Authenticity and Trust in Enterprise Communities: Chat with Rebecca Jackson and Ben Elias

Building on my recent post on the new Post on Behalf of feature in Yammer, I chatted with Rebecca Jackson and Ben Elias, two Microsoft MVPs, on authenticity and trust in enterprise communities. Both Rebecca and Ben have great insights into the background to the feature and when and how to leverage it.

My key takeaway remains that the power of Yammer is employees engaging each other to create value in the organisational strategy. Make sure your use of Yammer is working to that high value end.

Yammer for Communicators

Planning your use of Yammer

Yammer is a tool that looks straight forward to many communicators. It is an employee communication tool so we can use it to broadcast to employees. This mindset is why so many communicators focus first on the number of employees on the platform and the communication features available. Employee engagement matters and so do the breadth of features available. However, highly valuable and strategically powerful use of Yammer is about more than numbers and buttons wrapped around broadcast messages. There is a critical opportunity that simple broadcasting to employees in Yammer misses. Yammer is both a communication tool and a collaboration tool for communities. This two-way potential opens up new opportunities for interactions and new power to your communication strategies.

Communication AND Collaboration

This two-way potential of Yammer is critical in this time because it highlights how we need to respond to the uncertainties and challenges facing our organisation. Rather than pretending they don’t exist or ironing out differences in the name of security, we have the opportunity to leverage our whole organisation’s talents and capabilities to navigate and adapt. That’s ultimately what we come together in organisations to achieve. Yammer magnifies the power of organisations to leverage talents and capabilities. The communicators in organisations play a critical role in supporting this process.

Organisations exist to change to meet the needs of customers and the environment

Communicators are very familiar with planning broadcast messaging in an organisation. We work from the audience, through objectives, to the message, delivery and call to action. In thinking about the power of the two-way communication opportunity, communicators can use similar questions. It begins with understanding who is in the community and what purposes they share. That planning develops by recognising the the process forward is a two-way interaction. Communicators need to think through how to start the conversation, how best to engage that community and ultimately the work that they want achieved together.

Planning out the engagement

Planning for a successful collaboration must also leverage the understanding of communities in the Value Maturity Model of Collaboration. Communities are comprised of people who come together to share purpose and build trust. Organisations are comprised of many overlapping groups like this. If you want to engage these groups on Yammer or any other collaboration tool, you will need to work through how those people connect in purpose, share sufficient context to work together and begin to solve common problems with the capabilities of the organisation. Psychological safety, working out loud and the degrees of freedom to make change become critical accelerators of value on that journey and what ultimately powers the value of the work. The Value Maturity Model Canvas is a tool to enable anyone planning a collaboration to work through questions aligned to this model.

The Value Maturity Model of Collaboration

At a high level the role of the canvas is to map our the key questions aligned to the Value Maturity Model: who needs to connect, what do they need to know to solve what problem. Even these simple questions can guide a communicator in thinking about how they can better leverage Yammer for greater value in their organisation.

Do you understand the who, what, how and what if? for you? for your employees?

Planning in this way is important for communicators who want to leverage the benefits of Yammer because it will enable them to adopt more valuable use of the platform Yammer offers an organisation and also support other leaders that they advise to do the same. Swoop Analytics has mapped out a range of personas of user behaviours that reflect different value in the use of Yammer. You can see how these personas move from passive, to communication only and ultimately to two-way interaction that fosters the wider network.

The value of users differs – from communication to value creators and value multipliers

In its recent Yammer Benchmarking report for 2020, Swoop Analytics has also identified that groups in Yammer move through a very similar continuum. This reflects the fact that network collaboration is often fractal with patterns repeating at different level. The pattern is so similar that I have adapted their image for personas to reflect the different types of groups moving from inactive through to value multiplying. Communications professionals in organisations can play a key role in helping groups to interact in more valuable ways. If you are planning to leverage groups, remember announcements and sharing groups are useful but the real value comes from a deeper two-way interaction.

The value of groups differs from communication to value

No two organisations are the same. No two groups are the same. No two employees are the same. You will get the sense that there is no one pattern for success in Yammer for communicators. In fact the uses are extraordinarily diverse and reflect the growing value of two-way interactions through the maturity journey for individual users and also for the groups together. Whether you use text, images, video, GIFs, Q&A or something more to start your interaction, you are only just beginning a journey of change together with the employees of the organisation.

A myriad of valuable use cases. As many as you have employees and work challenges

As role models of communications best practice and as advisors to senior leaders, communicators can play a key role in enabling all employees in a Yammer network to understand how best to leverage the platform. While Yammer may support organisational top-down messaging, two-way means it is also powerful as a vehicle for peer-to-peer and bottom-up conversations, work and change initiatives. Fostering productive mindsets and behaviours across the employees, groups and organisation will help power this change. Those mindsets have been described on this blog before. Importantly, these mindset challenge traditional communications models of trying to get a message and its delivery perfect every time. Because you are planning for interaction and engagement, there is a chance to improve the messaging and its understanding over time. Thankfully there’s also the ability to edit typos in Yammer these days. Open, generous and purposeful listening and engagement from all employees whether senior leaders or frontline employees will be the foundation of the kind of trust that multiplies value and speeds organisational agility.

Changing mindsets around work and communication – not everything is about perfection

The two-way potential of Yammer as a platform for communication and for collaboration is what enables it to play a key role in helping organisations to adapt to change. Open communities, groups and a culture that enables employees to foster change will help lead that transformation. Ultimately an organisation’s success depends on how well it aligns its people and leverages their known and unknown talents and capabilities in performance and needed change. We can’t know everything all the time, but we can create a platform that enables people to share what they know, do what they can do to help and campaign for necessary change. The communicators in organisations have an important role to play in taking Yammer far beyond an employee communications platform to an open platform to leverage talents and capability for strategy and change.

If you are interested in how best to leverage Yammer in your organisation, reach out to Simon Terry and request a copy of the Collaboration Maturity Model canvas to help with how you and your employees can create greater value through everyday work.

Yammer as a Strategic Talent and Capability Coordination Tool – #M365May

I recently spoke at the Microsoft 365 May event building on the themes of how organisations adapt to uncertainty and looking at how organisations can leverage Yammer to engage in open discovery and coordinate known and unknown talents and capabilities.

More on the Value Maturity Model of Collaboration.

More on the Drivers of Strategic Value

More on the Playing to Win Strategy model from Lafley and Martin.

Reflections and the Work Ahead in 2020

Wishing all the readers of this blog seasons greetings and best wishes for 2020. Thank you for continuing to follow along.

I have had a regular practice on reflecting on the year of work at the end of each year. That reflection is also an opportunity to set some goals for the year ahead. I missed last year’s opportunity in the rush. Here is this year’s reflection and some plans for 2020.

Reflections on The Year that Was

Innovation is Work. Hard Work.

Across a number of work, board and other advisory roles this year I have been working on innovation in its many forms. None of it has been easy. All of it has been hard work with ups and downs, setbacks and real need for persistence. Much of it reflects the adage that ‘most overnight successes are a decade’s work.’

Above all, this year has reiterated the need to be clear on the problems that innovation is seeking to solve. Those problems shouldn’t be assumptions. They should come from listing and engaging the market and also from ongoing testing in the market. The path to success is not paved by genius or talent. The path to success is hard work, persistence and iteration.

Persistence includes the need to push through in face of failure. Let the doubters and the critics have their say, but focus, set goals and keep pushing for change.

Transformation isn’t the work of a Hero. It is a Community effort

We often see transformation expressed as the work of a hero (my choice of gendered language is deliberate). Transformation is the opposite of an individual effort. Transformation is the work of a community coming together to scale change and to build something new that leverages their collective talents and fulfils their collective potential. That work must include everyone and leverage their many diverse contributions.

You can never forget that your work exists in, for and depends on a community. I had doubts this year on whether another International Working Out Loud week was needed. However, the response of the global WOL community to taking the inspiration of a WOLWeek and making it their own showed me that I was wrong. Sometimes you don’t understand the value of your own work until you see it in the community context.

The organisational design challenge at present is scaling change. We are iterating towards new solutions that leverage accountability, transparency and alignment to accelerate adaptation. Encouraging and enabling communities to come together to lead their own transformation in relation to the opportunities they see and the talents that they have. The skills of community management and agile change will be critical in the decade to come.

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Collaboration

Collaboration matters more than ever to the strategy and success of organisations. All organisations need to be leveraging the collective potential of their people to create new value.

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More effective and more valuable collaboration is the key ingredient in organisations addressing their challenges with speed and effectiveness.  I recently posted an overview of my learnings from the last decade of collaboration. If I would add anything to those insights, it is the importance of taking a relationship view over a transactional one and keeping clear the differences between chat, conversation and collaboration which is more important with the rise of new work apps.

Aware Aligned Action

Earlier this year, I shared some insights into the drivers of value. Keeping value at the centre of our work remains key.

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Personal Leadership

The pressures of the work this year made it clearer to me that personal leadership is a key part of success in the modern era of work. The pressures will not grow less. We need to make choices and take action on our work and our lives to give ourselves back control. Those choices most importantly involve saying no and setting boundaries.

Those boundaries include setting digital boundaries in an era where there are more addictive demands on our attention. Unplugging, meeting face to face, finding time to read, converse and relax became ever so important in 2019. Trust and understanding come from shared context and deep relationships and that take time, effort and engagement. Rapid digital conversation can give us chat, but conversation and collaboration require us to give and to invest more.

The Work Ahead in 2020

I sat down on Monday night and mapped my 2020 workload. 2020 promises to be a year that is busy with activity, projects, deliverables, learning and commitments. Across my work, consulting, advisory and board roles, I will be stepping up to the next level of activity.

At the same time I am also planning to take on some additional creative challenges and set some boundaries so there will be great demand for creative solutions and a real continuing to learn the lessons of mindful choices, personal purpose and productivity. Busy isn’t an answer or an excuse.  Busy is a challenge we must all beat. I will be stretched in the year ahead.

I will continue to focus throughout the year on the future of work, the power of community and accelerating the value of collaboration. As noted above, this is core capability to underpin all of the activity and opportunity ahead. Excitingly, we are increasingly seeing organisations all around the world focus on the potential of collaboration and working out loud. Stay tuned as I will share the lessons of this work on this blog.

Reviewing my 2017 reflections and the update for 2018, the elements highlighted still hold as areas of work. In 2020 two additional areas, seem urgently in need of work: enabling the continuity of a functional civil society in a global economy going through transformative change and addressing our sustainable future.  In 2020, two challenges will be on the forefront of the work that I do:

  • supporting the transformation of disability, health and care through enable consumer choice and control and new ways of efficiently managing care through LanternPay.
  • enabling new degrees of freedom in work and scaling agile change in communities to deliver the innovation, transformation and human work we need through Change Agents Worldwide.  That includes finishing the book and addressing the themes that I discuss in this Disrupt Sydney talk.

Transactions vs Relationships

Effective collaboration in organisations is built on relationships. Employees and their leaders need to move beyond thinking of work as transactional interactions and focus on the opportunities to adapt and improve within relationships.img_2387-1

The Need to Be Perfect is Transactional

A transaction is once and done. It has to be perfect. There is no going back, no improvement and no adaptation. You have to get it right then and there.

We have engrained a machine metaphor into thinking about our day to day work. This approach reinforces our views that work is transactional, a flow of inputs into outputs executed with perfect efficiency. Email communication even reinforces this model with its inbox and task oriented form of work.

This metaphor flows on to the use of social collaboration tools like Yammer when there is a sense for employees that they need to be perfect in each transactional communication. Employees, and especially their status conscious leaders, express concerns that they might say the wrong thing, make a mistake, or they might not act on every message.

Collaboration is not a transaction. It is not once and done. Collaboration is about a human flow of give and take in an ongoing relationship. Much of our work now is knowledge work that demands relationship interactions. We need to know more than our inputs. We need to be able to evaluate information, build on it, interact, challenge and create together with others to produce the value that our organisation’s need. We have moved from machine input-output to a creative iterative human flow.  

Relationships are Adaptive

The Value Maturity Model starts with connection because it is a reminder that collaboration is an activity that is founded on human relationships. Importantly, real human relationships support the kind of iterative activity that enable value creation collectively.

If you have ever read a transcript of a conversation, it becomes quickly evident that when humans interact they don’t speak whole perfect sentences. A conversation is an exchange with people talking over each other, making assumptions, correcting themselves, building on shared context, addressing misapprehension and working together towards shared understanding. Collaboration in social collaboration tools reflects this kind of iteration and development. The stages of connection and sharing build trust and shared context that enable people to work in much more efficient ways even if they don’t communicate perfectly.

Employees and leaders should not fear a lack of perfection.  Instead of focusing on a single interaction, they should focus on the power of relationships built to deliver collaboration and value creation at scale. The gain from developing these relationships and using the potential of the platforms to influence others, solve problems, scale change and innovate far exceeds the potential embarrassment of a single interaction.

Relationships are adaptive because they are built on shared purpose. Just like everyday conversations, we forgive mistakes and imperfections when we are in a continuing relationship with another person. A leader or employee who views these tools as a relationship gets the chance to go back, improve and adapt, leveraging the relationships and trust that they have built. When we talk about working with others with authenticity and empathy we are describing this process of learning and adaptation, along with sharing a few weaknesses and vulnerabilities. Employees who treat the tool transactionally will be judged on their interactions alone.

Leaders and employees need to focus on the power of the tools to support the work they do with others to connect, share, solve and innovate at scale.  An ongoing focus on the value of these relationships will accelerate their success and reduce the risks of each individual interaction.

Thanks to Steve Nguyen for asking great question

#YearofYammer: Yammer as a Platform for the Value of Community

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At Microsoft Ignite 2019, the Yammer product team has debuted its updated product strategy. This strategy focuses Yammer on its core roles, redesigns the user interface and mobile experience and improves integration across the Office365 suite, including SharePoint, Outlook and Teams integration patterns.

Yammer

 

Bringing the Outer Loop to Life:  Yammer as a platform for Community

The Yammer community advocates are passionate advocates of this new product strategy because we have always seen Yammer as a way to connect communities enterprise wide. Much of the debate around Yammer in the wider tech community has been due to lack of clarity of how it plays a role in Microsoft’s Collaboration Strategy.

The Yammer team’s discussion in 2017 of Inner and Outer Loops of Collaboration clarified this role but we are now seeing the product roadmap and integrations focus us all on the potential of these use cases. I am excited we can now begin to accelerate the conversations about the leadership, change and community potential of Yammer.

Core to Yammer’s updated product strategy is an clear statement on Yammer’s core use cases:

  • Communities
  • Sharing Knowledge
  • Leadership engagement

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Photo credit: Amy Dolzine

These use cases align perfectly with the Value Maturity Model (seen above and explored on this blog) and highlight why the focus on adoption of Yammer as a platform for collaboration in community has always been a journey of focus on connection, sharing, solving problems and innovation.

Year of Yammer

Realising the Value in Community

Strong adoption support will be essential to help any organisation realise this value of collaboration in community. The Value Maturity Model and its supporting practices offers a roadmap for community managers to begin to leverage this new Yammer focus, particularly as it becomes more widely available to the organisation through other Office365 integrations.

Here a few key reminders for community managers planning to leverage this new Yammer product strategy:

  • Focus on value in your strategy: Yammer is just a tool to fulfil your strategy. Understand the value you want to create and align your plans around that value. Employees should be engaged in and aware of this alignment. Here is your chance to engage employees directly in alignment to strategic value creation.
  • The best engagement is action: Employee engagement is often the responsibility of employee communications or HR teams. There can be a tendency to see the challenge of employee engagement as one of better communication and employee experiences. It isn’t. Employee engagement is a tool to leverage employee’s capabilities into value creating action. Employee engagement is how you leverage discretionary effort and hidden capabilities to create surprising value. Give your employees the chance to do things to add value. Don’t just talk with them.
  • Employees are leaders too: Leadership engagement is deliberately vague.  Leadership is work. It is not a title or a role. Any employee can lead and given the chance on Yammer they will. The higher tiers of value in the Value Maturity Model represent the distribution of leadership, change and innovation that is possible in community. Make that a part of the plan for community in your organisation.

I am very excited about this Year of Yammer. Let’s create some value in community together.

 

Value depends on Values

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I have recently being doing work in and around the not-for-profit and mutual sectors. What is clear to those organisations is often lost in the wider business market. Value depends on values. If we want to accelerate value creation, we need to found our efforts in the expressing the values of the organisation. If we have challenges realising value, we are wise to look to values as a potential barrier.

Found Connection in Purpose & Values

Purpose is the core reason the organisation exists. In connecting people across the organisation, it is essential to leverage this rationale and invite employees to connect their personal purpose in pursuit of this value to others.  Purpose will also be an expression of the shared values in the organisation.

Values are an important part of this alignment. Enterprise social collaboration is a megaphone of organisational values, not the ones on the poster, the real values in action across your organisation. If you want to focus on fostering the value that flows from collaboration, you will want to reinforce the constructive values and address any negatives.

We are now clear that psychological safety is a key enabler of collaboration. Shared expectations within and across teams in an organisation help create this environment of safety to share, criticise and take risks. Those shared expectations are the values in action in your organisation. This is culture – the expectation of interactions.

A key step in setting up connection is working with executives, champions and other leaders to foster the visibility of the positive behaviours. Showcase the best of your values and help employees to move towards positive change.

Another key issue that improves psychological safety and demonstrates constructive values is leveraging the new collaboration capability to share with openness, authenticity and a reduced power difference between senior executives and other employees. The greater the power difference in interactions and the less transparent senior executives are the more uncertain employees will be of the value of contributions. Values will be shaping the value creation from day one.

Values Enable Scaled & Agile Change

Values shape how quickly organisations mature the value of their collaboration. Highly valuable collaboration depends on employees having the encouragement and ability to address issues and realise strategic goals together.

The four drivers of value in collaboration, growth, velocity, effectiveness and protection, each depend on the ability of employees to identify, share and come together to create solutions that improve the organisation’s performance of its strategy. Without constructive values, this work by employees will be blocked, deferred or frustrated.

This work demands organisations practice values that support this value creation by employees:

  • Openness: Is the organisation and its people open to hearing the good and the bad? How is feedback taken and actioned? Does the organisation listen to all voices – powerful and quiet, internal and external?
  • Integrity: Does the organisational conversation reflect the practice of integrity by employees? Is there a realistic view of what is going on? Are employees misleading each other?
  • Recognition: Are the efforts of employees celebrated? Are good outcomes and bad outcomes discussed openly recognising the contributions and the outcomes?
  • Generosity and Reciprocity: Do employees give of their ideas, time and talents? Are those gifts reciprocated by the organisation and other employees?
  • Autonomy & Initiative: What degrees of freedom do employees have to initiate change? What impetus is there for employees to take action without waiting for others or waiting for instruction?
  • Trust: are employees trusted to make change for the better?

Values play a key role in shaping the potential value creation by employees in collaboration. Through all stages of the Value Maturity Model we need to foster more constructive values in action.

Aware>Aligned>Action

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I often talk to senior executives about the challenges their organisations face creating value, coordinating work and achieving strategic goals in a rapidly moving digital environment.  Those challenges commonly fall into 3 categories:

  • Awareness: Do the employees in the organisation know what they should know? Are we making use of information effectively and in a timely manner?  This challenge is often summarised by the wish ‘If only, we knew what we know’
  • Alignment: How do I know that the effort in my organisation is going to creating value and high value work aligned to strategic goals? How do I enable employees to autonomously solve alignment issues? This challenge is often summarised by the wish ‘If only, we could get alignment without the meetings’
  • Action: How can I benefit from my employee’s position on the spot to solve problems and put information to use? How can we react faster and better to the opportunities around us? How do we engage discretionary effort and make things happen at scale? This challenge can be summarised by the wish: ‘If only, we didn’t wait for instruction’

I have previously described three patterns of human interaction that help address these key issues for senior executives:

  • Chat helps create Shared Information
  • Conversation helps create Shared Understanding
  • Collaboration helps create Shared Work

Shared Information solves Awareness: An organisation that has robust chats will have a wide sharing of information among employees. It is never possible to create complete information awareness, but we can foster an environment in the organisation of what McChrystal calls ‘Shared consciousness’ in his book Team of Teams. Having transparent sharing of information and context building chat across a public network, increases the likelihood that information will be available for employees to pull into their work when and where they need. This is because chat both helps surface this information such that others can find it and it also develops an organisation index of expertise and authority that individuals can leverage to find information effectively.

Shared Understand solves Alignment: Once issues of simple awareness and status of goals are removed by creating a shared context, most issues of alignment are issues of a lack of shared understanding. People are not testing their understanding of the goals and the impact of their work in conversations that would identify the tensions and enable them to adapt to better alignment. When there is misalignment, the issue is rarely one of better broadcasting of information, it is usually how well the recipients are understanding the messages and its connection to their work and its value.  Increasing the pace and volume of conversations that reconcile these tensions when small and improve the mutual understanding is essential to developing more effective alignment and sustaining that alignment as things change.

Shared Work solves Action: It’s hard and risky to make change on your own. Collaborative work brings people into action and shows them the potential of their work to drive change and benefit others. Increasing the volume of shared work, addresses agency, fosters better experiences for employees and customers and ultimately creates an environment in which a breadth of innovation is fostered.

We can see how Chat, Conversation and Collaboration mature across the four stages of the Collaboration Maturity model in the following chart:

  • Connect: bringing people together can start some chatter and enables the initial conversations around people and alignment.
  • Share: Chat is now well developed and the sharing in the network helps develop alignment. People are beginning to be inspired to action by the sharing going on, but this action may not be visible or be in other domains.
  • Solve: There is a rich environment for awareness and the potential of networks to solve issues of alignment is being explored well. The benefits of problems being solved is inspiring an increasing level of action and engagement from employees
  • Innovate:  Effective innovation requires all three to be operating at a high level and the ability to bring the whole organisation’s systems to bear on challenges and opportunities. This level of collaborative performance requires a high level of trust to have been created through the experience of growing maturity.

Here’s a table to reflect how each stage can be mapped.

Aware Aligned Action

This discussion to date has been agnostic of the tools you might choose to conduct chats, conversations and collaboration. As I have noted previously, these human behaviours relate to patterns of human interactions but can be mapped to a range of features of different collaboration tools. Different features of different tools address the various elements of awareness, alignment and action to differing degrees. Most importantly your tool will have significant impact on the shape of what is known and what is unknown. This can be a critical issue in awareness, alignment and action and the resulting value created (a topic for a future blog).

In addition, you will always find users whose preferences differ and they seek to execute the behaviour in unusual ways to suit their perceptions and needs. At times there may be a need for chats, conversations or collaborations to improve awareness, alignment, and action for these users.

Most important in achieving the goals that management want to see from these tools are key questions that must be address in the adoption of any new work behaviours:

  • what is the culture of the organisation now and what does it need to be for success?
  • How open and transparent can we be with information?
  • How well shared is the information, understanding and work of the organisation to begin?
  • What is the pace of change and adaptation?

The key challenges of management can be easily and effectively addressed by encouraging adoption of both inner and outerloop work tools and the use of both in combination. Designing and supporting that adoption in organisations requires a focus on the human change that will ensure success.

Do for, Do With or Enable

When managing the value of collaboration or other future of work activities, it is critical that we enable employees to exceed our expectations.

As a marketer, I came across research in many domains that highlighted that people have diverse preferences for the experience of choice and control. Some people like things done for them, some people like things done with their active participation and decision-making and then there are those who want to do it all alone.

Do it For Me

The practice of collaboration is maturing across organisations. Community managers and adoption specialists increasingly understand that we need to move beyond ‘do it for me’.

In the early days when the technology was new people found prescriptive approaches useful. They still demand them in psychologically unsafe environments because following an order is a form of thoughtless safety.

There will always be some part of the population that has a preference to be told what to do. However, this group probably won’t be the source of your greatest value creation.

Do it With Me

The Value Maturity Model of Collaboration above recognised that co-creation of value is a key part of effective collaboration. Employees want to work with others to break the shackles of traditional management and create new value.

Community managers must plan for this agile co-creation process. They need to leave activities and engagement open enough that it appeals to those whose preference is ‘Do it with me’. In this way, collaboration is an exercise in collective sense-making.

Enable Me To Do It

Much of what is said about generations is myth. However the highlighting of preferences for self-service and control in younger generations is an expression of the ‘I’ll do it streak’ in the whole community. The era now increasingly validates this choice and control and leaves us questioning the hierarchical command and control models of work and management.

Organisations need to enable the degrees of freedom for employees to do their own thing in creating value aligned to strategy. A key part of the approach to collaboration is deciding where these degrees of freedom are required and building employee capability to take advantage of it.

Independent action and agency is an important part of how people realise their potential. We come together in organisations to realise human potential more effectively than as individuals. Your collaboration plans should take account of all three segments – do it for me, do it with me and I’ll do it. This requires organisations to have a clear plan to align people around purpose, develop psychological safety and enable degrees of freedom in their employees.

Post #999 – How to have Meaningful Work Conversations Online

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I invited suggestions for the last posts before the 1000th post on this blog and Cai Kjaer suggested the great topic of how to have meaningful work conversations online.

This is a topic that has been underexplored so let’s dive into a long post to breakdown some of the elements and suggestions how to improve the interactions in your community. I don’t propose that this is a comprehensive response to the topic. What follows is my tools and approaches for managing meaningful online conversations. If all you want is a short post with some tools for conversations online, jump now to step 5. Before we answer the question, there are a few preliminary topics to consider. 

Step 1: What’s a meaningful conversation?

Mark is right that a meaningful conversation could be widely interpreted. I interpreted Cai’s tweet as using meaningful in the sense of significant to the participants. That lifts us out of the realm of light weight information exchange or chatter and into the realm of conversations or collaboration. Because we are looking at conversations and collaboration, I will be using a range of concepts from adaptive leadership, effective conversations, coaching, collaboration and other domains to guide us in how to foster an meaningful discussion.

For this post, I will use a definition of meaningful conversation in line with the Value Maturity Model of Collaboration. A meaningful conversation is one that the participants or the wider organisation see as delivering value to them personally or to the purpose of their work. Value in this context is not limited to monetary value. It is value as the one or more participants or the wider community define it.

The value might be intensely personal or it might be something shared with others in the organisation.  These latter types of value include achieving an organisational goal that benefits external stakeholders, enabling an employee to grow and develop or helping a customer. Meaningful conversations are often those that create or deliver value to the participants in the conversation or to the beneficiaries of work. The conversation particularly will leverage the economic and non-economic drivers of value.

Step 2: What is your goal?

A successful meaningful conversation requires some kind of goal to measure success against. Something needs to change as a result of this conversation. Achieving progress in the change that you want to explore should be your goal.

Our organisations today already have many conversations without meaning, value or purpose. To have a meaningful conversation, you need to know the significance you want to deliver. Start with the end in mind is great advice and it applies in this context too.

The best goals aren’t capitalised nouns. They are specific changes to enable you to think about who best should be involved in the conversation and what kinds of value you might be looking to realise from a discussion. Starting a conversation about Employee Engagement in an online community is likely to be unproductive. Using employee input to design solutions to improve a specific pain point in the employee experience is much more likely to be productive.

The end should not be a specific predetermined outcome of the change. A meaningful conversation is one in which the participants have the opportunity to add value to the discussion in a generative way. Meaningful conversations are those where greater value is created than anyone expected going in.  If you know exactly what you want and you aren’t open to input, you aren’t trying to have a conversation, you are trying to deliver an order.

The goal should not be having the conversation itself. Conversations are great. However, in the work context people are busy achieving meaning and creating value. If you want to take their time, their input and leverage their potential, it needs to go beyond a conversation alone. Your meaningful conversation is only meaningful if it results in new value, new actions or new changes.

Step 3: Should the conversation be online?

Not every conversation is well suited to be online. There I said it. I’m not suggesting you start pulling out your ‘what to use when’ guides. I am suggesting you reflect before you start as to whether an online environment will be conducive to the participants, the participation and the value that you seek to achieve from the conversation.

Online conversations are often more asynchronous, lower bandwidth and less rich in context. We know participation can be an issue at many times but particular when the stakes are high. This means that they can be great for wider engagement, real-time interaction and less personal issues.

Online environments aren’t always a great environment for emotive issues, win/lose debates, situations that are highly stressful or where there is a large amount of context or confusion to address. One person’s speculation or thought leadership can feel to another like trolling. Meaningful conversations require participants who have trust and sensitivity to diverse others.

Step 4: Where online?

Just as not every conversation should be online, not every conversation should be public online. Reflect before you start on this meaningful conversation whether there are issues that might cause some people concern if this conversation is held publicly. We know that the best teams ensure that participants in discussion feel psychologically safe to participate and make contributions. You might want to choose a smaller group or a more private environment to maximise the value of some conversations.

Choosing the right place online will depend whether the conversation one that belongs in the inner or outer loop in your workplace, the culture of use of those tools in your organisation and the velocity of conversations and messages in those tools. It can be hard to try to have a meaningful conversations that requires though reflection and changing views while being bombarded with new messages, distractions and other issues. The culture in practice of your organisation and your own choices are the best guide to where it makes sense for you or the organisation. Don’t follow a ‘what to use when’ guide blindly for an important conversation.

Relevance of the place chosen matters too. Working out loud works best when it is a conversation about work in a relevant community with relevant people. The best place to have a meaningful conversation is where those conversations will be appreciated and people will want to be involved.

[We are the length of an average blog post and we have only just finished preliminaries. Great question, Cai. However let’s get to the ‘how to’ part of the answer]

Step 5: How to have meaningful conversation online

As I framed at the beginning of this post, this is not a definitive guide, but is instead a description of my practice in creating, sustaining and fostering these conversations. More work and research is required to build a complete picture of all that is needed. I would encourage readers to treat the following ideas as ingredients in their own experimentation, rather than a definitive recipe.

The Ingredient List

  • Have a Plan: Connect>Share>Solve>Innovate – The four stages of the Value Maturity Model can also act as a handy planning guide for meaningful conversations. Who do you need to connect? What information do you need to share? What needs to be solved? What can you do more, better, different or less?
  • When: The right conversation at the wrong time is the wrong conversation. Conversations need to be timely. That may mean having a meaningful conversation when matters are hot. It may also mean having a more reflective meaningful conversation at a later stage. The question is when is the best time for this discussion to occur. There may be no perfect answer and if in doubt start now because currency is often the best context.
  • Are you ready? If you are seeking to facilitate a conversation, your state of mind, confidence and readiness is an important part of the discussion. Your inner state will influence others even if you never verbalise it, even online. Reflect before you start and understand your doubts and uncertainties. Ask yourself how you might use them in the conversation explicitly rather than be undermined by them. Sharing your vulnerability in the right way can be an important part of facilitating a meaningful discussion.
  • Be Inclusive: Great conversations are inclusive. Focus on what capabilities are required to ensure everyone can contribute their capabilities to the conversation. Opportunity to participate is not enough. For truly inclusive conversations, you may need to engage diverse voices on how best to be involved and actively invite the participation for those who may not otherwise speak.
  • Create a Context: Conversations don’t happen in isolation. They occur in a context. Two or more people who don’t share a context won’t be able to have a valuable or a meaningful conversation. That context includes such issues as shared facts, the rationale for the conversation, power, authority, status, safety and so on. The context needs to allow for the culture of the organisation. One way to rapidly bring in a context and lift above dry facts is to focus on beginning your conversation with some storytelling.  Storytelling is the human way of sharing context.
  • Love and Power: Adam Kahane’s book Power and Love is a reminder that meaningful conversations take account of both power and emotions. If you don’t deal with both aspects in your meaningful conversation it will fall over. Ask people questions that engage their emotions and encourage them to share how they feel. Make sure you have engaged and involve those with power and explicitly discuss the issues power presents in your conversation. You don’t want an utopian conversation.
  • Call Bad Behaviour: if you get disruptive, trolling or other negative participation, you will need to call it out and encourage others to do so too. Don’t hesitate to discuss how to make the conversation more productive while the conversation is underway. Change course if there is a better way. You may need to exclude people if the behaviour persists after warnings. Sustaining a safe and constructive environment for the conversation is important. As you invited the discussion, it is your responsibility to keep it safe.
  • Defer Action: In every conversation, someone arrives too early with an answer. The more senior they are the more likely they are to believe that they have the answer and that they want to act on it now. Facilitators know to structure discussions to allow actions to be decided later. We find better actions when we have understood more by discussion.
  • Framework for Discussion: In the book The Communication Catalyst by Mickey Connolly and Richard Rianoshek, the have a conversation framework that I have found incredibly useful in high stakes conversations. That framework is to discuss in order people’s purposes, concerns, relevant facts and then agreed actions. Facilitating conversations in this order creates a process of alignment that helps people collaborate even where they have opposing views.
  • Manage the Disequilibrium: Adaptive Leadership reminds us that meaningful conversations are not easy ones. To foster a meaningful generative discussion, we need to encourage participants to feel unsettled, to reflect and to consider the system more widely. This means you will need to lean into some conflict and challenge to get people’s attention and shift them out of everyday transactional discussions. I know I am prepared for the disequilibrium when my fingers tremble at starting the conversation.
  • Jumpstart discussion: If you want to start a meaningful discussion online with lots of participants, it is valuable to have a few people you have invited in to get the conversation going. Mentioning people is one way to start this, but for really meaningful topics you may want to engage a small group of early participants to help set the tone and kickstart the discussion. Don’t tell them what to say, but do arrange that they will participate to make their own contribution. Give some thought to ensuring that this early group has some disequilibrium in it.  You will want disagreements and diversity of views. Watching a group of people engage in group think is not engaging.
  • Conversation meter: Mickey Connolly and Richard Rianoshek also have a tool in the Communication Catalyst called the conversation meter. It encourages participants to reflect on whether their contributions to the conversation are on a rising scale from Pretence, Sincerity, Accuracy to Authenticity. Conversations below Accuracy are unlikely to be effective. Conversations from Accuracy up improve in effectiveness.
  • It’s not A to B in one transaction: A meaningful conversation is a relationship, not a transaction. Don’t expect a meaningful conversation to be over and done in one interaction. Allow time for the conversation to develop over phases. Good generative conversations include new insights and ideas generated from pauses and reflection.
  • Questions: A good generative conversation depends on great questions. Ask lots of questions, especially early on in the discussion. Keep asking questions all the way to the end. One of the forgotten elements in modern workplace conversation is asking questions to confirm understanding and to validate agreements. These are critical to the value of a discussion. As George Bernard Shaw said,

‘The greatest challenge in communication is the illusion it has taken place’

  • Explore Options: Questions can encourage people to look widely for solutions. Encourage people to explore the whole system in which they operate. Ask people for analogous situations and metaphors that might help foster new and different patterns of thought. Spend as more time on what can be done than on the barriers and historical issues. You want to help guide people to their degrees of freedom to act.
  • Don’t Panic: Meaningful conversations aren’t easy. Things can and will go wrong. You may want them to go wrong to cause disequilibrium and have reflection on why. Whatever you do, don’t panic if something bad happens. Pause, reflect, deal with it and move on.
  • It’s Never You: You want to have a meaningful conversation and nobody else does. Your meaningful conversation collapses in fights and name-calling. Someone tells you the great discussion was a waste of time and won’t go anywhere. People will attack you personally. Remember you are not the conversation. You are just the facilitator. Don’t take it personally. It’s never you. You are not your work. There will be other conversations and you can try again.
  • Work towards Value: Purpose, your goals of the conversation and the value that flow should be your guide in the conversation. There may be many byways and digressions but your role is to keep bringing the conversation back to these elements.
  • Finish with Action not more Discussion: You will learn more by doing. Make sure your conversation agrees some actions at the end and there are experiments to be run. If people can’t agree, then decide on some hypotheses to test in action.
  • Practice: The best way to have meaningful conversations online is to practice having meaningful conversations online. Engage people and learn by doing. The skills you develop across a range of online forums will help you to develop your skills in starting and managing these discussions. You will also learn to appreciate the best practices and things to avoid that you see in action.

Community managers getting to this point might reflect that what I have described above sounds a lot like community management. Do we really expect each employee or user to manage each conversation in this detail? Yes, if the stakes are high enough. If you want a meaningful conversation you must deal with the fractal nature of online communities. The large scale issues are reflected at a conversation level. Skilling up participants to support the wider group dynamics is a powerful part of highly effective communities.

Creating the right value in online communities requires people to manage the scale and value of conversations. Developing these practical skills is essential to organisations ability to learn and adapt. Most importantly, conversation are how we leverage the potential of the people in the organisation.

‘Markets are conversations’ – Cluetrain Manifesto