Don Marti

Sun 17 Apr 2005 08:33:50 PM PDT

Remote collaboration

Marion Vermazen asks, "There is no doubt in my mind that we have to consciously nurture the conversation. And there is no doubt that the network can enormously help. But there is also no doubt that it won't necessarily happen by itself. And it can't be contrived. It isn't a newsletter or regular broadcasts form the boss. It has to be real. So, how DO you foster the conversations that make a group a team?"

(Yes, I read Planet Sun every once in a while.) Anyway, whatever company figures out how to answer that question is going to get a lot of what it aims to do done, and be a good place to work, too. Here are some random observations about social software in business. The number before each one is roughly how sure I am about it, on a scale of 0 to 10.

10 If any e-mail provokes any emotional response in you, pick up the phone. Many people who otherwise have excellent qualities are big blustering idiots in quickly written text. Sometimes I'm one of them. I really didn't write that message to make you mad.

10 Make yourself easily reachable by phone as much as possible, including putting a current phone number in your e-mail .signature -- make it just as easy for the other person to clear the air as to kick off an online argument.

9.5 Avoid "Slash-alike" web boards. They're great for having a free-form discusssion and consuming time, and terrible for actually gathering information, reaching consensus, making a decision, or even seeing the status of an issue. A Slash-alike board is like a library where the books are in order of acquisition.

Free software developers are addicted to writing these boards, but no successful project that I know of uses one for project discussions. There's a reason.

If you want a "newest news on top" Intranet page, put RSS or Atom feeds on your main social software apps and run them through Planet or something.

8 Avoid letting decisions and the documentation behind them sit in someone's private mailbox. Get key data into some kind of collaboration or social software that generates e-mail reminders of changes, such as a BTS.

7.5 Use IRC or instant messaging for meetings, with the meeting's owner responsible for making sure the transcript gets cleaned up and archived somewhere that's secure, available and indexed. (This doesn't mean you don't have to run a well-organized meeting, though. In-person and phone meeting fundamentals still apply.)

7.5 Use a bug tracking system (BTS) -- even if your project isn't software. The great thing about BTSs is that people own issues, issues have priorities, and you know the status of an issue and what a person is working on.

Don't try to make a Slash-alike board or other free-form software do the work of a BTS. Even the lightest-weight BTSs enforce very helpful sanity checks.

7 If you're not using a Wiki, manually edit internal web pages to identify each page's owner.

7 Don't use instant messaging for things you need on an e-mail time scale. IM has all the non-verbal cues of e-mail and all the work-interrupting potential of phone.

"Bob doesn't answer my mail, so I'm going to IM him" isn't the answer. Better to create an issue in the BTS and give it to him.

2 Try a full-featured Wiki for miscelleneous documents. TWiki has a lot of configurability and accountability, so is probably a good one for business use. I haven't set this up, though.