I am a member of several Slack and MS Teams workspaces, and I am often struck by how little organisations I work with invest in making these digital workspaces valuable instruments to nurture ideas, develop knowledge in a distributed way or share information in a way that saves people time.
I prefer Slack over Teams, but that is just my opinion. Many of the teams I work with do not have much of choice as their IT departments prefer MS Teams because of its integration with other Microsoft applications.
Digital workspaces as places of sharing information and coordinating activities
Many of these digital workspaces of the organisations I support are almost used more as an extended SMS/Whatsapp communication platform than as an instrument for accumulating knowledge fragments or a distributed learning platform. What I mean is that even when teams have different channels configured, the content of these channels is often more like a short message service. Occasionally documents, URLs or photos are shared, sometimes with a note explaining why people should bother to read it, and other times without any contextual information. There are often long periods between posts, followed by a flurry of activity as the importance of topics increases or wane.
When users express frustration with these platforms, it is usually because they cannot find the right channel to post their contributions to. Or they find the thread structure to be confusing. I find it annoying when people do not reply in a thread of a question, as it clutters a channel with statements that are incoherent and messy. For me, these workspaces are valuable repositories not just of decisions made or actions taken but about context and arguments for and against specific courses of action.
A few drawbacks of digital workspaces
A drawback is that both MS Teams and Slack only allow for a one-level deep threaded conversation, which is very shallow. So, I can reply to your post, but if somebody comments on my reply, then their message is at the same level in the thread as mine. Perhaps this is a good thing because I do not miss the 10-level deep-threaded conversations on the old bulletin boards. Another drawback is that people can quickly shoot down any contributions that somebody else has made without substantiating their claims or contributing to the building out of the idea. I guess this is a challenge with all social media.
Despite these drawbacks, digital workspaces offer an opportunity for teams to improve how they accumulate and develop shared ideas in ways that exceeds what is possible when people are physically working together. Furthermore, these platforms enable teams to both to converge around shared ideas and thematic areas while also encouraging broader scanning and information sharing. By encouraging people to surface small ideas (or weak signals) from within their work domains and the topics they are interested in, new combinations of knowledge modules and ideas can be combined and further developed. By encouraging people to share information, news, photos, impressions and developments from beyond the organisation, potential new networks, topics and trends are made more visible. It thus enables both convergences of interests in the form of deeper conversations and the continuous adjustment of shared mental models while simultaneously encouraging divergence and the exploration of signals from beyond the immediate operational focus of the organisation. It helps a lot if people not only share a link or a document, but a paragraph or a short commentary and what they found interesting or who they think would benefit from reading it.
Workspaces intending to build a community and strengthen its members
In some of the digital workspaces I am active in, the workspace has an intent that goes beyond chatting and just sharing interesting links or documents. Rather, the intent is to build communities around different ideas, topics and activities, and to encourage the members to not only use the content shared in the workspace, but draw in members to contribute to, challenge ideas and use the information shared in their daily practice. In these workspaces, there are channels where people share ideas, links to videos and links to articles that are relevant to many members. But members can ask for help, share personal updates, form their own channels or just visit a channel out of curiosity. What I like about these workspaces is that people don’t just share short messages, they write short essays or mini-blogs about a given topic. And then somebody else writes a response in the form a a short essay. So, when somebody shares a link to a resource, they usually explain why they thought it was interesting or valuable to share. You can read these channels and benefit from the cumulative and unfolding exchange that happened over hours, days or even months.
Some ideas on making the navigation of channels easier
In the better-working shared workspaces there are often channels that are maybe more relevant to sub-groups that are interested in specific topics or themes. Still, these groups are open, so others can observe or just follow the conversation, or leave when they lose interest or have other priorities. I call these topical channels because I can join one of these channels and get an idea of what the sub-community is discussing, what questions people have about the content, and how dynamic the contributions to and uptake of ideas are. Over time, these channels become valuable repositories of ideas, information and resources. (Did you know that Slack is an acronym for “Searchable Log of All Conversation and Knowledge” that was coined by its founder Steward Butterfield?)
I have found that it works well to make a distinction between topical channels, where content, ideas and concepts are discussed, and projects, where people have to work together and where the discussion combines content but also correspondence around dates, tasks, reminders and other project-related chatter. It is not so practical to combine a project channel (that might require fast and frequent communications) with the slower process of exchanging on the content or accumulating different perspectives on a given subject. Whenever I am asked to curate workspaces, I try to split the operations (projects) from the subject or content (topical) channels and also from the more focused or private channels where just a few selected people participate in.
How we organise our channels in Mesopartner
In our Mesopartner Slack workspace, we have denoted channels for topics by starting the channel name with “tp”, “proj” and “Support”.
- Tp is for topics that some of us are interested in, like #tp_innovation_systems or #tp_facilitation.
- Proj represents projects that we are working that is focused on certain projects that some of us are working on.
- Support is where we help each other for instance #support_apps_software, #support_online_meetings or #support_slack.
Because our enterprise spans over countries and timezones, we also have a series of channels for admin, contracts and sharing of travel plans. For instance, I usually check the the #travel channel first every day because all our members share itineraries there. We often share photos and impressions from the places we visit and the people we work with.
My favorite channel is #working_out_loud, where we all regularly share with others what we have planned for the day, and what is in our minds as we start a day. I make a point of posting a message everyday about “what is on my mind this morning” or “what tasks I have dedicated myself to today”. This is not only of interest to my business partners, it even helps me to keep track of my commitments, and my mental state over time.
During the COVID lockdowns we had a #coping_with_covid channel that had a mix of humor but also more serious content in it. After the lockdowns ended, this channel was renamed to #coping_with_external_shocks, and we typically share news from the environments or places where we are working in that channel.
Beyond sharing – workspaces as decentralised decision-making and knowledge development platforms
Beyond using these workspaces for communications and information sharing, these platforms can be valuable for organisations where the workforce is distributed across space. I recall listening to a podcast interview of Shane Parish with Matt Mullenweg that made a deep impression on me. Matt is the founder of WordPress and Automattic. During the interview, he explained how they used a WordPress-based platform called P2 to enable work teams to develop code, manage projects and make decisions over dozens of timezones and locations in a distributed manner. From Matt, I heard about the concept of asynchronous meetings, where meetings are recorded (in video with transcripts) so that employees in other locations/timezones could listen to the meetings at their own time and then contribute their ideas, suggestions, questions and contributions in the P2 workspace. Matt argues that the idea that everybody must be present to participate in online or physical meetings is a relic of the past. I really love this idea, but I have not worked with any organisation yet using this form of decision-making and content development. But if you think of it, COVID has digitised so many workplaces so fast, yet we still hang on to these old rituals of scheduled meetings, decisions made during meetings, etc.
Perhaps more within our reach is the WordPress approach of using internal blogs or short essays on their P2 workplace channels for technical teams running development projects to share updates, reflect on code, to pose questions and to set priorities. Matt argues that this is very important in their organization, that is both global and yet very local. To make this work, we have to shift from working in shared documents (like MS Word) to working in shared workspaces in the form of blog posts, comments and questions in our topical channels. WordPress uses these internal essays or blogs to transfer updates, progress, snags and experience from one area/timezone/topic to others. It is a cumulative way of building on the ideas expressed by others.
You may wonder why I wrote a whole blog post about this topic. For me, this post is about reflecting on how most of the organisations I work with develop ideas together and foster shared knowledge development. Most organisations I work with describe themselves as knowledge-intensive, their employees are called knowledge workers. They are promoting the uptake, development and dissemination of new knowledge and technology in the environments they work in. I must be honest; quite a few of the organisations I work with are terrible at fostering ideas, turning concepts into knowledge modules, keeping track of external developments or having any form of distributed knowledge brewery going on. No wonder their workspaces are not the primary place where their people not only learn, but contribute to and get inspiring ideas from.
I run for the door when asked to share a success story, write a case study or contribute to the results management system, and so do many others I know. This is an extremely formal way of capturing knowledge that often leaves out the most important arguments and alternatives that had to be explored along the way.
To be effective in what we do as knowledge intermediaries is that we have to start by fostering workspaces where people can nurture ideas, share information, challenge and contrast ideas, and have deep conversations that allow for the emergence of more coherent mental models and knowledge modules. Not everybody can explain themselves in a meeting, and the online workspace allow people to take their time to organise their thoughts, or to just drop a concern, question or a contribution into a larger conversation.
Building a knowledge community that builds its members is a cumulative process enabled by digital workplaces provided by Slack and MS teams (and WordPress P2 and others). These online workspaces that are now almost ubiquitous are one of the most powerful tools at our disposal to foster distributed cognition, idea nurturing, decentralised creation, history of ideas tried and ongoing knowledge module development. Matt Mullenweg would argue that these workspaces enable distributed decision-making that is far more inclusive than our traditional ways of making decisions, arguing in real-time, and requiring everybody to be present when information is shared, alternatives are explored, or decisions are made.
Let me know how you are going to challenge the way your organisation’s digital workspace supports the generation of brewing of new ideas and concepts, the scanning of the horizon for threats, opportunities and weak signals of change, and perhaps even enabling a more distributed form of alternative development, decision-making and information sharing.
The image for this blog post is titled “Into the Jaws of Death — U.S. Troops wading through water and Nazi gunfire”, circa 1944-06-06”. It was taken by Chief Photographer’s Mate (CPHoM) Robert F. Sargent.