Collaboration tools are fast becoming a superior way to communicate and share knowledge, especially around projects and specialist subjects. The creation of communities that subconsciously curate and value contributions, improving quality and relevance, trumps the data tomb of email in many ways. However, there are lessons from history about how these tools should be deployed.
Often, a collaboration tool is first used by a bunch of cool folk who want to do something different. It’s rarely a corporate edict, like most (all?) innovation it’s driven by a need in a branch of the organisation. People start to see the value, get involved, and the fun starts to snowball. These people are often collaborative by nature, interested in new ways of working and embrace change. Once a critical mass is reached, and higher levels of management get on the bandwagon, tools start to become recommended, or mandated. If you’re not using that tool, they say, you won’t be on the project.
This is the danger point. Let’s go back to 1993, when Usenet was around 10 years old. Usenet, for you young’uns, was the way we communicated on the internet before there was a web, world wide or otherwise. A huge collection of newsgroups on just about every subject, many of them very technical - Usenet was essentially an academic network for much of its early history. The old guard on Usenet used to see a spike in ‘noise’ in September, when freshers went to university, found Usenet and immediately breached all of the ‘netiquette’ that kept the thing ticking over. SHOUTING IN POSTS WAS A CLASSIC ERROR. It usually took a month for this to die down, and everyone got on fine. In 1993 something changed. AOL arrived, sold internet access to the world, and thousands of ‘ordinary’ people started to appear on Usenet. September 1993, for the Usenet old guard, never ended. Usenet became a messy, murky place and ceased to resemble the thing they knew and loved. It was the ‘Eternal September’
When launching a collaboration tool in an organisation, those early adopters mentioned above are the vast majority. They work well together. When the tool becomes mandated, the demographic changes quickly. How to manage this change? Set the rules early on. Let people know why the tool is there, and what it’s to be used for. Use moderation sparingly, but do use it if necessary (especially if people from outside the organisation are involved) and set out the ways that moderation will be applied, for the benefit of everyone not least the moderators. Promote a positive attitude from veterans to the newbies, encourage volunteers to provide help and guidance. The long term use of the technology is more important than the baby steps.
Think about the future of your collaboration effort and plan for it to succeed, and you can avoid Eternal September :)