I find user stories and use cases extremely valuable for documenting the specific needs of a particular situation. They define the requirements that allow us to design effective systems. But I always feel like there is something missing, like there was a step that we skipped. If we spent more time looking for and understanding what is behind these requirements, we could do a better job leveraging our knowledge base. This would yield better results by allowing effort to be spent on value added activities rather than recreating the wheel.
It is my contention that most user stories, use cases and requirements can be categorized within one of a few core usage patterns. If we understand the pattern, we can more effectively leverage previous work done in other instances that followed the same pattern. In this post I will investigate several of these patterns, where the use of social tools is particularly effective.
Patterns Where Social Tools Can Be Effective Solutions
When operating an enterprise, it is each contributor's obligation to perform due diligence in gathering the best information available in order to make a decision or take an action. In practice you can never have all the information desired when a decision or action is imminent. Time and resources always create limits on the information that can be gathered. So the trick is to get the best information possible within the available time and resources. Until recently, the best avenues for gathering information were via the hierarchy, through structured processes, reading published sources, and/or reaching out directly to friends and contacts. The problem is that each of these channels is limited, providing a one-dimensional view into the decision at hand, and each one can be time and resource intensive. If better channels for information gathering are available, it is our obligation to use them, i.e. to perform our due diligence.
Social tools provide the ability to gather better, multi-dimensional information in less time and with fewer resources. One of the keys to this enhanced information gathering ability is the opt-in distribution model typically available in social tools. The opt-in model is based on groups being formed around a particular topic, project or event. We call this the social object. In this model people self select to be members of a group interested in the social object. The result is an emergent, heterogeneous group of experts around a topic, often reffered to as a community. Now, when you are looking for information to make a decision, you have a new channel at your disposal, the community. The community is better suited, than traditional single dimensional channels, for delivering the diversity of insight needed to make a good decision. Here is a good case example, showing how information was quickly gathered to meet a need.
Structured processes work great ... as long as there are no surprises. Anytime situations arise within a process that were not specifically included in the design, structured processes tend to break down. If you try to stay within the process, the outcomes are usually sub-optimal or even harmful. If you go outside the process, things tend to fall through the cracks and are forgotten.
Social tools provide a great option, because they are inherently flexible AND leave a visible trail that can be followed and tracked. Another way to think about this is as an ad hoc task delivery system. When an exception occurs, the network of connections within your social tools facilitates the passing of exception tasks to the right person.
One of the most common patterns associated with the term collaboration is Delivery, defined as a focused group of individuals working toward a shared objective. The typical instance of this pattern is the "Project", but is also seen in the generation of any type of deliverable.
Social tools provide the ability for many people to work on the same content, without multiple copies floating around. Creating a "single source of truth" goes a long way toward effective communication within the group. Social tools also support Delivery by providing a coherent stream if information about what is happening with respect to the objective. Keeping everyone up to date in an efficient manner eliminates the extra effort and information overload associated with email chains and traditional newsletters.
This pattern is most visible in external social media, but is relevant in organizational settings as well. Whenever a small group wants to convey a message to a large group we see this pattern. The intent of the small group usually includes:
generating alignment and directionality among the large group
gathering feedback from the large group
Social tools support this pattern very well for a couple of reasons. First, these tools provide the ability for effective and timely feedback. Traditional methods of mass communication tend to be highly one sided. With social tools, not only is feedback a viable option mechanically, it also introduces transparency to the process, which fosters trust and better outcomes. Secondly, the opt-in model mentioned above comes into play here. When people get to choose their areas of interest, they tend to be more engaged in activities related to that topic.This, in return, provides the small group with a highly focused audience for its messages.
Fundamental to any role in an organization is the desire and requirement to learn. One of the keys to learning is context. Without context, information becomes meaningless data. Context provides the connection to other information that provides meaning. Therefore, the ability to see relevant connections between information, facilitates learning, by creating context. Traditionally, context has been considered overhead, something you had to provide in order for the key content to make sense. As a result, key content is:
delivered with a lot of other content that provides context, leading to the key content becoming lost or losing its impact.
placed in a specific location, i.e. in a file, and becomes difficult to find or to use
One of the true strengths of social tools is the ability to create context via networked links. The use of links to create context creates huge efficiencies by allowing the content necessary for providing context to be used via a simple connection with no need to be recreated locally. This allows the contextual information to be used again and again without extra effort. Links also make information highly findable and usable. Finally links allow new context to be dynamically configured as required. As we move toward a the Dynamically Networked Organization, the ability to dynamically connect and reconfigure information becomes critical for learning.
An example of this in action are the links I used earlier in this post. One connected to the Due Diligence case and two others connected to definitions of terms that readers may not be familiar with. I was able to simply provide additional context for anyone that is interested in learning more.
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