Thursday, February 24, 2005

London Blogging

Just a few minutes ago, I got an email with the title "Your blog could cost you your job." Needless to say, I sat up and took notice. It turns out to be a link to this article, which paints a dystopian picture of the institutional blog. However, there is more positive news out there, if you look. Late last year I paid a visit to Euan Semple in the BBC DigiLab, and he has graciously allowed me to interview him about the very forward-looking way in which "Auntie" is taking the new on board and putting it to meaningful use.

Q: On my recent visit to your offices I was really impressed with the demonstration you gave me and the extent to which it appeared the BBC had enthusiastically harnessed wikis, blogs, forums and social networking elements internally. For those who weren't there to see for themselves, can you outline some of the key developments for us?

Because we had our own technical infrastructure in DigiLab, a group I run who talent spot new technologies, it was relatively easy for us to take a suck it and see approach to tools to aid networking in the business.

The first thing we did was to put in a bulletin board. We started using it amongst a group of us to begin with and gradually started telling more people about it. Word soon spread and amazingly it is now the BBC's second most visited internal site with staff using it daily to ask questions and get answers. It gets used for lots of practical stuff which when you add up all the quick solutions and problems avoided is saving the BBC loads of time and effort. Ask on pretty much any topic and you'll get an answer within half an hour.

The second tool we put in is a social networking tool that lets users set up a page of info about themselves and can then be searched for particular skills or interests. It also allows users to establish interest groups which are becoming a really effective way of identifying and supporting various communities within the BBC. We are in the process of combining the bulletin board and the networking tool and once we have that I think things will really take off.

We then put in a blog server and now have around 70 blogs being written by about 100 people. They are being used for a variety of tasks from group blogs for project teams to operational logs to pass on info between engineering shifts to personal blogs capturing individual learning and experiences.

Lastly we have implemented a wiki. We chose a tool that allows us to manage access a bit. I know the principle of wikis is to be totally open but that is not always possible or approriate in current corporate culture and we have to acnowledge this and work with it. The people most attracted to using wikis are those involved in writing formal documents, policy, manuals etc.

Q: I know that there are many working within the BBC who are not tied to a PC or particular worksite, but adjusting for that part of the organization, what is your best guess on the level of buy-in or participation from the "addressable" audience? Is this on the increase, has it reached a steady state, or is it in decline, in your view?

Say we have approximately 25,000 staff and of those maybe a third are away from their computers a lot of the time, working on location or in studios etc. Of those who are left we have 8,000 or so connected to our bulletin board in any one month with approx 500,000 page impressions. So we are getting to 30% to 40% of the available population.

Q: I'm also curious to hear your thoughts on the generational aspects of this phenomenon. You mentioned that younger, more tech-savvy employees just naturally expect to have access to things like wikis. Are they the driving force which others follow, or are older, perhaps less geeky employees also driving demand and usage of these tools? In other words, is this something which takes a bit of selling and peer pressure to spread, or are the potential benefits compelling enough to drive adoption organically once the tools are introduced?

It is generally the more web savvy youngsters who are taking up the tools but we have recently had a very senior manager start an internal weblog so more and more people are up for it. I also find that people who are old enough to have teenage kids also "get it" as they watch their kids communicating with their friends and are possibly slightly jealous!

Q: What is your reading/experience of the tangible and intangible benefits
of all this to the organization overall? Then, reversing that and playing devil's advocate, how does an organization like the BBC ensure that these tools don't somehow turn into a distraction, or lead to fragmentation or factionalization of the workforce? Do you have any sense that people suffer fatigue with these tools over time, or that they reach a level beyond which they see diminishing returns?

The benefits are that we all get access to the accumulated experience and knowledge of 25,000 staff. Work related questions get sorted in minutes on the bulletin board and people are able to identify the right people to call on for help from the blogs and skills database. Getting 6000 or so questions answered in a month, even if they were minor ones, which many are not, adds up to a significant saving.

As to time wasting there is a perception, mostly amongst those who are unfamiliar with them, that these tools can encourage people to waste time. However, as has been discussed on our boards recently, people are more and more comfortable with multi-tasking and alt-tab between the board and other tasks they are doing on their computers. If they are "wasting time" then this should be picked up by their managers and be dealt with as they would having too many coffee breaks or staring out the window all day. We need to be able to treat people as grown-ups and expect them to manage their own time effectively.

Q: What other developments would you like to introduce into the mix, and what benefits would you envisage?

Integrating what we have more is the next step. Making it easy for groups to form, build a personalised suite of tools and start putting them to work. I think having a range of tools available and, so long as you aren't spending too much money on them,. seeing which work and which don 't is the only way to do this. Some tools that work for one group may not work for others and departments change over time in their readiness to adopt this stuff.

Getting a good RSS aggregator is going to become more important as the volume of activity increases. It is important to get what is being written seen by the right people to give contributors the oxygen that makes it worth continuing. There is a challenge in businesses getting to the critical mass that is necessary for these things to work and that is so much easier on the internet, but we have made a very good start.

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