Honest, informative rating of content… please!

I spend a lot of my time thinking about what makes a business communication system really useful. Sad, but true. There’s one concept that you will see on social tools and websites across the globe: rating.

Usually when viewers are given the opportunity to rate posted content, they are forced into providing either a positive view (thumbs up, +1 etc) vs no view at or. Sometimes there’s also the opportunity to provide a negative view (thumbs down). On the surface, this seems great – the great unwashed masses are given a voice and good “stuff” will be praised whereas bad “stuff” will not.

But there are significant issues.

Firstly, often the rating schema is linked to an entirely different concept – that of “following” either a post or a poster. Conflating these two concepts means that, sometimes, in order to follow future dialogue you’re forced to indicate that you liked the original post. This may not be true!!

Secondly, there are degrees of appreciation which are not covered in a “+”, “-“, “no view” approach. I like my neighbours and love my wife, rather different degrees of “appreciation” here, but social platforms would expect me to “like” them all. Yikes.

Lastly, these systems assume that all opinion is equal. That simply is not true.

I discussed the problems that this causes in social systems in an earlier post, “Bubbling to the top: the Social Media value challenge“.

The solution is clear. The systems need to do three things:

  1. Separate out the concepts of “following” and “rating”.
  2. Allow for positive and negative feedback, on a graded scale.
  3. Promote the feedback of individuals noted for their informed feedback (based, perhaps, on the feedback which they themselves receive?).

The end result is posts that are not marked as “21 people liked this” but, perhaps, as “this post scores 35% based upon viewer feedback”.

Notice that I haven’t covered the thorny, in my view, issue of attribution: that of showing who “liked” or “disliked” the post. I say “thorny” because the feedback which people give is affected by whether that feedback is visible and attributable to them or not. Is an employee going to be highly critical, publicly, of his boss’s post? No, of course not. We all have our jobs to consider. Yet we need feedback to be honest. So perhaps it would be better, in the business environment, to keep those ratings as a amalgamated score and not as individually attributable.

Rating, providing useful feedback in order to help information find its true value and hence find its way to individuals who might value it, is essential to an effective business communications system. A simplistic approach doesn’t work.

Bubbling to the top: the Social Media value challenge

The world is full of social media. People everywhere are trying to get their voices heard in the multiple public and private social media platforms which together form what I glibly refer to as the “babblesphere”. They’re doing it for various reasons: perhaps they want to market products, or themselves; perhaps they want to make or keep in touch with friends; perhaps they want to spread ideas, facts or discussion points which they believe are important or just fun. Whatever the reason, it’s a big world and there’s a lot of babble… so how does content bubble to the top? How does it get wide distribution?

That’s the subject at the heart of the recent post “That Hit Song You Love Was a Total Fluke“, by Tim Sullivan in the Harvard Business Review blog. Read more of this post

Blog integrity requires thorough policing of comments

I am a natural cynic, so when I see apparently obscure comments in feedback to a blog post I’m naturally suspicious. People on the social media scene do all sorts of things to try to get clicks, we know that, but for those trying to genuinely add value it does rather spoil the show.

And if you’re keen to protect the integrity of your content, then you need to screen comments. Read more of this post

Building Effective Information Systems using Social Tools

Social media systems, tools which enable us to emit little nuggets of information whenever we like, run the risk of being analogous to using a fine-mist spray to fill a water glass at 50 feet. It’s not a terribly good way to get a drink. The trouble is, we all play two roles in the analogy: we are both the spray head and the glass. We emit nuggets of information, we also consume information which other people have emitted. It’s all a bit haphazard and directionless: it needs control in order to be effective.

Let me move away from the analogy and back to social media proper. As a Google+ user, I often send out updates – usually links to blog posts of my own, or to news articles or posts which I’ve found on the Internet which are either interesting in of themselves or else worthy of comment. These sorts of updates go out publicly, and I like to think that there might be a few people out there who would find them useful. If they could find them. And that’s the problem I am trying to highlight in this post: building social media tools which don’t just allow us to emit information, but allow information to find us. Read more of this post

Information

Information. Content. Stuff. There’s a lot of it about.

The challenge in our information-rich society is to try to get information into our brains which adds to our world view – brings us, as individuals or business people, actual value – whilst wasting as little time as possible on valueless or value-poor information.

Traditional information sources are newspapers, magazines, books and TV – as well as verbal interactions with friends and colleagues. These all have different pros and cons. Let’s take newspapers, for example. They are a great way to find out about ‘stuff’ currently going on in the world (or a locality), or at least they seem to be. Actually what they are are curated feeds of, usually, subjective information. You can choose how much subjectivity you want in your “news” by choosing a newspaper which tries to deliver more or less of it. But with the best will in the world, the news you receive in a newspaper will only ever be the news which someone else thinks you want. The stuff that they think that you’ll pay for. Read more of this post

Employment change begins at home

Since the industrial revolution, we’ve seen massive changes in the way our society organises itself around work. The industrial revolution brought intensive, factory-based employment to the masses who previously might have laboured in fields, mines or at home. But there’s since been a gradual decline in factory employment and a remarkable shift, in this country at least, to office-based work. Whilst Britain still manufactures much more “stuff” than we generally admit, manufacturing in the UK is highly automated and labour density therefore very low.

Office work is where it’s at, so it’s hardly a surprise to see large statistics around it. This country (the UK) has around 10 million office workers, according to one source. They take up around 200 million square metres of office space.

That’s a lot.

I have a simple message in this post, and it’s this: lets divorce ourselves from this love-affair with offices. Lets stop making the daily journeys from home to office, wasting our own time and consuming resources we cannot afford to consume. Green campaigners suggest we should ditch our cars and opt for public transport, implicitly supporting the case that offices are needed. But, for many of us, the practical reality is that if our commute is to be as painless as possible there is only one option: a car.

But with my “zero office” option there’s no longer any need to commute. There’s no office to commute to.

Is this radical suggestion pure idiocy? OK, I won’t deny it: getting rid of offices entirely is not likely to happen, now or in the future. People need to get together, physically get together, in order to bond well and create a social atmosphere conducive to maximising effectiveness. But are offices a good place to successfully bond individuals into effective groups? If they are, then why do companies invest money in team-building events, away-days, “off-sites” etc?

I would argue that offices are not generally very conducive either to work or to social engagement. Pubs, restaurants, sports fields, and the great outdoors are excellent for social engagement, but not very conducive to work. A quiet desk at home is extremely conducive to work, but not very socially engaging.

So here’s the plan. Ditch the offices, as far as possible – keep some for people to get together for specific purposes (meetings!). Axe the commute, travel only for specific purposes. Promote home-working, by which I mean government grants for renovations or extensions, company money for home office equipment, clarification and removal of tax rules for home offices.

This will work because we no longer live in the 20th century. The 21st century is a world of communications, a world where people can interact highly effectively even when they are not co-located. Sitting at home, with an effective set of communications tools, you can engage with customers, suppliers and colleagues just as well as you can from an office. You can see people, using video. You can collaborate on documents and presentations, using tools such as Google Apps. You can of course talk to people, instantly, using instant messaging, email and the audio device that simple telephones have evolved into. You can see what people are doing, whether they’re busy, and where they are. Build the right communications environment, and you can save massively on office space costs (rent/purchase, heating, lighting, maintenance) and on commuting costs (massively reducing fuel usage but, perhaps even more importantly, maybe also reducing the car count).

You don’t have to believe in the impact of humanity on our climate to see the sense in saving some of our precious time and resources by getting rid of the daily commute. If we use less fossil fuel then the supply will last longer. Abandoned office space can be re-claimed as housing, which we’re seriously lacking, and the ugliest, leakiest, unwanted offices can be removal entirely.

When we do need to get together, to iron out particular issues as a team or simply to get to know each other better, there are plenty of ways to do that – including in meeting rooms preserved from office buildings.

I really believe that our reliance on an office culture no longer makes sense in our modern world and, worse, contributes massively to costs, financial and environmental, which we simply cannot afford.

World take note: Thierry Breton hates email

Newspapers have recently been reporting the news that French IT services company Atos will end internal email by 2014. It presents this bombshell as being the brainchild of boss Thierry Breton, who having been at France Telecom ought to know what he’s talking about. Of course, having been in government he also knows the value of viral marketing and how to spark it.

So what’s all this about?

Assuming it’s not simply a (successful) attempt to get a bit of publicity for his company, he must be serious. Thierry Breton has decided that email is bad, and it really must go.

My first concern here is why the CEO of a company is getting so involved in deciding how the IT tools work? And at an IT company too! Isn’t there anyone specialising in, say, IT, who has the job of creating and promoting the appropriate tools for the folks at Atos to do their jobs? From the BBC’s article, it sounds like it’s very much his baby.

Essentially, Thierry is choosing between two options: a) a mix of SMTP and IMAP presenting data through a traditional email client and b) proprietary data exchange protocols working, presumably, at the database level and presenting data through custom web interfaces. Why does he care? Apparently he hasn’t used email for five or six years, but I suspect he hasn’t travelled economy for at least that long either.

Email as we know it today is ubiquitous, fast, and effective at delivering content to one or more people. What it isn’t is efficient, as it is used poorly in many cases (those “reply all” emails, for example, as well as Corporate Spam) and more importantly it does not provide a mechanism for getting the right information to the right people at the right time. It would be pretty easy to address a good deal of the concerns over email volume by applying a filter to only show message “To” yourself, and by the organisation banning Corporate Spam. Or, and here’s a shocker, to educate people to use it properly.

(Corporate Spam, by the way, is all those emails which go to building aliases, massive chain-of-command aliases, or other non-specific groupings and which proudly announce a new product, a new phone number, a winning of a reward or some other such news which could just as easily be posted on a news website. The quick tip is if an email has a picture of an exec looking smarmy at the top, delete it immediately.)

My big theme, if I have a big theme, is that the art of communications isn’t just about communications tools – it’s about the people using them too. I’m heartened that Thierry’s big quest appears to have come about from a study of working conditions, but I’m not so sure he’s looked at the big picture. If the papers can be trusted, he’s focused on the “bright young things” who have never used Outlook and, of course, never wear a watch because their phone is always to hand. It’s of course great to get the input of fresh minds, but fresh minds who haven’t much experience aren’t necessarily going to have all the answers.

Perhaps I’m being unkind. No doubt this has been given a great deal of thought by the great and good at Atos. So let’s take a look at what they’ll be doing.

The clearest statement is that internal email will be axed by 2014, but external email – email to customers, business partners and the rest of the outside world – will remain. A necessary evil? Surely just a recognition that email can be useful. Which is my second concern. Email can be useful – it really can. It’s a nice easy way of getting a message from one person to another. Why chuck it out in favour of new an untested tools? If the problem is Outlook, then get rid of Outlook. But because person-to-person and person-to-multiperson communication is important email, however it’s presented, is an important part of the mix.

What will replace email? An integration of social media tools, unspecified but fairly obvious. There are IM/Presence, wikis, blogs, forums, tagging and advanced search to choose from, as well as technology such as RSS.

Where email is the mature father figure of the electronic communications age, social networking is the offspring. Some, like IM, have grown fairly mature and are well liked in the community – but IM still has nowhere near the reach of email. Why can’t I see the presence of and send an IM to anyone in the world who has an IM client? Because they’re not all connected (sometimes because of security mania, sometimes because of cost or perceived lack of need). OK, so within an organisation this will not matter but the point is none of these tools have the maturity of email and so integration suffers because the standardisation is not there. No matter what people say, social media tools do not integrate well. A note on your Facebook wall will not appear in Google Plus, you need to integrate at the client level – which is not a good thing. Yes, you can build something that works but you’re going to be maintaining it for the rest of your life. That’s what standards are for, to lessen the integration burden.

The time is right to embrace all communications tools and put them to use as effectively as possible. Some customer integration is acceptable, and is certainly necessary. But the time is not right to re-invent the world. Email remains a valid tool which should be embraced and not shunned because of the failings of its users.

And whilst I’m keeping my fingers crossed that Atos can put together a solution that works for them, this isn’t a step forward for the industry. Yes, marketing men the world over who want to hype social media tools will be eager for a poster child, but in reality what we’re seeing here is a bespoke solution hacked together for the benefit of a control-freak CEO – and complete rejection of an established tool. What I would far rather see is a reasoned communications methodology for Atos, a definition of how they do business and how their tools make it work. It needs to cover all business processes which involve information flow, not just the stuff that essentially replaces paper memos and face-to-face meetings. Following that, I’d like to see that communications methodology embodied into infrastructure and backed by a pervasive cultural change.

I hope that’s what Thierry has in mind, and if so I’d be very interested to see it.