KM on a dollar a day

Musing on knowledge management, aid and development with limited resources

Love the One you’re with (on using official software)

with 7 comments


I think we have gotten quite used to assuming that our organizations will not provide the latest technology tools we need to do our jobs, and so if we want to get things done we will have to download or use free or even paid consumer software, even though this is officially frowned upon.

For quite a while externally available tools looked much better than what our organizations were able or willing to provide. Ease of use, attractive design,capability to work with external partners, real-time collaboration were all things that consumer tool have that our office tools did not.

As a result I saw people using a plethora of unofficial tools to do their work: Google Docs, Evernote, PBWiki, Yousendit, Dropbox, Ning, WordPress, you name it – even using Facebook for official internal networking (see here on why I don’t think this is a good idea), and YouTube to share internal videos. The upside was that people were being entrepreneurial finding ways to collaborate to get things done – but this also comes with a big downside – especially from a knowledge management perspective.

When a lot of work is going on in outside applications there are a number of risks. If it is a free service, then most likely your data is being used to advertise to you and others and you may have little control over the privacy and security of your information – nor any real guarantee that it will even always be there.

Another challenge is that all this organizational knowledge is being kept in separate silos as each department or team use different tools, or even when they use the same tools have individual accounts that are not connected to one another and not widely known about across the organization. When staff or consultants leave, tools are changed or abandoned, passwords are forgotten and content is lost. And none of these are integrated with our official tools so we need to learn different passwords and manually copy or transfer data between systems.

But I think we have now hit a turning point where the benefits of using official tools outweighs the limitations they might impose. For the first time I remember, we have many official tools that can  do almost the same as, and sometimes even do more than the consumer tools we have grown to love. In UNICEF we are using Office365 which includes tools such as Yammer for social networking, Lync for video conferencing, One Drive for file sharing and SharePoint for document management and collaborative authoring (and IBM and others offer similar tools). These are all quite powerful, they are more or less integrated together and with our other systems, and they are officially sanctioned and supported. What’s more they now also allow users to participate from any location and most devices, and they also allow collaboration with external partners – all stumbling blocks to using official systems in the past.

But while the software has greatly improved our behaviour is yet to catch up. There are still many who continue to use unofficial tools. The reasons for this are several including simply not being aware the new tools are available and what they can do to not knowing how to use them, to feeling more comfortable with the external tools they already know and preferring them as they “work better”, and perhaps not trusting what IT is pushing to them.

In the past I’ve also been one of those people who used a lot of outside tools and complained about what we being provided as official tools. While I still think we need to do more to make our official tools better, for me there was a turning point when I realized the benefits of using official systems for reliability, privacy, knowledge retention and ability to collaborate were more important that the inconvenience in learning new tools and coping with the mostly minor issues I have with them.

In my own mind I apply a kind of 80% rule. If the official tool meets 80% of my feature and usability needs then it’s better to use if for work than going it alone with my preferred tool. Only in those instances where the official tool is lacking key functionality, or where no real official alternative exists will I find my own external solution. For example we don’t have a corporate tool for staff surveys and while SharePoint can be used to do this we don’t have the templates and setup yet to provide this as an option for staff who want to do their own surveys so I would use Surveymonkey, Limesurvey or some other tool. By contrast now we have One Drive there is no real justification to use private Dropbox accounts to share files internally, even if the interface might be slightly nicer.

It’s of course totally fine to use whatever tool you like for personal use – and also to use external tools to participate in work groups set up by others outside your organization (e.g. I participate in external online forums such as KM4Dev or on UNDP’s Teamworks as I couldn’t expect them to join me on Yammer instead!) But if you are setting something up for your organization, even if you are inviting external participants then you are better off using your official tools.

So how do we overcome the reluctance of staff to use perfectly adequate existing tools. A few thoughts:

1. Communicate, communicate, communicate about the tools that are available and what they can do

2. Train and support people to use them

3. Show real life examples of how they are being used to support work and get better results i.e. have the users speak to how they can be used and the benefits rather than only promoting this from an IT perspective.

4. To users – apply my 80% rule – do you really need to use your preferred tool? Why not at least give the official systems a try – and let the network benefits do the rest.

5. To IT – listen to user feedback and try to make the tools as responsive to user needs as possible – in particular look at what external tools are doing well that official tools don’t and try to work on those.

6. Again to IT – look carefully at what unofficial tools staff are using and why – not to control and forbid – but to better understand what are common technology needs of staff or new ways they are finding to use technology to improve their work. These are the things the official systems need to catch up with. Use this as a way of identifying future tools and services that would be really valuable (did I mention that we need a good corporate survey tool?).

Post script: After posting this I got in a heated twitter discussion with @Wayan_vota who strongly disagreed and who has some good points (although I still disagree with him). I realized that this post might sound like I’m cheerleading for Microsoft and corporate IT rules and regulations. I’m certainly doing neither. My main point is that as much as I might personally love other tools, and everyone in the organization has their own favourites, I realized that if we want to get people to collaborate across the organization, and we want to be able to find anything – even after people leave then we need to get over fighting “the man”. Instead we need to figure out how to get the best official tools we can that everyone use, and then make the best use of what we have got, including how they are managed – and keep the pressure up to make these as useful as possible.



Written by Ian Thorpe

December 3, 2014 at 9:00 am

7 Responses

Subscribe to comments with RSS.

  1. Agreed, we should fight to get the best tools, though in most large organizations, that’s a lost cause. IT will go with what is best for IT, everyone else be dammed. So instead, its best to route around vs. trying to work with.


    December 3, 2014 at 9:57 am

  2. As to the whole need to keep everyone on the same platforms, I disagree. Getting folks to share and collaborate is hard enough. Do not add a further barrier by demanding that sharing and collaboration be on a specific tool set. Let them use whatever works best for them. Then adopt those tools as the collaboration tools. The stark reality is that knowledge isn’t resident in files, but in the human minds that created and utilize them. That knowledge is always lost when someone leaves. Its a natural aspect of work. Trying to save everything is a fools errand. What is important enough will be kept or recreated. Let everything else go.


    December 3, 2014 at 10:01 am

    • It’s interesting to find myself on the other side of the argument from you on this!
      The challenge inside big organizations is for people to find each other and to know what people are working on that could be of use – maximizing serendipity. This needs some degree of common tools – as well as a moving to a culture of working out loud – this would be fine if everything was truly public and searchable in Google but we are culturally a long way from working like that so we need well organized internal spaces for that.We also have some requirements in terms of information security, retention and privacy that are hard to stick to with non-official tools
      On people leaving and taking their knowledge with them – I mostly agree but there are things an organization can and should do to capture/preserve the work of those who leave and maintain connections with them – not everything for sure but we shouldn’t delete everything someone does when they leave- my last blog post was on this.
      Note: on externally focused sharing I agree you can’t make people come to your tool (unless you are the one with the money or you are the biggest part of the group) and soyou have to go where the collaborators are – that’s why I’m sharing this on Twitter and WordPress – because I want to hear from people outside the organization and we don’t have a tool for that (yet) and you might not come there if we had.

      Ian Thorpe

      December 3, 2014 at 10:15 am

  3. Great post. I wondered how you manage collaboration with external people. From ‘because I want to hear from people outside the organization and we don’t have a tool for that (yet) and you might not come there if we had’ I learn that this is not easy yet. I think it’s the easy collaboration with external people that drives employees to external tools, although they know that it is dangerous for their organization and therefore forbidden. It is reassuring to hear that you have similar problems as other organizations.

    Klaus Jochem

    December 4, 2014 at 4:09 pm

    • The answer on external collaboration is that we are working on it, but we aren’t there yet. As far as we can we are configuring our tools to allow people to invite external partners but in a managed way – but in a way which is much simpler and less bureuacratic than it has been in the past. We are also working on guidance/governance which is simple and enabling but warns and protects of relevant risks and responsibilities. Only thing I’d add is that sometimes staff also have to to our partners collaboration platforms to collaborate with them there – we can’t always expect them to come to us. This means we also need to build digital literacy of staff to know how to do this effectively and responsibly.

      Ian Thorpe

      December 4, 2014 at 4:30 pm

      • How hard would it be to implement a Facebook privacy dropdown per post?

        Simon van Woerden

        December 9, 2014 at 1:25 pm

      • Not sure I understand your question – do you mean with this blog? or as a means of using facebook as an internal social tool. I’m using the free WordPress so I get just the minimum of functionality

        Ian Thorpe

        December 9, 2014 at 1:29 pm

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: