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We love the digital workplace, with all the potential and advances it offers. But with these benefits comes a dark side, and that dark side is called Digital Workplace Chaos (DWC). 

Chances are you’ve experienced it yourself. A plethora of new tools and overlapping features which, we are told, will simplify our jobs, only to find they make them more complex. So many new tools, so many things to get your head around.

Social collaboration, that carefree (and standards-free) new kid on the block, bears significant responsibility for this. Groups, workspaces, wiki-style documents, personal blogs, profile pages, yet more ways of sharing content and proliferating knowledge.

Collaboration platform vendors rush in to provide new and easy-to-use features, compounding the clutter and uncertainty. And what if everyone decides their own strategy on what to use, when? Which of course, in the absence of guidance, they do. It's human nature.

I've seen firsthand the headaches DWC brings on. It can severely undermine that significant investment you've made in a digital workplace designed to keep your organization agile and competitive in the modern world.

Meet Governance, Your New Best Friend

So let's talk about governance — the "G" word — and how it can help prevent DWC.

Governance of conventional intranets is well understood but geared towards one-way publishing — content standards, audits, review processes, centers of excellence, all underscored by compliance. 

Governance of IT systems is even more straightforward, offering rules around usage of systems so that they don’t physically fail — allowable file types, maximum numbers of sites or Groups, courses of action for outages, some rudimentary software training. Everyone understands IT governance. Organizations do that in their sleep.

How, though, do you govern social collaboration, which abhors content constraints and whose raison d'etre is to move knowledge faster? How do you manage a crowd so that all voices are heard but it doesn't become a noisy mob?

The answer is you don't. You guide it.

'G' is for governance but also for guidance. Time and again, surveys asking staff to identify their key challenge with social collaboration tools expose a common theme: lack of clarity on which features and functions should be used for which task. 

The solution isn't to force a set of rules down people’s throats, which many will circumvent anyway, but to guide people through the maze of tools available to them so they understand how each tool best fits their relevant workflows or processes. 

Governance as an Enabler, Not a Controller 

Let me say it explicitly: governance of a collaboration platform is a support function, not a rule book. A Terms of Use charter (legal obligations) and a Terms of Service statement (here's how you behave) should be present, but ultimately people don't need or like to be told what's obvious — e.g., "Be Courteous" or "DON'T POST OR COMMENT IN UPPER CASE." They are looking for support and guidance.

What does guidance look like? 

Well, a clear rationale around each tool is a good start. Not as a set of rules, but a set of best practice recommendations based on common sense. A simple tools guide, where staff can see how each tool fits into a business process and, more generally, the broader organizational universe. 

Criteria for when to send an email message versus posting something publicly so others can see it, and why. Where to post project updates, or ideas, or a stimulating reference article. Think about a File Plan which explains which information is better stored in a managed document repository, which information is OK for wikis and which information is short term and can be shared in conversations.

These are all simple decisions that people are forced to angst over every day because they simply don’t know. In my experience, staff want this guidance. They want easily-understood context and they want clarity so they can keep their heads clear and focus on their real jobs. They don’t want constant, underlying tool anxiety.

Your middle management tier must set the example, constantly reinforcing the guidance through action, not words. A set of Help pages on the intranet does not tick the guidance box. We are talking about living, breathing, everyday reinforcement that will turn these habits into a sound, ongoing collaborative culture.

You will never gain one hundred percent compliance, but nor would you from a set of rules. The important thing is that you’re trusting your people to make intelligent decisions based on the guidance, and as such, are much more likely to get their buy-in. 

Governance Processes

Guides and recommendations are not the only manifestation of governance. Simple processes are also needed for chaos prevention, such as a gating process for new Groups or Workspaces. This must be seen not as a constraint but as a trade-off: A small inconvenience to avoid the inevitable explosion in the number of places to dump information. 

Vendors make it very easy to create these workspaces, but it has a cost — Digital Workplace Chaos. Don’t apologize to users for the inconvenience. Asking teams to wait half a day for a new group or workspace while someone checks if similar groups already exist isn’t a huge imposition.

Good governance requires some resources to manage the above, but it’s a small price to pay compared to clean up and reset costs. And you can be creative. Think about setting up a network of local group owners who can cascade the guidance locally, and while they're at it, run the gating process for their local business area. 

Governance Requires Agreement

Every area of an organization has different and often competing imperatives, so someone with tenacity and diplomacy is needed to tease out the commonalities around tools and governance processes. I’ve witnessed well-intentioned governance initiatives teeter at this point, simply through lack of will — the difficulty of gaining stakeholder agreement seen as too great. But this critical success factor of good governance can't be shirked.

This only scratches the surface of governance of social collaboration platforms. But hopefully two things have stood out: Firstly, its primary objective is the prevention of Digital Workplace Chaos.

Secondly, its public face should be a mentor and coach who offers support and guidance, not a police person imposing and administering a set of rigid rules. 

Title image by Jenelle Ball