Reflecting on the “Narrating Your Work” Experiment

A few months back I posted a design for an experiment on my blog. The goal of the experiment was to find out whether it would be possible to use a microblogging tool to narrate our work with the intention of making better performing virtual teams.

Over the last two months, the direct team that I work in (consisting of 18 people) basically participated in the experiment in the way that it was designed: They posted constant, daily or weekly updates on our Yammer network. Each update would describe things like what they had done, who they had spoken to or what issues they had encountered. Occasionally the updates were peppered with personal notes about things had happened or were going to happen after work.

Methodology of the experiment

There was no formal (or academic) research methodology for this working experiment. I decided to use a well-considered survey to get people’s thoughts at the end of it. Out of the 18 team members 17 decided to fill it in (in the rest of the post you can assume that n=17). The one person that didn’t, has taken up another role. This means there is zero bias in who answered and didn’t answer the survey.

I find it more interesting to zoom out and look at the methodology of this experiment as a whole. To me doing things like this is a very good approach to change in the workplace: a grassroots shared experiment with commitment from everybody working towards solutions for complex situations. This is something that I will definitely replicate in the future.

Didn’t this take a lot of time?

One concern that people had about the experiment was whether it would take a lot of time to write these updates and read what others have written. I’ve asked everybody how much time on average they spent writing status updates and reading the updates of others. This turned out to be a little bit less than 5 minutes a day for writing the posts and slightly over 5 minutes a day for reading them. The standard deviations where around 4.5 for both of these things, so there was quite a big spread. All in all it seems that narrating their work is something that most people can comfortably do in the margins of their day.

Barriers to narrating your work

Designing the experiment I imagined three barriers to narrating your work that people might stumble over and I tried to mitigate these barriers:

  • Lack of time and/or priority. I made sure people could choose their own frequency of updates. Even though it didn’t take people long to write the updates, just over 50% of the participants said that lack of time/priority was a limiting factor for how often they posted.
  • Not feeling comfortable about sharing in a (semi-)public space. I made sure that people could either post to the whole company, or just to a private group which only included the 18 participants. Out of the 18, there were two people who said that this was a limiting factor in narrating your work (and three people were neutral). This is less than I had expected, but it is still something to take into account going forward as 12 of the participants decided to mostly post in the private group.
  • Lack of understanding of the tool (in this case Yammer). I made sure to have an open session with the team in which they could ask any question they had about how to use the tool. In the end only three people said that this was a limiting factor for how often they posted.

The qualitative answers did not identify any other limiting factors.

Connectedness and ambient team awareness as the key values

Looking at all the answers in the questionnaire you can clearly see that the experiment has helped in giving people an understanding of what other people in their team are doing and has widened people’s perspectives:

The "Narrating your work" experiment has given me more insight into the work my peers are doing

The "Narrating your work" experiment has given me more insight into the work my peers are doing

The "Narrating your work" experiment has given me a better idea of the scope/breadth of the work that our team is doing and the stakeholders surrounding us

The "Narrating your work" experiment has given me a better idea of the scope/breadth of the work that our team is doing and the stakeholders surrounding us

A quote:

I enjoyed it! I learned so much more about what my colleagues are doing than I would have during a webcast or team meeting. It helped me understand the day-to-day challenges and accomplishments within our team.

and:

The experiment was very valuable as it has proven that [narrating your work] contributes to a better understanding of how we work and what we are doing as a team.

People definitely feel more connected to the rest of their team:

The "Narrating your work" experiment has made me feel more connected to the rest of my team

The "Narrating your work" experiment has made me feel more connected to the rest of my team

There was practical and social value in the posts:

The value of "Narrating your work" is practical: the content is helpful and it is easy to ask questions/get replies

The value of "Narrating your work" is practical: the content is helpful and it is easy to ask questions/get replies

The value of "Narrating your work is intangible and social: it creates an ambient awareness of each other

The value of "Narrating your work is intangible and social: it creates an ambient awareness of each other

A lot of people would recommend “Narrating your work” as a methodology to other virtual teams:

I would recommend "Narrating your work" as a methodology for other virtual teams

I would recommend "Narrating your work" as a methodology for other virtual teams

What kind of status updates work best?

I asked what “Narrating your work” type of update was their favourite to read (thinking about content, length and timeliness). There was a clear preference for short messages (i.e. one paragraph). People also prefered messages to be as close as possible to when it happened (i.e. no message on Friday afternoon about what you did on the Monday). One final thing that was much appreciated was wittiness and a bit fun. We shouldn’t be afraid to put things in our messages that reveal a bit of our personality. Sharing excitement or disappointment humanizes us and that can be important in virtual teams (especially in large corporations).

Personally I liked this well-thought out response to the question:

The best posts were more than simply summing up what one did or accomplished; good narrations also showed some of the lines of thinking of the narrator, or issues that he/she encountered. This often drew helpful responses from others on Yammer, and this is where some some additional value (besides connectedness) lies.

It made me realize that another value of the narrations is that they can lead to good discussions or to unexpected connections to other people in the company. This brings us to the next question:

Public or private posts?

The posts in the private group were only visible to the 18 participants in the experiment. Sometimes these posts could be very valuable to people outside of the team. One of the key things that makes microblogging interesting is the asymmetry (I can follow you, but you don’t have to follow me). This means that posts can be read by people you don’t know, who get value out of it beyond what you could have imagined when posting. What to you might sound like a boring depiction of your morning, might give some stakeholders good insight in what you are doing.

So on the one hand it would be very beneficial to widen the audience of the posts, however it might inhibit people from writing slightly more sociable posts. We need to find a way to resolve this seeming paradox.

A way forward

Based on the experiments results I would like to recommend the following way forward (for my team, but likely for any team):

  • Don’t formalize narrating your work and don’t make it mandatory. Many people commented that this is one aspect that they didn’t like about the experiment.
  • Focus on helping each other to turn narrating your work into a habit. I think it is important to set behavioural expectations about the amount of narrating that somebody does. I imagine a future in which it is considered out of the norm if you don’t share what you are up to. The formal documentation and stream of private emails that is the current output of most knowledge workers in virtual teams is not going to cut it going forward. We need to think about how we can move towards that culture.
  • We should have both a private group for the intimate team (in which we can be ourselves as much as possible) as well as have a set of open topic based groups that we can share our work in. So if I want to post about an interesting meeting I had with some learning technology provider with a new product I should post that in a group about “Learning Innovation”. If have worked on a further rationalization of our learning portfolio I should post this in a group about the “Learning Application Portfolio” and so on.

I liked what one of the participants wrote:

I would like our team to continue as we have, but the important steps to take now are 1) ensuring that we stay in the habit of narrating regularly, 2) showing the value of what we achieved to other teams and team leads, and 3) ensure that there is enough support (best practises etc) for teams that decide to implement [narrating your work].

I have now taken this as far as I have the energy and the interest to take it to. I would really love for somebody to come along and make this into a replicable method for improving virtual teams. Any interns or students interested?

The “Narrating Your Work” Experiment

I have just finished writing a small proposal to the rest of my team. I thought it would be interesting to share here:

Introduction

We work in a virtual team. Even though there aren’t many of us, we often have few ideas about what the other people in our team are working on, which people they have met recently and what they are struggling with. The time difference between our main offices make our occasional feelings of being disconnected worse.

This “Narrating Your Work” experiment is an attempt to help overcome these problems.

If you are interested in some background reading, you should probably start with Luis Suarez’ blog post about narrating your work (”it’s all about the easiest way of keeping up with, and nurturing, your working relationships by constantly improving your social capital skills”) and then follow his links to Dave Winer, ambient intimacy and declarative living.

The experiment

“Narrating Your Work” should really be approached as an experiment. When it was first suggested, some people showed some hesitation or worries. We just don’t know whether and how it will work yet. The best way to find out is by trying. In Dutch: “niet geschoten, altijd mis”.

The experiment will have a clear-cut start and will last for two months. After running the experiment we will do a small survey to see what people thought of it: Did it deliver any benefits? If any to whom? Was it a lot of work to write updates? Did it create too much reading to do? Do we want to continue with narrating our work? Etc.

Three ways of participating

It needs to be clear who is participating in the experiment. If you decide to join, you commit to doing one of the following three things (you are allowed to switch between them and you will be “policed”):

  1. Constant flow of updates: Every time you meet somebody who is not in the team, every time you create a new document or every time you do something that is different from just answering your emails, you will write a very short status update to say what you are doing or what you have done. This will create a true “activity stream” around the things you do at work.
  2. Daily updates: At the end of your day you give a one paragraph recap of what you have done, again focusing on the people you have met, the places you have visited or the things you have created.
  3. Weekly updates: On Friday afternoon or on Monday morning you write an update about the week that has just passed. To give this update some structure, it is suggested that you write about two things that went very well, two things that went less well and two things that are worrying to you (or at least will require attention in the next week).

The first option requires the most guts, whereas the last option requires the most diligence: it is not easy to take the time every week to look back at what happened over the last five working days. Are you the type of person who likes to clean the dishes as the day progresses, or are you the type who likes to leave them till there is nothing clean left? Choosing one of the first two options (rather than the third) will give the experiment the greatest chance of success.

Participation only requires the commitment for writing the updates. You are not expected to read all updates of the others, although you might very well be tempted!

How to do it: making it work

To make the work updates easily accessible we will use Yammer. You can do this in two ways:

  • You can post the work update with the tag #nywlob to your followers. People will see this message when they are following you, when they are watching the company feed or when they follow the nywlob topic.
  • If you don’t feel comfortable posting publicly to the whole company (or want to say something that needs to stay in the team) then you can post in an unlisted and private group. People will only see this message if they are members of the group and we will only let people in who work in the HRIT LoB and have agreed to join the experiment. Posting in this group will limit your chances of serendipity, so the first method is preferred.

When you are posting an update, please think about the people who might be reading it, so:

  • When you refer to a person that is already on Yammer, use the @mention technique to turn their name into a link (and notify them of you mentioning them)
  • If you refer to a person outside of Shell, link to their public LinkedIn profile.
  • If you mention any document or web page, make sure to add the link to the document so that people can take a look at it.

I am very interested in any comments you might have. Does anybody have any experience with this?

Workflow Driven Apps Versus App Driven Workflow

Arjen Vrielink and I write a monthly series titled: Parallax. We both agree on a title for the post and on some other arbitrary restrictions to induce our creative process. This month we write about how the constant flux of new apps and platforms influences your workflow. We do this by (re-)viewing our workflow from different perspectives. After a general introduction we write a paragraph of 200 words each from the perspective of 1. apps, 2. platform and 3. workflow itself. You can read Arjen’s post with the same title here.

Instapaper on my iPhone

Instapaper on my iPhone

To me a workflow is about two things mainly: the ability to capture things and the ability to time-shift. Both of these need to be done effectively and efficiently. So let’s take a look at three separate processes and see how they currently work for me: task/todo management, sharing with others and reading news and interesting articles (not books). So how do I work nowadays for each of these three things?

Workflow
I use Toodledo for my task/todo management. Whenever I “take an action” or think of something that I need to do at some point in the future I fire up Toodledo and jot it down. Each item is put in a folder (private, work, etc.), gets a due date (sometimes with a timed reminder to email if I really cannot forget to do it) and is given a priority (which I usually ignore). At the beginning and end of every day I run through all the tasks and decide in my head what will get done.

For me it important to share what I encounter on the web and my thoughts about that with the rest of the world. I do this in a couple of different ways: explicitly through Twitter, through Twitter by using a Bit.ly sidebar in my Browser, in Yammer if it is purely for work, on this WordPress.com blog, through public bookmarks on Diigo, by sending a direct email or by clicking the share button in Google Reader.

I have subscribed to 300+ RSS feeds and often when I am scanning them and find something interesting and I don’t have the opportunity to read it at that time. I use Instapaper to capture these articles and make them available for easy reading later on. Instapaper doesn’t work with PDF based articles so I send those to a special email address so that I can pick them up with my iPad and save them to GoodReader when it is convenient.

Platform
“Platform” can have multiple meanings. The operating system was often called a platform. When you heavily invested into one platform it would become difficult to do any of your workflows with a different platform (at my employer this has been the case for many years with Microsoft and Exchange: hard to use anything else). Rich web applications have now turned the Internet itself into a workflow platform. This makes the choice for an operating system nearly, if not totally, irrelevant. I regularly use Ubuntu (10.04, too lazy to upgrade so far), Windows Vista (at work) and iOS (both on the iPhone and the iPad). All of the products and services mentioned either have specialised applications for the platform or are usable through any modern web browser. The model I prefer right now is one where there is transparent two-way synching between a central server/service and the different local apps, allowing me access to my latest information even if I am not online (Dropbox for example uses this model and is wonderful).

What I have noticed though, is that I have strong preferences for using a particular platform (actually a particular device) for doing certain tasks. The iPad is my preference for any reading of news or of articles: the “paginate” option on Instapaper is beautiful. Sharing is best done with something that has a decent keyboard and Toodledo is probably used the most with my iPhone because that is usually closest at hand.

Apps
Sharing is a good example of something where the app drives my behaviour very much: the app where I initially encounter the thing I want to share needs to support the sharing means of choice. This isn’t optimal at all: if I read something interesting in MobileRSS on the iPad that I want to share on Yammer, then I usually email the link from MobileRSS to my work email address, once at work I copy it from my mail client into the Browser version of Yammer and add my comments. This is mainly because Yammer (necessarily) has to be a closed off to the rest of the world with its APIs.

Services that create the least hickups in my workflow are those that have a large separation between the content/data of the service and the interface. Google Reader and Toodledo both provide very complete APIs that allow anybody to create an app that accesses the data and displays it in a smart way. The disadvantage of these services is that I am usually dependent on a single provider for the data. In the long term this is probably not sustainable. Things like Unhosted are already pointing to the future: an even stricter separation between data and app. Maybe in that future, the workflow can start driving the app instead of the other way around.

My Top 10 Tools for Learning 2010

CC-licensed photo by Flickr user yoppy

CC-licensed photo by Flickr user yoppy

For this year’s edition of the Top 100 Tools for Learning (a continuing series started, hosted and curated by JaneDuracell BunnyHart of the Internet Time Alliance) I decided to really reflect on my own Learning Process. I am a knowledge worker and need to learn every single day to be effective in my job. I have agreed with my manager to only do very company-specific formal training. Things like our Leadership development programs or the courses around our project delivery framework are so deeply embedded in our company’s discourse that you miss out if you don’t allow yourself to learn the same vocabulary. All other organised training is unnecessary: I can manage myself and that is the only way in which I can make sure that what I learn is actually relevant for my job.

So what tools do I use to learn?

1. Goodreads in combination with Book Depository
The number one way for me personally to learn is by reading a book. When I started as an Innovation Manager in January I wanted to learn more about innovation as a topic and how you could manage an innovation funnel. I embarked on a mission to find relevant books. Nowadays I usually start at Goodreads, a social network for readers. I like the reviews there more than the ones on Amazon and I love the fact that I can get real recommendations from my friends. Goodreads has an excellent iPhone app making it very easy to keep a tab on your reading habits. I found a bunch of excellent books on innovation (they will get a separate post in a couple of weeks).
My favourite book store to buy these books is Book Depository (please note that this is an affiliate link). They have worldwide free shipping, are about half the price of the book stores in the Netherlands and ship out single books very rapidly.

2. Twitter and its “local” version Yammer
Ever since I got an iPhone I have been a much keener Twitter user (see here and guess when I got the iPhone). I have come to realise that it is a great knowledge management tool. In recent months I have used it to ask direct questions to my followers, I have used it to follow live news events as they unfold, I have searched to get an idea of the Zeitgeist, I have used it to have a dialogue around a book, and I have used it as a note taking tool (e.g. see my notes on the Business-IT fusion book, still available thanks to Twapperkeeper).
Yammer is an enterprise version of Twitter that is slowly taking off in my company. The most compelling thing about it is how it cuts across all organizational boundaries and connects people that can help each other.

3. Google
Google does not need any introduction. It is still my favourite search tool and still many searches start at Google. I have to admit that those searches are often very general (i.e. focused on buying something or on finding a review or a location). If I need structured information I usually default to Wikipedia or Youtube.

4. Google Reader
I have about 300 feeds in Google Reader of which about 50 are in my “first read” category, meaning I follow them religiously. This is the way I keep up with (educational) technology news. What I love about Google Reader is how Google has made a very mature API available allowing people to write their own front-end for it. This means I can access my feeds from a native iPhone app or from the web or from my desktop while keeping the read counts synchronised. Another wonderful thing is that Google indexes and keeps all the feed items once you have added the feeds. This means that you can use it to archive all the tweets with a particular hash tag (Twitter only finds hash tags from the last two weeks or so when you use their search engine). Finally, I have also used Google Reader as a feed aggregator. This Feedburner feed, for example, was created by putting three different feeds in a single Google Reader folder (more about how to do that in a later post).

5. Wikipedia (and Mediawiki)
The scale of Wikipedia is stupefying and the project still does not seem to run out of steam. The Wikimedia organization has just rolled out some enhancements to their Mediawiki software allowing for easier editing. The openness of the project allows for people to build interesting services on top of the project. I love Wikipanion on my iPhone and I have enthusiastically used Pediapress a couple of times to create books from Wikipedia articles. I find Wikipedia very often (not always!) offers a very solid first introduction to a topic and usually has good links to the original articles or official websites.

6. Firefox
Even though I have written earlier that I was a Google Chrome user, I have now switched back and let Mozilla’s Firefox be the “window” through which I access the web. This is mainly due to two reasons. The first being that I am incredibly impressed with the ambitions of Mozilla as an organization. Their strategy for making the web a better place really resonates with me. The other reason is Firefox Sync, allowing me to use my aliased bookmarks and my passwords on multiple computers. I love Sync for its functionality but also for its philosophy: you can also run your own Sync server and do not need to use Mozilla’s and all the sync data is encrypted on the server side, needing a passphrase on the client to get to it.

7. LinkedIn
It took a while before I started to see the true benefits of LinkedIn. A couple of weeks ago I had a couple of questions to ask to people who have experience with implementing SAP Enterprise Learning in large organizations. LinkedIn allowed me to search for and then contact people who have SAP Enterprise Learning in their profile in some way. The very first person that I contacted forwarded me on to a SAP Enterprise Learning discussion group on LinkedIn. I asked a few questions in that forum and had some very good public and private answers to those questions within days. In the past I would only have access to that kind of market information if SAP would have been the broker of this dialogue or if I would buy from analysts like Bersin. LinkedIn creates a lot of transparency in the market place and transparency is a good thing (especially for customers).

8. WordPress (including the WordPress.com network) and FocusWriter
Writing is probably one of the best learning processes out there and writing for other people is even better. WordPress is used to publish this post, while I use a simple cross-platform tool called FocusWriter to give me a completely uncluttered screen with just the words (no menus, window edges or status bars!). WordPress is completely free to use. You can either opt for a free (as in beer) hosted version that you can set up within seconds on http://www.wordpress.com or you can go the free (as in speech) version where you download the application, modify it to your needs and host it where you want. If I was still a teacher now, this would be the one tool that I would let all of my students use as much as possible.

9. Youtube
The quantity of videos posted on Youtube is not comprehensible. It was Rob Hubbard who first showed me how you could use the large amount of great tutorials to great effect. He rightfully thought: Why would I put a lot of effort into developing a course on how to shoot a great video if I can just link to a couple of excellent, well produced, short, free videos that explain all the most important concepts? The most obvious topics to learn about are music (listening to music and learning how to play music) and games (walkthroughs and cheat codes) , but there are already lots of great videos on other topics too.

10. Moodle and the community on Moodle.org
Moodle is slowly slipping to the bottom of my list. In the last few years a lot of my professional development was centred around Moodle and I still owe many of the things I know about educational technology, open source and programming/systems administration to my interactions in the forums at Moodle.org. Two things are the cause for Moodle being less important to my own learning:
1. I now have a job in which I am tasked to try and look ahead and see what is coming in the world of enterprise learning technology. That is a broad field to survey and I have been forced to generalise my knowledge on the topic.
2. I have become increasingly frustrated with the teacher led pedagogical model that all Virtual Learning Environments use. I do believe that VLEs “are dead”: they don’t fully leverage the potential of the net as a connection machine, instead they are usually silos that see themselves as the centre of the learning technology experience and lack capabilities to support a more distributed experience.

Previous versions of my Top 10 list can be found here for 2008 and here for 2009. A big thank you again to Jane for aggregating and freely sharing this hugely valuable resource!