Umm… you could always ask them

I’m part of a LinkedIn group called Intranet Professionals.

It’s a great group with lots of interesting topics, discussion and support. But there’s been a few questions put to the forum of late that have baffled me.

The first one was:
Schoolboy asking a question

We are trying to revamp the HR section of our intranet and am looking for ideas/inspiration on how others have tackled this area? If anyone would be willing to share how they’ve structured this information, what categories they have used, screen shots etc, it would all be gratefully received!

What baffles me is the underlying assumption of the question and many of the following comments: all we have to do is think about this hard enough and we’ll get the right answer or let’s just get some ideas from our peers and then use them. It’s like they’re working in a vacuum.

Now of course I’m characterising this narrowly. One of the intents of the question is obviously to create discussion and motivation. But…

There’s a problem here: How could other intranet professionals know what was going on in the organisation, how staff think about HR, use language and group concepts together?

Would it kill to ask the visitors to the intranet what makes sense to them? (BTW: My published comment was a little more circumspect in trying to get my point across than this.)

The second LinkedIn question was:

For me it is obvious to sort topics in the top navigation according to functions, processes and what the user needs rather than by organization. But can anyone help me with a few bullet-points to convince C-management in the subject. Grateful for any feedback.

Try data.

Data should work for management and if it doesn’t then you should consider changing jobs.

You could, for example, say something like:

  • 80% of the staff we tested were able to find the target information within 6 seconds; or,
  • we discovered in keyword and card sorting research – see this research – we can improve our staff’s ability to complete this task by a factor of 2 – see research

On usability data, as Jakob Nielsen said recently, “Make no mistake: if you require perfection… you’ll have no research … Go with … some data, because it’s much better than guessing.” (Strength of User Research Evidence)

Get so-called C-management to watch a video of someone being tested trying to use the current system – highlight all the problems. Stop dealing in guesses and start dealing in facts.

I think the main problem is not that people don’t want to ask they just don’t really know HOW to ask to elicit the data they need. We’ve all done surveys that just ask for lots of opinions about stuff – but what do you do with all those opinions and all the expectations you’ve set up by asking?

At the time you’re redesigning navigation, functions or content you need to FOCUS down onto what’s really important not open up to everything.

I hope I don’t see many more questions like those above, but when I do my answer will always be some variation on “umm.. you could always ask them”.

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Do you need a business blog? The 5 whys technique

Michael owns and operates a removals business. But his business isn’t just any old removalist, it has real environmental chops: it’s officially carbon neutral,  it’s trucks run on bio-diesel – 100% waste vegetable oil, it reuses and recycles packing material and the office is on 100% green energy.

But Michael is dissatisfied that his green credentials haven’t been the ‘calling card’ he was looking for; attracting the business he wants. He speculates about a business blog.

A business blog is a term for publicly available web content, usually written, but also visual and audio, delivered via a website. I say ‘business’ because it’s a blog whose primary concern is to serve business or career aims, as opposed to a personal blog where hobbies and individual interests come first. It’s also a verb to describe the act of composing a blog.

Does Michael need to blog then? Simple. Surely he only need weigh the benefits up against the disadvantages and get going (or not)?  Less talk, more blog. But decision-making is much more messy than that.

Michael’s question about business blogging is really a solution looking for a problem. What’s the problem?

Our culture pushes people to jump to solutions more often than it allows us to dwell on problems. We’re taught early on to avoid problems. We even have an over-used euphemism: ‘issues’.

ask why

Take it apart, see how it works

I remember the delight I felt when, as a boy, I dismantled a wind up mouse. I couldn’t put it back together exactly the same way it started off but I learnt a lot about how it worked.

A mechanical toy is a complete solution to a bunch of design problems and it doesn’t need to by taken apart. But a blog is only a partial solution to business design problems. In a sense, a hastily constructed solution is a business process ‘fault’.

If you’re looking for advice on whether you should start a blog then you won’t find it here but you might get a powerful technique for how to approach it.

5 Whys

The technique I’ve found success with is simple: ask why until you uncover the underlying problem. It’s been used in manufacturing for ages where it’s called the 5 whys, a form of root cause analysis.

Here’s some things I’ve learnt that’ll help you apply it:

  • Dwell on the problem; ask why as many or few times as necessary to get to the nub of the problem
  • Keep the questions simple; ask with a real sense of curiosity
  • Record the answers
  • Don’t feel like you need to solve any particular problem that arises
  • If you feel the timing is right, also ask a contrary question to test assumptions. I’ve since discovered this is a loose version of what’s called counterfactual testing and I’ve included some examples of this below.

5 whys is also linked to negotiation. It has the side-benefit of focusing on ‘needs’ rather than ‘positions’ and it’s an excellent way to get more people to buy into the eventual solution. Here’s my example of the 5 whys in action:

1. Why do you want a blog? 

Michael thinks a blog may define his unique service offering in the removal industry. (Although I didn’t ask, a counterfactual question you ask could be: why a blog specifically, why not a Facebook page, Twitter account, word of mouth, seminar, webinar or printed material? Or why haven’t you already done one?)

2. Why do you need to define your unique service offering? 

Michael: no one else in the industry is doing green removal. ( How do you know – have you researched this? What about other countries?)

3. Why is no one doing green removal?

Michael: because it’s a conservative industry? (What would removals look like if everyone was ‘going green’?)

4. Why is it a conservative industry?

Michael: because people mainly compete on price. (What would a ‘progressive’ removal industry look like?)

5. Why do people mainly compete on price?

Michael: people want to get from A to B as quick as possible. They want to know we’ll be there on time and take care not to break anything. But they want it cheap. Why would you pay more just because we do all of that AND don’t wreck the planet? (Do you have any examples of a customer hiring you on a factor other than price?)

Focus on the process

So where did the 5 whys (and counterfactual testing) take us? To a strategy problem. Maybe it’s a mismatch between the services and the market.

5 whys technique says to focus on the process. Your business strategy is more of a process than a thing – how you continue to answer questions about your business. And a blog – which is really a way to get your knowledge out of the shop floor (clinic, office, workshop, etc.) – could help you ask and answer a bunch of questions, defining and refining your business strategy.

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Back up in the stratosphere

Stop! Does that document you’re working on actually exist? Techy reasoning goes… if a digital document doesn’t exist in three places, it doesn’t exist at all. Enter ‘the Cloud’. If you haven’t heard of the Cloud, where have you been? What I’m about to describe is cloud computing – the use of computing hardware and software resources delivered as a service usually over the Internet.

So, this is how I make my data exist in three places:

I use the free version of Google Apps. I have a Google Drive folder on my hard drive. I save everything I need to it. It gets instantly synchronised with my Google Drive folder on the web. It also gets backed up with my Seagate wireless external hard drive. Three places: my hard drive, Google Drive in the cloud and on my external hard drive. It exists. If in a disaster I lose one I still have two copies to recover from.

Cloud computing also happens to be the best way for me to manage my emails and calendar, folders and document sharing. This isn’t an ad for Google – I’d be happy for someone to show me another system that works as well it’s just… it’s free (ads aside) and works well.

Computing wasn’t always thus. Before the cloud I used to be forever losing documents. It doesn’t surprise me that people and businesses I know still lose data due to shoddy practices. Yes, losing data.

In fact, backup and the online office as Cloud services are now so necessary that my friend, Andrew Davis, has turned the Cloud into a business – Boxless. Boxless helps organisations work more effectively with web-based software and then Andrew trains staff how to use it… properly. I recently spoke to Andrew about the Cloud.

Even though the past 10-15 years has made it dramatically easier for organisations to improve productivity with the aid of technology, we don’t know quite how to take advantage of the changes. The best way Andrew’s found to explain it is in metaphor:

Buying software is now like buying electricity. It can be purchased cost effectively as a service on a pay-as-you-go basis. Back in the 1990s, organisations didn’t have this option. IT projects involved high upfront capital investment in hardware and software. It was sort of the IT equivalent of installing a diesel generator in your office. It seems to me that many IT consultants are still stuck in the 1990s. They’re supplying generators to their clients, when they should really be connecting them to the electricity grid.

Andrew works directly with his customers to provide the benefits of Cloud computing.

Trust

Even with the technological advances we’ve made, people are still people.

On his projects Andrew says, “it all comes down to trust… engagements tend to progress well when I’m working with a business owner (or decision maker) who is good at thinking conceptually.”

For me, I managed to solve my own productivity and disaster recovery problems in the Cloud. As Andrew states, “business owners are often pretty clear on the problem, but unsure of how best to solve them. If I’m able to earn their trust, then we’re often able to get staff working ‘smarter’ quite quickly.”

Social media organisation

Andrew is also an expert on social media in organisations so I couldn’t resist asking him about that, too, as it is related to the future world of rapidly changing communication technology.

What are his thoughts on social media in the organisation? “My experience (with Yammer) is that it can dramatically flatten the organisational hierarchy. It can facilitate good discussion, and enable people to find answers to questions far more quickly than via other media. However,” Andrew goes on, “for it to work well, it still needs strong support from an organisation’s leadership. They really do need to ‘walk the walk’.”

Be mindful

Andrew plans to work more with his clients on the mindsets and behaviours their staff need to develop if they are to be able to work effectively in the new communications world. Like me, Andrew is interested in the theory and practice of ‘mindfulness‘. In an increasingly busy world we recognise that, as workers – especially ‘knowledge’ workers, we need sometimes to observe life from the stratosphere.

I started off with data and now I’m back to people. Funny that. We can’t get away from the fact that people will always be the purpose of technology – even if we forget sometimes.

Man watching kites

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