Thursday, 27 December 2007

Intranets: the tech-head perspective

This interesting post over at 37signals is effectively the company polling its universe of customers and friends over possibilities in the intranet software market. That's an interesting communications exercise in itself, but I link to it because it suggests (in line with a previous post here) that the concept of "an intranet" is not in good shape.

What comes out of the "tech-head" perspective is that no-one has come out with an earth-shaking software product as yet, but Microsoft Sharepoint seems to be edging into an industry lead.

Sharepoint's special value is in facilitating collaboration over documents (through the integration with MS Office apps.) It also includes things like RSS and blogs.

To me, the lessons for IC types are:

1) People will choose and stick with communication channels that make their life easier. There's a lot of talk about the possibilities around "new social media" in IC, but that will inevitably involve technology choices. The right medium is one that people will get some value (for them) out of using.

2) Point One highlights the potential for IC professionals to gain extra traction if they work to understand and influence the information management policies in their organisations. People are happy to find that Sharepoint has blogs and many become enthusiastic users of them, but the system lives or dies by it's usefulness in "information management" rather than "internal communication" per se. (That might not be a fun fact, but it is a financial reality at a lot of companies.) As such, it's important to make sure that these two agendas complement each other rather than conflict. That means both an interest in the widgets IT is buying to solve intranet problems and a wider interest in the connections between "information management" and "internal communication overall.


Wednesday, 19 December 2007

More pre-EuroComm blogging

Over on the EuroComm 2008 blog, Ulrike Bleistein gives us a little sense of what she will be presenting to us:


Why IT needs communications

by Ulrike Bleistein

When they think of IT most people think of computer geeks who sit around in dark rooms, isolated from the rest of the world passionately investigating the inner landscape of computers. Of course, this is not the case. Today, Informatics in a pharmaceutical company is about the clever application of technology to business. Relationships with customers and understanding their needs are key. Communications has moved up the ranks and is today considered a critical capability for this new generation of IT professionals. However, coming from a technology environment, communications does not always come easily to them. As a former scientist with a strong interest in technology, I can bridge the gap. That’s where my job starts.

On joining Roche Pharma Informatics, I did an analysis to find out where communications are most needed to support the business effectively, where the biggest issues are, and I then decided on a step-wise approach as resources were limited.

I won't post more, go and read it all!

It's a nice, succinct description of the benefits of a communications department for a "back-office" division who might not naturally get the communications attention that more "external customer facing" divisions naturally receive.


Saturday, 15 December 2007

The two worlds of business communication

A newsletter from Mindjet (who make the excellent MindManager mind map software) reminds me again of the two ways people tend to talk about "communication" in business and my own uncertainties about where they join up:

1) There are those known as "Internal Communication" professionals and they focus largely on what might be termed "community communications issues." This ranges from the hardnosed business case models around communicating "brand values" in the organisation to created "engagement" to potentially softer strategies around more journalistic exercises which create and reinforce a sense of community and well-being within the organisation.

I've spent a fair amount of time writing about these aspects recently.

2) The other people who tend to work with "communication" are IT consultants and Business Process Re-engineers, who (like the Mindjet people) largely talk about communication in terms of the needed exchange of information to make a business process happen. If you're designing a new widget, then there has to be an exchange of information regarding costs, design parameters, market needs, etc.

It is my feeling that these two worlds, which have largely been long separate are now starting to touch at the edges. Two major reasons why spring to mind right now:

a) The rise of the "knowledge worker." This deserves a post on it's own, but in short, industries are changing. Service industries are often all about manipulating information and even traditional manufacturing industries are finding that competitive advantage depends more and more on how they do things and the design of the things they make. As a result, the "knowledge" of various businesses now sits more than ever with the people. Where processes used to assume that people were interchangeable parts who existed to facilitate the process, we're gradually learning that in real "knowledge roles" the process isn't so easy to institutionalise. As such, the technological/process imperative is now more about enabling communication than specifying it.

This has parallels with:

b) The rise of social media. It is social media technologies, as much as anything that have produced an awareness in internal communications types (not to mention marketing departments too) that "message management" is a dying proposition. Where previously IC might have felt it was the medium of community information exchange in a company, it's clear now that people can talk to each other in myriad ways. Forward thinking IC professionals recognise this and seek to work with it, and thus they are also looking more at enabling communication than specifying it.

Where I think a crucial confluence exists is that the existence of communication technologies does not mean that necessary communications are taking place.

As such, in knowledge work, there is a need to bring the two perspectives together. From the BPR angle there is an expertise about incentives and formal rules for promoting specific information exchange and from the IC side there's a much greater understanding about the human issues around communication, which becomes ever more critical as the information we seek to communicate becomes more human (less numeric, less precise, less quantifiable) as the task involved becomes more abstract and more creative.

Add that together and that's some sense of my gut feeling of how the two worlds can help each other a little.


Monday, 10 December 2007

Intranets in trouble


Over at a shel of my former self, Shel Holtz has a post called Intranets in Trouble which references a study by the Irish Computer Society.

As someone who concentrates on the people side of communication, I tend to be the one asking sceptical questions about technological solutions, but even so, the key results are rather disappointing:

  • Nearly half say they don’t use the intranet to support their everyday work
  • Nearly one in three say the intranet does not help with daily work
  • Half find their intranets’ search engines to be ineffective and 80% think both navigation and search need to be improved
  • 35% of respondents cannot access the information they need on their company intranet
  • Fixing these problems won't solve all your communication problems, but if a third of workers can't get the information they need through the company intranet, then that's a serious performance issue.

    To me, the results highlight a couple of things:

    1) Too often, "the intranet" is purchased in the manner of a telephone system. No-one is given the responsibility (or indeed the resources) to ensure that existing content is kept up to date and that new information is chased down and documented online.

    2) One oddity of the internet is that it puts cutting edge tools in our hands for free. As a result, people develop a reliance on tools like Google for navigating complex information landscapes. If you have a lot of information on your intranet, you either need to invest in replicating these tools or if you have a bespoke tool, you have to train people to use it.

    Failing to address these issues simply means you won't get much out of your initial investment in the intranet. Of course, some people don't see the business value in better information and communication. It's true that if your main business is an automated widget production facility, the intranet might not be all that important. If your business relies on people working with information, collaborating with each other and keeping track of complex projects, then the quality of information exchange may be the difference between success and failure.

    Tuesday, 4 December 2007


    Sprechen vous Globish? asks Ian Andersen on the EuroComm 2008 Blog.

    He mentions the primal urge driving the phenomenon:

    All of us working in communications on an international level dream of the Holy Grail of campaigning: the one-size-fits-all messaging that plays equally well in Karlstad and Kuala Lumpur, the universal slogan that will bring in the punters from Shannon to Chamonix – and yet we are all stumped by culture, by habits, by mores and meaning, by ways of life. And so we adapt, we localise… The products as well as the selling.

    And the downside (speaking from the context of his role with the EU):

    It’s all very well that the Lithuanians discuss banking regulations or consumer protection in Lithuanian – with themselves, and that the Italians or the Finns do the same – with themselves, but that is not what we really think we need. How can we be one political entity if we are not able to say: we have one audience? And if we do not have that one audience, how can we go about creating it? And in what language? Do we have to accept that the true European language is what former Belgian Prime Minister Jean-Luc Dehaene dubbed “Le Bad English”? Or is there another solution – and I am not talking about Esperanto!

    My reactions:

    1) I eagerly await his presentation at EuroComm, I want to know what he thinks "another solution" might be.

    2) I first came across the word "Globish" in an IHT article a couple of years ago (2005 in fact.) I really liked the concept, because in a lot of ways it expresses  how I get by (sometimes even with good results!) despite not being fully au fait with all the languages of people I work with.

    To me one of the valuable things about "Globish" is that it isn't reductive, it isn't there to standardise everyone on a single understanding of the world, but it's a way to begin to communicate the different understandings between people. Too often, straight translation services effectively associate concepts in different cultures that are similar but not the same, creating subtle (and not so subtle!) misunderstandings. Globish, simplistic as it can be, helps people explore some differences from a common starting point. The affordance from throwing words from different languages together and then discussing the meaning is very powerful. That discussion is particularly valuable because it has the potential to highlight some of the cultural assumptions, which are often the real points of difference between people from different places.

    Away from conversation, however, I still weigh in on the side of translation. I can understand the political imperatives for the EU, after all how can you have a democracy split into 23 parts who cannot communicate with each other?

    All the same, if you're producing one-way communication artefacts (leaflets, posters, TV spots, etc.) then you are spreading a message to everyone and Globish is far from spread enough to be a medium for that in most countries.