By Michael Klynstra
For many people (myself included), social networking online has become as much of a part of daily life as passing colleagues in the hallway at the office. Social networks have gone far beyond the idea of Twitter as a place where people tweet about mundane daily activities. (Though you’ll still see that.)
By taking a step back from tweets and timelines and looking at how information is shared, aggregated and used, we can learn a lot about how social networks are modeled. If we overlay these models onto our project teams and how we interact with clients, we may derive new ways of interacting with one another and address the most persistent project team communication traps.
Social vs. Shared Folders
Think about all the things that project managers need to collect and share. First, there are project specs, changes, and status, followed by diagnosing and solving problems that come up during the project. And there’s always a need to communicate milestones and accomplishments. The principles of social media can be extremely useful in managing the inflow, interpretation and outflow of all of this project information.
For example, social media offers 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 – which is 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.
This is obviously more efficient than traditional team communication methods like hard-to-find shared folders, endless versions of attachments, and email groups where project members get inadvertently excluded and updates are missed.
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 more than what anyone would have imagined. For the same reasons why teams are often more productive while sitting in the same room, twitter-like communications can serve a team's need for quick, relevant information. Consider all the one-liner emails clogging your inbox and what it could mean to you if could subscribe just to ones of interest.
Hashtags, keywords preceded by the # symbol, 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 – because it's tough to view work-related posts in crowded timelines. However, there is something to be said about the unified space the timeline offers. Where Twitter is designed more for in-the-moment messages, 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 than Twitter.
Create a Free-Form, Flexible Space (Like a Wiki)
At around 17 years old, the wiki is the oldest platform discussed here. Its 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 and YouTube)
Studies show that many 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.
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 producing 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 came 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 examined. 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.
In a follow-up article, I'll look at how you can select the right social tools for your project teams.
Michael Klynstra, director of marketing at custom software development company Geneca, thrives on identifying patterns in chaos and creating simplicity where complexity has taken root. A marketer with a background in science and the arts and experience in software delivery and operations, his specialties include marketing automation, social media, creative direction and brand management.