Facebook and the Enterprise: Part 8: Musing about signals

First catch your hare.

So wrote Hannah Glasse, in the recipe for Jugged Hare, to be found in her 1747 book The Art of Cookery. [When I first heard the quotation, I was given the impression, mistakenly, that it was a quotation from Mrs Beeton].

In today’s globalised knowledge-worker-dominated world, most enterprises have figured out that the “recipes” for the best companies start with “First get good people”. And even if they haven’t quite figured this out, they’re not going to admit it anyway. If you take the Napoleonic view you would argue that good isn’t good enough, you need to be “lucky” as well. While I have some sympathy for this view, I prefer to take the Gary Player position on it: the harder one practises, the “luckier” one gets. Good people, some luck, a lot of hard work called “practice”, with the right feedback loops to ensure that learning takes place. In an environment where learning can take place, with leadership based on Max Du Pree principles. Is that all we need to make the enterprise truly productive?

Wouldn’t it be nice if it were that simple? Sometime soon, probably after finishing the series I’m writing on Wikipedia, I may well start one on the Theory of the Firm. But for now I’d like to stop here and return to the main thrust of this post, Facebook and the Enterprise.

I’ve had the privilege of leading good people many times now, and I’m always trying to get better at it. To this end, I’ve regularly pondered on the subject of what precisely I would like to get better at. While this is not a comprehensive list, there are a few areas I know I would love to get better at:

  • Identifying role models that would help me coach and mentor those that are new to the enterprise
  • Providing simple tools to help them prioritise their time
  • Having the right feedback loops in place to help them manage their performance

In all three cases, I tend to feel that something like Facebook has a lot to offer, as and when it is implemented properly in an enterprise.

People use all kinds of signals to communicate. From keeping doors open to shutting them. From answering e-mails promptly and diligently, all the way to “deleting them unread”. From being early for a meeting to not turning up. From giving their attention to not giving their attention. From listening to not-listening. All kinds of signals.

Some of the signals are intentional, some inadvertent. And we tend to be better at certain types of signals and crap at others. How else would you explain what passes for “performance management” in most large enterprises, where 95% of the workforce are “above average”? How else would you explain even the existence of execrable inventions like “forced ranking”?

I’m no social anthropologist, I’m sure there are a zillion people out there who know a lot more about the subject of how people signal to each other and why. What I do know is this: Social software has a role to play in signalling.

Sometimes I’ve read e-mails via preview panes and then deleted them later as part of a housekeeping exercise. And every now and then I’ve received calls from people really upset that I’d deleted their e-mail unread. This, despite the fact that I’d actually read them, and, more to the point, despite the fact that the deleted e-mail was over three months old.

Sometimes I’ve looked into e-mail flow within a firm, trying to understand something from the patterns that emerge. Suppose we imagine the world of enterprise e-mail like we would imagine a country’s economy. Domestic e-mail, that which stays within the enterprise’s boundaries. Exported e-mail, that which goes out. Imported e-mail, that which comes in. What would it be like to be able to model all this sensibly?

When I opened up my mailbox to my management team I spotted some fascinating behaviours. How some of them concentrated on reading my Sent Items rather than focusing on my Inbox. Why would this happen? I think it has something to do, analogously, with what happens with View Source. People love looking inside the hood, trying to see what makes something tick. And in the particular case I cite, they wanted to understand how I thought, and felt that they would learn most by studying my sent mail.

Maybe two years ago, perhaps a little longer, I looked at a company called Seriosity. They were in a fascinating business. They had a simple premise. People valued their time. E-mails stole time. If there was a way to make e-mails pay for that time, then something profound may start happening. Not all e-mails stole time, some preserved time and created new value. If there was a way of paying for this extra value, then something profound may start happening. And so the serio was born, a way of charging someone for taking your e-mail reading time, and for saying thank you if you found the mail helpful.

[Incidentally, there’s at least one Facebook app that tries to mimic the Seriosity concept, using a currency called a ven].

A utility like Facebook can also help enterprises with rating and recommendation systems, connecting peers and providing the facility to collect and share active feedback.

Opinion polls are also easy to organise and execute, as are prediction markets.

Responding to pokes. Accepting things, ignoring things. Changing settings for what appears in a news feed. Choosing the groups to join or leave. Using publish and subscribe models to access information, using tools like Seriosity to encourage and discourage flows on a very granular basis. Watching what people do in order to learn from them, in order to be able to point them out to others as good role models. Using active feedback loops to provide continuous “360 degree” appraisals of performance, using soft signals in order to encourage or discourage specific behaviours.

Please take all this with a very large pinch of salt. All I am doing is wondering about the possibilities, the possibilities of using social software to fix things that are fundamentally broken.

There’s something non-threatening, something non-invasive about the way we can signal to people using social software. When speaking of Instant Messaging, Stu Berwick, an erstwhile colleague of mine, used to say “It’s polite to be silent.” I found that profound.

In similar vein, I see something strange and wonderful happening in environments where there are long bar counters attached to walls. People walk up to such bars, sit down and chat with the people alongside them because it feels comfortable. More comfortable and less threatening, less in-your-face or in-your-space. Even though they’re actually staring at walls!

I think there’s something similar taking place in social software environments. There is an Alongside Feeling.

Flame away. I shall learn.

6 thoughts on “Facebook and the Enterprise: Part 8: Musing about signals”

  1. Continuing from your earlier post on Liquefaction, slowly are you zeroing on ‘Social Software makes human assets more liquid’?
    Social Software in their novelty phase is seemingly delivering results with smart early adapters. When the novelty is lost will it deliver the same kind of results?

    Let us consider the case of break room notice board. Will the cutting edge adapters post their ‘Caring and Sharing’ in the board. How long will it sustain?

    How long it will take for the present Social Software to be reduced to the state of the good old break room notice board.

    Are tools that important? Is hare(people) more fundamental? Will (better) tools amplify your luck? Will what amplifies the (adoption) head, amplify tail too? Where is the evidence in the context of Telephone, Telex, Fax, PC, bulletin board, compuserve, Usenet, email, mailing lists, forums, , twitter et al?

    Are social software the ‘Banks’ that intermediate the People Information and making them more liquid? Will you trust your bank if its sustainability depends on a good IPO?

    I’m tempted to add that I’d rather wait for tiddlywiki like social software to emerge. That is too simplistic, and does not reduce the complexity of what we are attempting to learn.

  2. Hello JP,

    I was reminded, when I was reading this, of an organisation that I was involved with recently that had an obsession with meetings.

    There were some that everyone must attend, others that were closed and people were excluded from – not malevolently, but because someone else had decided who would go and who wouldn’t.

    Few had clear objectives (eg this meeting, or series of meetings, is for the purpose of …. ), and none had a means of scheduling items for discussion, or for bidding for time.

    The agendas got longer and longer and items were discussed in matters arising *and* again in their own right on the agenda! Conversely, taking a draft discussion document to discuss with your colleagues to develop some kind of collaborative approach to an issue or a problem or a dilemma was likely to be lost in a welter of photocopied spreadsheets and lengthy discussions over trivial items that one or two people could have resolved elsewhere.

    As I was reading your post, I wondered what would have happened if all these meetings had been made voluntary – open meetings that you could attend or not, as you wish/see fit/want to prioritise your time/attend to the politics of the organisation.

    Each employee still carries the responsibility for ensuring they meet the specific requirements of their projects – spend, outputs etc – and the policies of the organisation, but are free to choose the routes that are most helpful to them.

    I did introduce the idea of open meetings – short meetings, with a one item agenda – to which everyone was invited wherever they sat in the hierarchy. I was interested to see that these were taken up by other people – either for consulting and collaborating or for briefing and sharing specific information. They tended to be one offs, people coming together for the purpose, and relevant people (which became apparent through the meeting) continuing to work together beyond that.

    I rarely took notes for that seemed to inhibit the process. People became either more concerned with the bureacracy, or abdicated from taking responsibility in the meeting because the notes would tell them later what they were to do.

    Facebook provides an easy means for facilitating and examining some of this activity by eg setting an event and then viewing the popularity, that is, the people who say they will attend. Do we care about the numbers who actually attend? I guess that tells us something about whether we were able to sustain people’s interest and *attention*.

    Or maybe it doesn’t matter, and we use the principles of open space meetings or unconferencing?

  3. Balaji, Shani, thanks for your comments. Balaji, while it is easy to see a seamless movement from telephone, telex, fax, PC, bulletin board, compuserve, usenet, email, mailing lists, forums, and so on, to the present day, I think this is a fundamental error.

    The biggest critics of today’s social software environments are drawn from those who were expert at using the old versions.

    What we are seeing is not evolution but revolution. The people are different. Their ages are different. Their level of access is different and more heterogeneous. The nature of the devices used is different. The ubiquity of the applications is different. The persistence of the connections and the data is different. The provision of ancillary and infrastructural tools is different.

    Sure we have lessons to learn from the past. But sometimes these lessons can also constrain us from seeing the future. Or, in this particular case, the present.

    Change is upon us now.

    And the change will happen, whether or not IPOs happen, and whether or not the IPOs are successful. You seem to have a real hangup about Facebook being a feeding trough for banks and investors. I’m not sure why this is the case.

  4. This post reminds me of an idea I had during the dotcom days. I imagine(d) a system, much like the stock market, where the value of an employee would fluctuate.

    When an employee is performing well on a project or is producing quality code, her stock rises. Whereas poor performers have their stock plummet.

    I can see how Facebook, and other enterprise social software platforms, could fufill this idea. Fellow employees would use the social software to “buy” or “sell” into their peers.

Let me know what you think

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