It’s hard to open a newspaper or surf the Web these days without reading about the impact that micro-blogging services like Twitter are having on society at large. As a one-to-many mass communications tool, Twitter is truly a game changer. However, companies are still looking to identify practical applications for micro-blogging within their organization.
Web apps like Twitter, Jaiku, and Pownce (now defunct) offer users a way to communicate to others that is straightforward and direct. Recently, the micro-blogging phenomenon has penetrated the enterprise with tools like Yammer, which lets workers broadcast what they’re working on.
In her white paper “Enterprise Microsharing Tools Comparison” Laura Fitton describes micro-blogging (or as she calls it “microsharing”) as
- Social networking tools and systems that enable listening, awareness, communication and collaboration between people, through short bursts of text, links, and multimedia content.
- A surprisingly powerful way to connect people to one another for corporate benefit(1).
The key feature of micro-blogging is that these communications are characterized by short bursts of information. The temptation to spend a lot of time “spinning” content and making it pretty is eliminated when the content is limited to less than 200 characters with no formatting options. Only the “meat of the message” is transmitted. This improves the “connectedness” between the people involved because the reduced cost of both producing and consuming these short, pithy messages makes it possible to communicate conversationally on a nearly continuous basis.
Think of it this way: how well would a dinner date go if each person prepared a two page statement on each topic on their date agenda? Would it go better if small pieces of information were continuously exchanged between each party with each person considering what the other has already shared with them? This is the difference between a soliloquy and a conversation. And it’s obvious which one is more effective from a productivity standpoint.
Short bursts of conversation make for better information exchange and foster a sense of affinity between team members. This is true even if the people communicating are physically separated (which is one of the reasons why IM was one of the killer apps of the last decade). Therefore, the key benefit is connecting people in a way that improves the value to the organization.
It’s powerful stuff. But what does it have to do specifically with project management?
These days, many project teams are geographically dispersed. This is true even inside of a relatively small company (especially in today’s “flat” world where small companies rely even more on distributed development resources). Social research from as far back as forty years ago demonstrates that there is a positive correlation between physical proximity and the ‘probability of communication’. As the graph above demonstrates, the probability of communication falls off sharply when the physical distance between pairs of people is squared. Those individuals whose desks are more than 100 feet apart are unlikely to communicate with one another other than electronically.
Face-to-face interactions are characterized by nuanced communication coupled with personal information about the communicator and a rapid feedback loop. These same characteristics are facilitated in online interactions by micro-blogging (one major difference being that personal information takes the form of things like avatar photos and profiles). This type of communication between project team members can enhance the effectiveness of project management tools.
It’s also the case that integrating micro-blogging into a project management tool enhances the micro-blogging experience. Now, rather than the nebulous “use it for whatever” stance of applications like Twitter, micro-blogging is elevated to being on par with e-mail for rapid, personal communication between project team members where the subject is clearly of interest to the company. Additionally, because it is public within the company, anyone can search through the micro-blog stream for communications and topics that are relevant to their tasks at hand.
Micro-blogging inside of a project management framework presents an opportunity to fundamentally change the entire project management paradigm. It’s contextual to the project itself, dialogue between team members can be linked to specific tasks, and these streams of conversation can be saved as part of the project archive (this project “chatter” represents valuable project intelligence that is typically lost when a project winds down). Most important of all, it’s a dynamic forum. Micro-blogging within the context of a project plan provides a unique lens by which to capture and reveal the complex linkages and interdependencies within an organization which serves to facilitate (or derail) projects and productivity.
For example, suppose there is a guy named Jim who is not a formal member of a project team. He is being consulted by the project team leaders about the subject area because he worked on a similar project a couple of years ago. The fact that communication about a specific project goes through Jim can reveal that Jim is an expert inside the company on the subject area most impacted by the project. In effect, Jim is an informal member of the team and future work in this area should perhaps be reviewed by him. Many project managers would give their right arm to have this kind of information before a project kicks off. They might even be able to argue that Jim should be released from other duties to join the team full time.
But this intelligence is often difficult to glean without some type of shared enterprise solution – especially one that is embedded within a project execution tool. Without that context, corporate micro-blogging is not nearly as compelling. It simply becomes yet another decentralized ‘black hole’ of information (like e-mail inboxes, file shares, internal websites, and wikis) that must be searched independently to determine if the content is relevant.
By bringing micro-blogging into a central location within a project management context and augmenting it with document management, task management, time tracking, and a host of other project management features, we not only improve the project management function, but leverage micro-blogging to provide what enterprise projects really need; a way to clearly and rapidly communicate with an ever-changing and distributed set of people.
1 Fitton, L. (2008). Enterprise Microsharing Tools Comparison. Boston, MA: Pistachio Consulting.
2 Allen, T. J. (1970). Communication networks in R&D laboratories. R&D Management
Bruce Henry is an advisor to LiquidPlanner, a provider of online project management software. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.