KM on a dollar a day

Musing on knowledge management, aid and development with limited resources

Follow people, not just communities

with 5 comments

This post was adapted from a post written for an internal audience in UNDP about how people can/do use the internal social business platform Teamworks. Although it was written with this specific audience in mind – these same points could apply to any social business platform in any organization where there is already a tradition of communities. It is about the need to augment knowledge sharing through thematic communities with knowledge setting through individual social networks.

UNDP has a well established tradition of developing communities of practice or networks of practitioners. Many of these networks long predate Teamworks and web 2.0 technology having been developed on an e-mail based platform, and many have long standing membership and well established working procedures that have survived and thrived because they offer value to their members. Most of these networks have now also been “migrated” to Teamworks, UNDP’s Web 2.0 social platform where they are represented online by “corporate spaces”. They have also been joined by a large number of “user spaces” and “event spaces” created for teams, themes, events and various other spontaneous groupings of people around a specific topic or purpose.

But while Teamworks has replicated the electronic structures of the networks, and added new features, there is another feature of Teamworks which seems underutilized. Teamworks, like many corporate Web 2.0 platforms, is a kind of hybrid between a community platform and a social networking site, yet the “social” side of Teamworks is still only being fully used by a few. What do I mean by the social side?

The social aspect of Teamworks is that it allows you to:

1. Post status updates to let people know what you are working on, to share interesting links and information, and even to ask a question and hold a conversation. The conversation here is not based around a specific established thematic network or functional spaces, but around a network of colleagues. This can be very spontaneous, unstructured but much faster than interactions within communities of practice. Quick updates on what you are doing i.e. “narrating your work” can also spark all kind of new ideas and make connections between people doing similar work who otherwise might not now what each other was doing and how they might collaborate.

2. Find out what other people are doing based on your professional or personal relationships, or around interests, not just around pre-established themes or projects. That colleague who wrote something interesting on poverty-net – perhaps she has something interesting to say about gender, or living in new york, or using social media. Following people rather than topics allows you to learn more about your colleagues – their skills and interests – and helps build relationships for knowledge sharing and collaboration whether on Teamworks, some other tool or offline.

3. Profile your own work and experience to help share your work and that of your team beyond your immediate circle or networks to others who might be able to use it. And as a bonus this can help develop your reputation and profile and improve your job prospects.

A key element of the social aspect is that it is more explicitly about relationships, reputation and trust than communities of practice. It is more individualistic than collective. It is also more about serendipity – finding useful connections and knowledge that you might otherwise not find if you stay within your usual thematic interactions. These can be especially valuable for sharing knowledge across functional silos. Even well run communities can become silos if they are made up of people with similar interests and experiences, discussing familiar topics. The social allows you to reach outside your usual sphere of knowledge to look for potential ideas or solutions from other areas of work.

So how do you make use of the social?

1. Add people as colleagues. This works in a similar way as “follow” in twitter. It doesn’t mean they are literally your colleagues – it means your Teamworks feed will show you whenever they add something, whatever space they add it to (even if you are not a member of the space), and it will show you their status updates.

2. Post updates on what you are doing using the “change your status” box on the main page, or by posting files, blogs etc. on your profile (in addition to in the relevant thematic spaces).

3. Check your feed regularly (or at least from time to time) to see what your “colleagues” are doing, and when it’s something interesting then thank, comment, ask questions and engage with them.

Who should you add as colleagues? Whoever you like (they don’t literally have to be your colleagues) – but a few suggestions might be:

i) people from your unit/section – that way you can get to know them and their interests better

ii) notable people from the main spaces you are a member of, or functional area in which you work – by notable I mean people who are practice leaders, people you know as real experts in their field, or people who post regularly on topics of interest.

iii) senior people – they might not post much – but when they do isn’t it interesting to find out what they are doing and thinking and have the opportunity to interact with them in a way you might not normally in a work meeting.

iv) interesting people – look around to find people who regularly share interesting links, post provocative articles (even if you disagree with them), or who span multiple disciplines. These are the people who will introduce you to new things and help you know what is happening within and outside your organization.

This isn’t a replacement to the well established tradition of thematic communities of practice – but it is a valuable complement to it. Right now there still relatively few people who add colleagues or post updates. But if more people start adding colleagues and posting updates in then the platform will become much more interesting, and much more valuable.


Written by Ian Thorpe

July 31, 2012 at 12:28 pm

5 Responses

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  1. Ian,
    Fun story, a bit low on the attitude needed to make the system support communication well enough.
    It brought the question to my mind why these ‘Teamworks’ are closed silos while I paid for developing, running and using it through public money. I for example stumble over serendipity in- as well as outside my organisations walls. Statistically I should look outside! Also I think development is not about the communication within a UN body (sic!), but about interacting with the outside as much as possible! Was not the mantra ‘open knowledge, open development’? The social aspect of Teamwork is about a bit of corporate voyeurism and appeal to personal vein; development is not about personal profiles; it is predominantly with human beings and they are outside Teamworks. So my advice is to go for iv) and connect 🙂


    July 31, 2012 at 3:14 pm

  2. Jaap – thanks for the comment. I can’t speak for the creators and managers of Teamworks as I’m just a frequent user but not one of the managers or deciders on this project – but I can give a more general response.

    In principle I agree with you, and I’ve advocated on this blog many times for the UN and other development organizations to open up more to share with and learn from the outside world for the reasons you mention.

    That said most organizations need to be able to interact externally AND create safe spaces for people to interact among themselves – it’s not either/or. Also the kind of cultural shift that is required to get people to share even in small closed groups is significant so it would be a shame to create an open platform that staff were afraid to use at all would also not be productive.

    For me I see the need for both internal and external sharing and that the promotion of and growth of internal sharing will lead to greater comfort with external participation too so this is a step wise process. I know a number of Teamworks spaces do have external participation and that the tool was also used to support the “Rio Dialogues” which brought together people from academia, civil society, government and the UN. So things are already moving in the right direction.

    But the reason I wrote this blog is that there is a need for people to understand and make use of these tools for them to reach their potential – this is one of the important parts of the cultural change – increased openness to the outside world is another.

    Ian Thorpe

    July 31, 2012 at 3:28 pm

  3. […] This post was adapted from a post written for an internal audience in UNDP about how people can/do use the internal social business platform Teamworks.  […]

  4. Thanks Ian for another interesting post. I was just working on a slidecast as one of my activities to promote online habits in a community site, so I have used some of your tips (properly credited of course!) It’s about 3 minutes…

    Lucia Nass

    August 24, 2012 at 6:39 am

  5. […] with shared interests who are not yet in touch.  Of importance in this is to encourage people to follow other people rather than just communities or topics. It’s also useful to recognize that people will also use […]

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