ImageI spent an interesting morning at the Online Information conference on Tuesday – ably chaired by my pal Steve Dale – and the session I enjoyed most was about implementing collaborative technology in organisations – one example was from a big media and communications provider, the other a government department.

Here are some of the thoughts that the session inspired me to write down…

1. There’s always a disconnect between what the organisation wants and what the user wants.

This doesn’t mean you are doomed to fail – but it means you are if you don’t think about how to balance these competing elements.

Knowledge management is a classic example of this problem – the organisation wants its people to share their know-how so they won’t be missed so much when they leave. But maintaining their indispensability is a pretty important thing for employees who want to stay in work.

The answer here is, I think, not to pretend that the disconnect doesn’t exist – just manage it. Don’t try selling organisational benefits to staff – instead focus that on what’s in it for them. Find a way of aligning what the organisation wants and what makes the users’ lives easier and better.

2. Calling it something new is a bad idea. Just make it ‘work’.

Imagine you’re sat at your desk and someone approaches you, beaming, and announces that from now on we’re all going to start managing our knowledge! Or sharing our collective wisdom! Or collaborating!

My eyes are rolling just thinking about it. By giving an activity a name you separate it from other, existing activity. It becomes more work rather than just a new, better way of doing the existing work.

If people see something as a new responsibility or an additional task, they are unlikely to want to do it. Instead frame these tools as more efficient ways of getting the job done better.

3. Getting good engagement requires skills that not many organisations have.

One of the key ones is community management, which I have banged on about quite a bit before. Encouraging people to an online space and to get involved is exactly a community management activity and anyone trying to do it really ought to spend some time learning about it (which might be going on a course, but could just be spending some time reading about it).

There’s other stuff too like curation, social reporting, writing for the web, networking and so on… none of which are full time jobs but skills that are needed and roles which should be performed if you are going to engage users with your platform. Assuming the skills exist or that they aren’t needed will result in failure, I’m afraid.

4. If you find yourself in the position where you’re having to convince people to collaborate or share, you’ve probably already failed.

I do wonder sometimes whether allowing people to discover social tools in the workplace for themselves might make them more likely to take them up. It might make for slightly slower levels of engagement but I dare say they will be more sustainable in the long term.

There’s something here to learn from the success of Yammer in many organisations, which is often started up under the radar by individual staff members with no strategy or management buy-in. Because it belongs to the people using it, and it isn’t being imposed, it feels like a space people actually want to use, and there’s no need to convince people.

What I am saying here might sound a bit like ‘if you build it, they will come’. That’s not what I’m saying.

Maybe I’m saying ‘if you plead with people to come to something you’ve built, they will regard you and your thing with contempt’.

5. Don’t prescribe what people can do. Let them surprise you.

This ties in a bit with my first and second points but is more focused on activity and features. What I mean here is that if you launch a social system with the intention of it being a knowledge management tool, and people end up using it to manage their projects, then let them.

If instead of correctly managing the versions of various official documents within the strictures of your beautifully designed taxonomy, people end up discussing the ramifications of the latest restructure, then let them.

Telling people they aren’t doing things right is unlikely to endear them to you or your platform. Of course step in if people are behaving anti-socially or whatever, but by and large they them do what they want to do, and just be glad that they want to do it on your system. Once they begin to trust it and like it, they might just start doing some of the things you originally hoped they would.