job that hasn't been done before. In January 2013, I set about building my new role as our College's very first Director of Strategic Organizational Initiatives. Instead of doing this behind closed doors, I made a concious choice to do this in plain view, for all to see, and encouraging collaboration using our internal yammer location. With just over one year into this experiment, there are some lessons.
How do new jobs/positions get created? When many organizations appear to use cookie cutter job classifications and replicate position descriptions across whole enterprises (e.g, Assistant, Associate & Full Professors on just about every college campus) how does an institution differentiate itself (particularly if structurally, they all look pretty much the same)?
As this isn't my first time around the block in a brand new position, I thought I would test the new technology & social media platforms, to determine if there might be a better way to craft a new position than simple replication or hammering out some elements to a position description in isolation, behind closed doors. In effect, I wanted to open source my new job, and invite people into the process of both a) building the content - the "what" of what I do, and b) allow them a way into viewing the daily process of getting that work done - the "how" of what I do.
I have dabbled with the use of wikis and social media as I supervised my prior team, but the platforms were never public - open to the entire operation, minimally, let alone the world. I have also been an advocate of social media platforms (and an avid user), particularly as a means of boosting transparency and enabling collaboration. If putting "everyone on the same page" is a goal, that should render more efficiencies out of any system, perhaps it was time to give it a try. Effectively, it was time to "put my money where my mouth is."
So, with the practice of past experience in my back pocket, I decided that it was time to open up a new "office," and this office would be a wiki. I would then broadcast the contents periodically and invite participation using social media tools. It was time to see if this would really work.
In January (2013), I was moved from my long standing position with the College of Business into a new role as our first "Director of Strategic Organizational Initiatives." This position doesn't exist on many college campuses.
For the past few years, I have been working with our Downtown Campus team to develop an internal wiki and social media combination and I decided to bust the experiment open a bit wider. The new position was so new and pliable, that rather than build out the functions in the traditional way, I decided to build out my role as I went, in plain view, for all to see, and to use social media (yammer specifically) to broadcast my efforts. As such, I've created a working laboratory, experimenting with myself to determine if working in public is better than working in traditional ways.
4 March 2014 Update
Given that this experiment is now 421 days old, I'm long over due for a quality update. With just over a year into the position, I've had some mixed results.
So far, it works like this:
As I develop different initiatives that are situated within the scope of my responsibilities, I post the content (much like a blog post) on the wiki I created using my google account (sites.google.com). Time lines, strategic plans, project mangement milestones and the like are worth posting. Access to the wiki was completely open (I do have a creative commons license on the location). I have a small number of staff members who have indicated they wanted more access, which I granted (setting their permissions accordingly).
Much of my daily work is rather mundane. Not worthy of broadcast to the Univesrity Yammer location. On the days when I reach certain milestones or accomplisments, I post the results to our Yammer location. This can be in the form of pushing out some of the content to a note page on the yammer tool directly, or encouraging people to click over to a link on the wiki. Occasionally, some of the content has been modified by other staff members (in different colleges even). In the main, participation in my work by others has been minimal.
While originally the intent was to keep the wiki open to the public, I have tucked it back behind the protection of passwords for only people with whom I work directly for two reasons.
- I found that the rest of the world didn't seem to pay too much attention, even despite my cross posting updates and links to those pages on my LinkedIn profile (in addition to Yammer).
- Because I'm using the wiki mainly to boost transparency internally, there are some sensitive conversations that couldn't happen on the location if they were available to the whole world.
In the long run, my bet is that we will all lose our puritanical sense of what may or may not be sharable on line that we will want to turn the whole site back to viewable by the whole world, but that point is not now. Given that the links to the location are no longer active, I'm attaching a current screen shot to give you a sense of the front page and navigation.
I always say to folks new to google sites that if they can operate any sort of Microsoft product, they are probably overqualified to edit the wiki and generally don't need to over think it too much. I'm not an overly creative type, but I try to blend my joy of photography into the development of the wiki. The images I use are all taken by my mobile, and while aesthetically have some appeal (at least to me) there should be some resonance for the folks who watch the pages because they come from about the campus.
The categories/columns at the bottom of the above screen shot are "annoucements" from pages located below the main page and bring to the fore the most recent projects I'm working on, and developments as they unfold. Where you able to click on the links you would see all the developments in each of the different functional areas right from the first post to the most recent.
Over time, my responsibilities have changed and expanded to include handling all the logistics of our maintenance of AACSB accreditation effort as well as supervising the technology team here at the College of Business. In turn, I've created two new wikis to compartmentalize the work I'm doing in these areas.
Now, you might ask, why didn't Aaron just create a new page on the SOI (Strategic Organizational Initiatives) wiki instead of generating new wikis. Good question.
What I've found is that, for the time being, people appreciate having a space of their own. As we build out more robust locations over time, we can simply link the different wiki locations at a later point. Also, I've found that as poeple take ownership of "their" wiki, they tend to participate more on the platform rather than on some generic wiki that doesn't direclty apply.
For example, I've got a fairly robust Strategic Technology Group (STG) wiki rolling where we are collaborating to build out our complete Technology Plan for the whole College, as well as collaborate on generating technology solutions for the whole operatoin. See screen shot below:
While the style is familiar - navigation on the left, announcement columns at the bottom, etc... you will notice different categories, inclusive of the agenda and notes from our team meetings. This presents an opportunity to paint a good example of the levered advantage of "working in plain view" versus just using the tools to report and broadcast.
In the old model, the manager types up an agenda and tells every one to show up ready to discuss. Instead, I typically draft a meeting agenda a few days in advance, and then send out the link asking all team members to view, add or subtract items. Because every one on the STG team has editorial privilege, the different individuals will add and subtract items as necessary. This is particularly liberating both as some one who leads these meetings, but for the people involved as no longer am I the sole proprietor of the meeting. The whole team "owns" the agenda. It took them a while to get used to this custom, but now each person on the team often add things to the meeting that they identify as urgent from their view. Turns out, that it was likely I had no knowledge of what those concerns might be until they bring them up.
In effect, by giving away authority to set the agenda for our team meetings, I've boosted the power of the whole team. More importantly, we don't miss any important items because I might have been too removed from the front lines to know enough to put them on the agenda.
Each team member has his (and like many tech teams, there are just men on the team right now) own project segment to the wiki as well. So, rather than having meetings where we simply update and report, we post the work on-going, and short cut longer debriefing in favor of spending more time discussing the way forward to making the correct decision. I'm including a screen shot of my portion so you can see how this page is different from the front entry point. I put myself on the (bottom) project page for two reasons 1) doing so puts all the work I'm doing in plain view for the whole team removing the mystery as to what "the boss" is working on, and 2) because I'm part of the team, it puts the projects I'm working on at the same level as the other team members projects demonstrating that this not a cloaked means of oversight and mechanism for accountability more than it is a place to report, collaborate, and get assistance from the rest of the team - and eventually the world (when we are eventually comfortable enough pushing this out with the proper permissions).
Perhaps the best example of the power of the wiki to boost collaboration comes from our effort to build out a complete College Strategic Technology Plan. Putting every one on the same page allows us to see each others' work as well as include others in the effort. I've contracted with two of our Executive MBA students who are currently taking their Information Technology Management Course to assist with the Strategy build. By simply giving them editorial permission on the wiki, they are going to help us build out our whole approach to the coming fiscal and academic year.
The levered advantage is that with editorial permission, our Executive MBA consulting team can dig as far back into the past as they like, see all the conversation we've recorded on the wiki (threaded with comments as well), and pull whatever they need into the development of our strategy. They don't have to spend hours having me walk them through the developments thus far.
In terms of sharing developments on our Yammer location, i've found it's much more useful to use the rss feed function where you can set your notifications so that any time there is an update or change on the wiki, you receive an email. All the folks who are working with me on these pages are using this functionality to stay up to speed as well. This negates the need to update on the yammer page (particularly given that we are not open to the world at this point). As such, I have stopped making regular updates on Yammer, as well as LinkedIn, but if you want to create an ongoing record of your professional accomplishments for the world to see you might consider using LinkedIn to boost your profile rather than simply use Yammer because the Yammer platform is proprietary (for use by people within your work outfit, mainly).
To close out this update, I'll share with you one experience I had while the SOI wiki was open for all. I had posted the results of our CSU Student Research Competition last February (2013) on the wiki as I was particularly proud as part of my job was to coordinate our regional run off competition and our two students went on to place very well in the Statewide competition. After posting the results, and then posting the link to Yammer, another tech person who pays attention to the Yammer feed, whom I did not know very well, hit the links. Come to find out, I had some of the details wrong on some of the other entries. He corrected them for me! How's that for synergy? Saved us both time and effort, and fixed the problem as soon as it was noticed.
One question you may have is, boy, I'll bet Aaron spends a whole lot of time documenting and reporting his work rather than getting actual work done. Fair enough.
What I've found is that using a wiki and then posting on social media takes much less time if it becomes more than just a means of reporting the work you do and broadcasting to others. Over the course of the year or so that I've been working this experiment, using these tools have become THE way I choose to do work.
Instead of turning on my computer of creating word documents or spread sheets, I open a browser and create web pages or google docs. A word document stuck on a hard drive doesn't do any one much good, particularly if you need others to collaborate on it. A web page or yammer post or note or google document has a url, and can be set to allow others to edit right as soon as they log in.
Using these tools and working in plain view is less about reporting and documentation - which it is significantly a very useful way to CYA. It's more about generating a culture of and place for collaboration by"widening the circle of involvement" to as large a chunk of the organization or world as you can tolerate. It shouldn't go unnoticed that because this work is in the cloud, the end users are allowed to chime in on the work using whatever means she/he can access the internet.
If for example, one of your buildings gets shut down for an emergency, you don't get stuck with all of your work inaccessible, locked in an office with no clear date by which they may become accessible. The goods are in the air, and as long as you have a viable internet connection, you can make progress (and do it from a mobile platform, if you like).
I'll close this update with one final image so you can see how I'm wrangling my area of responsibility for our maintenance of accreditation effort. This is a separate wiki that is shared with people from across the whole college - including faculty members - who will be assisting in the documentation of our good work and the build out of the reports necessary for submission to the AACSB. I'm using both a wiki and google documents to make this happen. In essence, it's a way to chart all the progress in real time, which when it comes time to finalize the reports, we simply have to do a quick search for whatever details we are looking for, reach back into the wiki and then determine which pieces might at great value to the deliverable.
There are a number of challenges working in such an open fashion. First of all, any mistakes you make are immediately registered in the public sphere (even before you come to know them as #fail). This is both a plus and a minus. On the minus side, you can be immediately branded a buffoon. On the plus side, you know about your mistakes sooner than most people even dare to learn they've fumbled. In the long run, I'm betting that having the "viewing public" point out your flaws sooner than later, the more time you have to rectify the error, or at least provide some much needed janitorial services on what ever isle you have made a mess.
Let me give you one example, with out too much detail so that we don't identify the different players and embarrass us all over again. At one point early in the experiment, a report was distributed that I thought was handy and useful and could particularly be useful for others on the team. I posted it to the wiki and then appended it to our Yammer location. Come to find out that the report wasn't fully vetted and ready for publication. My boss was furious having heard from on high that the report was available. The upside here was that, if I hadn't pushed out the document to the Yammer location, the document could have been "leaked" out further than just our proprietary circle. While it didn't feel good to have my intentions questioned and my actions called into question, the pain of the memory has subsided and we take this #fail as a lesson that demonstrates the challenges inherent in working in plain view.
There is a caveat: There is no rug under which you can sweep the mess. Invariably, you have to clean up swiftly, as the "veiwing public" likes to know that you've fixed what you have broken. Moreover, the speed with which you take corrective action should directly correlate to the feeling of urgency of the person who pointed out whatever err. The more urgent some one articulates that a problem must be fixed, the more swiftly you should generate a solution (or at least a response as if you can justify sticking with a course of action, you should provide the rationale as to why you are staying the course).
Another more obvious problem is that, in the daily toiling away on your job, you interface with people who would much rather remain anonymous. These individuals are particularly concerned if they are swept up into the connundrum above - where she/he was a co-conspiritor to the mess you just fixed. I'm not particularly sure how to solve this problem, as I'm in favor of pointing out the perpetrators of problems as well as the perpetrators of solutions (let's not personify organizations, but really own our own behaviors here).
There is deeper trouble to get into when those that get swept into it are "higher ups," as they often view their reputations as being tarnished unnecessarily (which may be an indicator of a lack of humility at the higher levels, where they believe their reputations are necessarily lashed to supposedly infallible behavior that only stears the organizations they lead to success, and they should dodge responsiblity for errors).
Perhaps the largest benefit is that I'm tracking my progress on the various strategic initiatives in an on going way. Inasmuch as I can accurately track my work, next year at this time, I will be able to look back on years past to measure how far we have come. Likewise, I can see the mistakes and successes made so a) I can amplify the capaticity to succeed, and b) minimize repetition of mistakes.
It is tempting to measure success in this little experiment by number of hits or likes on the different yammer posts, or the counting the number of times some one else views (I have woven google analytics on the wikie as well) the site. This is a bit of a red herring. Numbers aren't important unless the content improves or the outsomes have better applicability because of the interactions.
In the end, my hope is that my little experiment paves the way for a bigger shift in the culture of our operation where people no longer work in isolation and silos, behind closed doors if you will. When every one in a specific position has their own wiki - or uses Yammer to house work related progress - and interacts socially, boosting collaboration, we will have witnessed a complete shift in the culture of our work - our whole operation.
In effect, by "working in plain view" we move from a collection of individuals isolated in our own areas (a nominal team) to a connected web where work is a dynamic, interactive hive of activity both in person and online (excellent functional team). Not unlike tearing down office walls and moving employees into one common room, when there are no digital walls, separation between the ranks is eliminated and even the CEO is in the scrum, we will have seen a radical transformation to "working in plain view" that will have an indelible imprint on whole operations and the culture of people engage with one another at work.
Now that I have had some time to work in this way, I've learned some things that may hopefully short cut the painful parts of learning for yourself. Some of these statements are forward thinking, and like the usual SEC disclaimers, I have to add my own here: my success or lack of success following or not following the advice herein is not an indicator or promise of future success or lack thereof. To wit, it would be great when you try out some of these ideas yourself, please post your experiences as a comment to this post so that we might all learn from your application of them as well.
- It takes courage to conduct your work in public. Because these tools are relatively new, like all pioneers, one has to be willing to take some blows to the back (or from all sides) along the way.
- You must be brave enough to make mistakes in public because you will, as the slogan "fail big and fail fast" is in play here. If, in order to create a more robust organizational life, we agree that we must "move fast and break things," eventually it will become okay to do so minimizing the chutzpah needed to run such experiments.
- Remain humble. Inasmuch as you will get critics and friends alike commenting and offering feedback on how to "improve" your work, you must remain open to learning from all ranks of your organization.
- Working in public runs completely contrary to the proprietary mode of operating where "knowledge" is power and people mistakenly assume that if you let out the "secrets," you lose power. The inverse is actually more true.
- In fact, as you share your work, your power (and the power of the whole organization collectively) grows exponentially.
- This goes to one of my fundamental tenets - proprietary wisdom is neither.
- Because there is a perceived threat to individual power, many will resist; mainly in the form of non-participation.
- Seek forgiveness rather than permission. Because we auto-screen our actions before we take them, if you are not necessarily overly worried about potentially making mistakes, the filters that ordinarily inhibit bold action are diminished allowing you to take more powerful steps.
- You must be bold, as the very top of your operation will be threatened by their firm belief that working in public threatens the "security" of the organization.
- Social is Essential. In the old Millennium, social media was a distraction; largely seen as a time waster at work and many operations would block the various domain names so that people couldn't even log into them. In the new Millennium, social is a critical asset in your tool box for how you get work done.
- Don't ignore new platforms as they emerge, because it pays to be fluent as you interact with others. Because there is no telling what new platform will emerge to make, say Facebook look like MySpace, becoming fluent in the modes of communicating via the different social media platforms is a skill one should constantly hone. It may even become a factor by which hiring and promotion decisions will get made.
- Mistakes are good, not actions that require swift punishment. In the old Millennium, mistakes were bad and the person who made them typically executed (or held accountable in what would usually be considered a negative way). In the new, mistakes are powerful points of learning opportunity, and the sooner you discover them the sooner you learn and grow and improve.
- Listen closely and constantly. Playing on socially connected platforms means you cannot simply open up your window and log in once a day. Social only assists when you are paying attention, because it's only when you listen that you swiftly discover your mistakes (and successes) as your followers are almost always quick to point them out.
- Mistakes that go viral amplify the urgency by which you must solve the problem.
- Failure to clean up the errors you commit can be fatal (cost you your job or kill the organization), but if you prove you addressed them in positive, powerful and swift ways, you can become a hero/heroine in the wake of what ordinarily would have been a disaster.
- There are many who don't believe in the transformative properties of working socially and they will try to clamp down, but mainly, they will demonstrate this by not joining in (on the platform or logging in to help you edit a wiki).
- In settings where image management and corporate communications are tightly monitored, the assumption that mistakes or exposure of one's laundry in public is harmful makes the upper echelon nervous, and they can come down hard.
- Expect to be chastised even while you feel like you are ahead of the times. The first confrontation can hurt (sometimes hurt a lot), but turn the other cheek.
- Repeated repudiation of your use of social tools can dampen your courage to continue in transparent ways. So, don't let repeated chastisement numb your ability to make good choices about what to share.
- In the old Millennium, reputation was something to be managed and controlled, never mind the exhaustion such reputation management causes. In the new Millennium, we are liberated knowing that transparency makes visible all honest, caring and upstanding actions by which your followers will use to form the basis of their own conclusions about your reputation.
- Because truth is a slave to perception and not vice versa, your intent and actions should be motivated by rock-solid integrity. Make decisions to behave based on honesty and good judgement (as opposed to run amok with dishonesty or greed) and similar upstanding values improve your followers capacity for forgiveness in the wake of any errors made (particularly if you fix them when pointed out).
- Working in plain view shrinks or can even eliminate the rumor mill. Because you have taken off the "reputation management blinders," you worry more that the truth gets out sooner than later, rather than work diligently to ensure that the truth is hidden because you are worried the truth will tarnish your reputation.
- Pretty soon, it's all going mobile. So, you might as well go their first. Later in this experiment, I started making posts to our yammer location from my mobile phone. Not only does that save time later as you don't have to log it later, but it means your followers know what you know, lickity split.
- Change is quickened. If your team was paying attention to your posts, they would know what you know sooner than later. More importantly, critical information that you just learned can be shared with one simple post & then your team (which may be disbursed) can immediately inform their work, possibly changing instantly when necessary.
- You waste less time updating people in meetings (or individually) because they already know. If they have been paying attention to your feeds (via rss or on yammer), you can short cut the traditional reporting meetings where you have people go around the room and you spend half your meeting discussing developments since the last meeting. Meetings, instead, can be dedicated to making decisions and putting together collabortive plans rather than simply putting people to sleep with "updates."
- Mistakes by others that you post to your web location, as you may have even mistakenly thought them NOT to be mistakes, are amplified as well and the consequences are compounded.
- But there is an upside. Because you make your mistakes in the open, you often find out sooner than later that you made them, and they can be rectified more swiftly than if you made them in a traditional fashion. In fact, the general upside is even better than you would think in that because mistakes are open and amplified, if enough people are paying attention, you can discover your most egregious errors very swiftly because they may go viral.
- Solutions to your mistakes can come from the most unexpected places. In the old Millennium, your mistakes were theoretically made in private, but you've effectively limited the number of people that you can commit to helping you solve the problem. This can exacerbate those mistakes & maybe lead to more follow-on mistakes. In the new Millennium, by opening up the office, your solutions providers are as large as you can muster. Solutions may even present themselves amidst the diatribe of comments that point out the err of your ways. In doing so, you may find you've shortcut a seriously long firefighting situation and been able to extinguish that fire well ahead of when you thought you would be out of hot water.
- The good news is that institutional memory is even shorter than before. The bad news is that institutional memory is even shorter than before. This means that people forget what you did last week because they are more than ever, working in the present.
- Fortunately, "the weakest ink is better than the strongest memory." This means that data analytics - qualitative as well as quantitative - is going to become even more crucial than ever before. As we become more comfortable working in the open, big data analytics are going to become vital to our operation, and this means any analysis algorythm you deploy will be crucial. It's much easier to do a quick search, using a small set of parameters and voila, you see what you were doing 3.2 years ago, and because you logged your moves on the wiki, you can review the whole case. This may get you a better solution this go around, and help you avoid making the same mistakes twice or repeating history you don't want to repeat.
- Transparency enables better decision making by the folks in your organization. Really, this whole experiment is all about sensemaking (see any of Karl Weick's work on the subject). The reason you want to be transparent is to ensure that your whole operation, minimally, and the rest of the world possibly, has the capacity to make sense of what you are doing and avoid taking action based on false negatives or false positives. After all, the whole point of working in an organization is to spur others to action.
Make a mistake - no problem, as long as you correct your errors. Do good in the world on a daily basis, and the world has a chance to lean in on your operation - effectivley become a fly on the wall - and understand why you are doing what you are doing. Operating in secrecy fosters suspicion, rumors and speculation.
Transparency leads to knowledge expansion, understanding, eliminates rumors and feeds a decision making process that is more informed, intelligent, resilient, and has a built in bullshit meter that you can't afford to deploy internally and really isn't available in the market place. If you are thinking something, putting it out there for the world to see is a bit of a risk, but it's one worth taking because your customers and your colleagues and your bosses are all wanting to point out when you are wrong.
In the final analysis, the practice of maintaining a transparent office keeps you humble because no matter how important and vital you think the work you are doing is, it's the audience that will dictate what's important or will trend or go viral. Even more to the point, you will find out that it's very difficult to even get any one to pay attention to your tweets let alone pop over to your post via the link. If you get any notice at all, you will rejoice be it positive or negative.
I'm not sure if there are any other co-conspiritors out there on this hack, but the work (and mistakes herein) is/are my own.