We can and should make tacit knowledge explicit with collaboration technologies

Cross posted from scriptogr.am

KM Australia

Today, I’m part of a panel debate at KM Australia. I have 3-4 minutes to present my argument that we can and should make tacit knowledge explicit with collaboration technologies.

I’ll be using two images to explain my argument, both created by Dave Gray as part of his Connected Company series.

The problem of scale

The problem of scale

Think at the level of the street

Think at the level of the street

So, what’s the story behind picking these diagrams to make my argument?

More later…

Image credit: Dave Gray CC-BY

Passive face time for remote and virtual employees

Employees who work remotely may end up getting lower performance evaluations, smaller raises and fewer promotions than their colleagues in the office — even if they work just as hard and just as long.

The difference is what we call passive face time. By that we are not referring to active interactions with coworkers or clients, but merely to being seen in the workplace. To be credited with passive face time you need only be observed at work; no information is required about what you are doing or how well you are doing it.

As you may know, I’m not entirely convinced by the techno-centric concept of the digital workplace. In this post by academic researchers, Kimberly Elsbach and Daniel Cable, they highlight the importance of “Passive face time” and the negative impact this has on remote and virtual employees. The comments on this article are well worth reading too.

This isn’t news to me. Over the years I’ve come to realise from looking at both the theory and reflecting on my own experience that the critical factor for remote working isn’t technology, but the attitude of both the remote worker AND the people they work with. Sure, you need some level of remote access to enterprise systems but it doesn’t need to be particularly sophisticated and the tools have been available for more than a decade.

In terms of technology, social media tools do provide a way to replace or at least augment the need for passive face time. Unless your business already works without the need for passive face time, all the transactional technology in the world won’t work unless you address this issue.

A digital workplace is a social workplace. Remove the ‘social’ and you place remote workers at a huge disadvantage and guess what, they know it!

Situating the mobile user experience for business apps


I’m currently working on an Ark Group report on developing mobile apps for internal business users and the business partners that organisations work with. There is a growing acknowledgement by designers that mobile apps need to be created with recognition of their situated use, however most of the research and discussion I’ve seen is focused on consumer apps.

Business users are consumers too and much of the thinking about how consumers use mobile is broadly applicable to the business users when designing apps. However, the business context does need special attention to take into account elements such as:

  • The overarching organisational context;
  • Constraints to the UX that might apply; and
  • The relationship between the individual worker and the people they work with.

This is a draft of a diagram to summarise that situated context for mobile business apps. I’m not sure if this will make it into the report or not at this stage, as the primary purpose was really to help me capture my thinking.

I’ve used a couple of sources to help inform the diagram, which you might like to review too:

Let me know what you think and if you have any suggestions for additional sources that examine the business context for mobile apps beyond what is presented here.


RN Future Tense: The Changing Nature of Work

What impact are new design practices and changing technology having on not just the physical office but also on the way we think about work itself? Is the idea of the individual office a thing of the past? In this program we explore the physical, social and cultural trends affecting the changing nature of the office and the way we work in the 21st century.

Another great episode from Future Tense. I was recently talking about activity based workplaces (ABWs) and this podcast provides a good overview of Macquarie Bank’s Shelley Street building and the overall trends in open plan office spaces. Again, the role of technology is highlighted as a key factor but balanced by the need for the new leadership skills in the workplace, particularly as workplace demographics change. The show also discusses the impact on worklife-balance and our relationship with the people we work with.

Trying to fix how people use email can backfire

Some attempts to limit email haven’t gone as planned. One client of Christina Randle, a workplace productivity expert with the Effectiveness Edge in Austin, tried remedying employees’ email overload by banning staff from sending messages on Fridays. It backfired. Employees just stored outbound messages and sent them all Monday morning. “Instead of getting 100 messages on Friday, [people] got 200 in their inbox on Monday morning,” she says.

If you want to fix email in the workplace, you’ve got to treat it as a systemic problem.

Nicholas Carr: Flame and filament

Cleaner, safer, and even more efficient than the flame it replaced, the light bulb was welcomed into homes and offices around the world. But along with its many practical benefits, electric light also brought subtle and unexpected changes to the way people lived. The fireplace, the candle, and the oil lamp had always been the focal point of households. Fire was, as Schivelbusch puts it, “the soul of the house.” Families would in the evening gather in a central room, drawn by the flickering flame, to chat about the day’s events or otherwise pass the time together. Electric light, together with central heat, dissolved that long tradition. Family members began to spend more time in different rooms in the evening, studying or reading or working alone. Each person gained more privacy, and a greater sense of autonomy, but the cohesion of the family weakened.

Yes, even apparently small technology innovations can have a massive impact on society.

The Rise of the 3rd Generation Organisation

The impact of the physical workplace on how we organise is a fascinating topic. For example the transformation of factories thanks to electricity and electric light changed how they operated. Modern offices, in the shape of skyscrapers, are an example of another development that has also affected how we manage. However, both the modernisation of factories and the creation of the modern office primarily depended on overcoming physical constraints to create physical structures. This in turn helped to define structures for work that we became familiar with in the developed world during the last century (lets call them 2nd Generation Organisations).

As the digital era continues, my impression is that intangible features are playing a greater role in defining the workplace environment and creating what I would call 3rd Generation Organisations. One trend that is starting to show what a 3rd Generation Organisation looks like is the shift towards Activity Based Workplaces (ABW):

As the name suggests the work space is organized by spaces designed to support specific activities… This loosely structured physical workplace is supported by work practices that facilitate it.

Note the relationship between space design and how work happens – this is more than simply creating a pleasant office space to work in and shouldn’t be confused with hot desking or hoteling either. I recently had the opportunity to see Commonwealth Bank’s Activity Based Workplace, built out on the edge of Sydney CBD. Its interesting to see how in practice IT plays a defining rather than supporting role in making their Activity Based Workplace possible.  In fact, urban planning consultants Urbis advise that:

During the 1990s, wi-fi didn’t exist, so flexibility was limited. Now, a successful [Activity Based] workplace must consider the IT environment to deliver productivity gains. ABW is fundamentally linked to technology and any ABW project will require significant investment in IT as well as the fitout.

The benefits of ABW appear to be a combination of soft and hard benefits:

  • Employee engagement (better collaboration and productivity).
  • Savings from more efficient use of space, less use of paper and lower building running costs.

Of course implementing an ABW is no easy task for a large organisation – it requires capital and motivation to make the change. Yet at the small end of town co-working spaces are becoming popular too, like Hub Melbourne. Just like their larger enterprise counterparts they are also enabled by access to mobile, social, Web-based and cloud information technologies.

It is easy to doubt the transformational impact of information technology in the workplace – including social software – but equally we shouldn’t ignore the symbiotic relationship to the physical workspace. It is the combination of the two that will actualy create a deeper systemic change to how we organise and will allow 3rd Generation Organisations to emerge.