Are we still talking about Tags or Taxonomies?

Sometimes its easy to forget that things that are settled in your mind, are still unclear to others. This is especially true when you are immersed in an organisation that uses social collaboration as the main form of communication, when a lot of the world still uses email only.

So when I was asked recently whether tags should be standardised, it rather took me aback. But then I remembers that 10 years ago, much heated debate and excitement was  provoked by tagging philosophy. In fact, one of my earliest social bookmarks was this 2005 article on Tagging and Why it Matters by David Weinberger at Harvard in which he argues that:

…the biggest obstacle to KM achieving its vision of making all information available to everyone in the organization was in fact the difficulty of building and maintaining large classification systems. Even then, such systems never represent everyone’s way of thinking about things. Tagging, on the other hand, doesn’t require a team of Information Architects to argue for years over whether the right term is “natural language processing,” “language parsers,” or “nlp.” Users can use whatever term works for them…

The conclusion I have come to over the years is that tags and taxonomies are different things: both have value, and both are good for certain purposes. This is very visible in platforms like WordPress, where a blog post can be assigned both categories (a classification system the blog owner creates) and tags (applied more informally with greater variety and changing over time). We also argued interminably about things like whether they should be case sensitive (is “conservative” the same as “Conservative” as a label, but also what will people type when searching?) In fact, I blogged about tagging back in 2012 in the importance of tagging.

Ultimately what sold me on tags as the more important tool was the fact that they can reflect the needs of different user communities and evolve as those needs change (and no-one was even talking about being agile then). So, taking the example of an organisation I came across recently, SEPA means Scottish Environment Protection Agency to one group of people and Single Euro Payments Area to another. Does that mean one of them has to change the terminology they use and the way they label things? Nor practical. You can, of course, create a hierarchy (“environment/sepa”, “payments/sepa”), but that puts content in silos – and then if you happen to be in the wrong place when looking for something you will not find it. In general, promiscuous tagging is recommended to address this issue – so if I tag something with “sepa, single, euro, payments, area, eu, eurozone”, then even if my “sepa” search comes up with a whole load of stuff about payments, refining it with “environment” will get rid of them.

One thing to remember is that the flexibility of tagging doesn’t mean standards will not emerge. Displaying a type ahead list of tags to choose from is one way this happens in enterprise social platforms like IBM Connections, but even more critically the whole point is that the tags reflects the terminology that the users are used to using to refer to whatever is being tagged – so they naturally use the same terms (or learn to use the same terms by observing what others do). The alternative (forcing everyone to use a specific term) has a significant disadvantage that it means that anyone who doesn’t understand the terminology cannot effectively find anything – whereas if they were able to discover a few things that have also been labelled using the terminology they know, they can then be led to the right terminology by seeing the tags on the content they do find.

Now this doesn’t mean that categorisation is worthless. It has valid uses (just like Folders – which are basically categorisation of files). However, as it turns out, tags can be used to implement categories but not vice versa. Typically a standard prefix is used to indicate a category within tags – and, as discussed before, complex categorisation requires a hierarchy anyway. So using the tags “org.environment.sepa” and “org.payments.sepa” gives you a way of providing very specific access to content – at the cost of intellectual complexity: why would someone interested in European financial settlements know whether to look for “org.payments.sepa” rather than “org.eurozone.sepa”? However as long as the “sepa” tag is also used, they would pretty quickly realise that the the results all contained either “org.environment.sepa” and “org.payments.sepa” and so know which one to use in future.

Once you get used to this approach, you discover that tags are a great way of refining sepatagcloudsearches (in IBM Connections, by clicking on the tag list on the left hand side of results). So you can quickly refine a free text search by clicking on a tag: e.g. if “sepa” finds a load of both payments and environmental stuff, clicking on “environment” produces a relevant set of results. Or if you don’t find what you want, you can remove “environment” and add “scottish” or “scotland” instead until you do get what you are looking for. This approach also works well starting with a categorisation search (“org.environment.sepa” to get all content related to SEPA, then click the tag “waste” if you want information related to that topic).

The good thing about using tags is that they can change as the terminology changes (have you ever had your department renamed?). The bad thing about using tags is that they will change as terminology changes. In the short term, that is handled by searching for multiple tags. In the longer term, relevant content either gets retagged as needed (as people realise they had to use the old tag to find it, and so add the new one as well) or gets systematically retagged by the content owner (by searching for the old tag, and then adding the new tag to those objects found which are still relevant) – yes, that requires some effort, but will be done if doing so provides value (and time will hopefully not be wasted on it if it does not).

Which leads to my last thought, which is a generic response to questions of the form ‘should I use “colour” or “color” as the tag?’ The answer is to ask the question “why are you tagging it?” If the answer is just so you can find it again, use whichever tag you will search on. If you want other people to find it, then try to imagine what they will search for (which often means using both, in this case so that both British and Americans will find your content).

To conclude then, my recommendation is: tag everything promiscuously with the audience for your tags in mind; create taxonomies when it makes sense to formally categorise data, and implement them as structured tags (and then make sure there is effort and governance to manage them going forward).

Secret Code Breakers and Public Social Media

Around 10 years ago, I went to Bletchley Park, home of Station X and the British code breakers of the Second World War who cracked the Enigma cipher, shortened the Second World War and layed the foundations of computing as we know it today.

A few years later I encountered Dr. Sue Black on Social Media as she launched her campaign to save BP for the nation (SavingBletchleyPark.org), then shared a stage with her at a BCS event and subsequently helped crowdfunding her book: Saving Bletchley Park (which was officially launched in paper form last week, having been available as an eBook for a while). As a supporter I've had my copy for a while, but it was only when I took a few days vacation after Easter that I had the time to read it.

Book Cover

In the book, you don't just learn what it was like to work in a top secret, code breaking organisation during World War 2, and how to run an effective social media campaign in the modern day, but also get insights into BP's influence in creating computers as we know them today, the crucial importance of the Women of Bletchley Park and some of Sue's other efforts to promote women in IT.

Sue and her co-writer Steve Colgan skilfully interweave the anecdotes and stories of real life Bletchley Park veterans with Sue's own story: from her first visit to BP, through her initial campaigning in the tradition media, to her discovery of Twitter and subsequent recognition as both a social media guru and key saviour of Bletchley Park. Vivid, first hand accounts are the common characteristic of both stories, making the book both informative and engaging – not just for anyone interested in history, but also those wanting to use social media to create history today. As a first hand account by one of those figuring out how to use Twitter effectively in its early days, it contains many tips for those wanting to utilise it effectively for campaigning today.

When I came to put Saving Bletchley Park onto its bookshelf after reading, I discovered that I have a small library of Bletchley Park books and was reminded that the The National Museum of Computing was closed when I visited the park – so it's definitely time for a return visit.

To get your copy of Saving Bletchley Park, visit Amazon, your favourite eBook store, Waterstones or your local independent bookshop.

 

Moving from Employee Enablement to Engagement

As social, mobile, cloud and analytics technology continue to redefine collaboration, organisational structures and the way business is done, HR is coming under increasing pressure to take a central role in engaging and empowering employees, not just enabling and evaluating them.These technologies are redefining what it is to be an employee, as millennials expect to bring the technology they were brought up with into the workplace, redefining how organisations function, as aspirations to build a startup culture and work with an ecosystem blur the boundaries of the workforce, and redefining the business models around which current management structures were designed. Agility, empowerment and engagement are what a modern business wants from its employees – and it is looking to HR to help to deliver what IBM calls a Smarter Workforce.

In practice, this transformation occurs at two levels: the macro or strategic level where leadership is provided, permission to change is granted and the rate of adoption is managed; and the micro level of individual teams, processes, departments or business units that pioneer new practices to address the challenges they face – whilst continuing to coexist with legacy operations around them, which were built in the old world. This freedom to drive change at the micro level is key to maintaining traditional revenues and reducing the risk that comes from massive disruptive change.

IBM BusinessConnect 2015 in the London this November I was heavily involved in the HR Day, where instead of giving HR leaders a day of presentations we ran a series of workshops designed to get them to share experiences with each other, under the guidance of IBM thought leaders. A recurring theme of the day was giving the employee a voice, with discussion on areas like continuous listening to better understand the workforce, using analytics on employee generated data to gain new insight, engaging with employees to create a culture that enables change, leveraging diversity to avoid groupthink, and using customer facing staff to better understand the changing market.

Talking to delegates, there was a high degree of variability in terms of digital platforms used to give the employee a voice and how they were being deployed (even the terminology varied from Engagement Platform to Talent Suite to Social Intranet to Collaboration to Enterprise Social Network). In some cases, HR teams were taking the lead by leveraging specialist jam platforms, wrapping social collaboration around employee survey platforms or deploying talent management platforms – often as stand alone services using a Cloud platform. In other cases, they leveraged external, cloud based services already being used in business units to improve the way they work. Finally, there were organsations with an enterprise social strategy, where IT offered a platform that could be used for HR purposes – offering significant benefits of reach and integration with where employees were already doing their jobs.

Earlier this year I participated in the Munich and London events in another IBM seminar series Continuous Listening – The Future of Employee Voice where I talked about how the IBM Connections social business platform (in the Cloud or on premises) could be used to increase the effectiveness of employee surveys by engaging with employees around the process. I demonstrated four specific ways in which such engagement could add value to an employee survey.

Taking just a couple of examples: when asking employees about their level of satisfaction with some aspect of the business, what if you could provide a link to a collaboration space where they could make concrete suggestions about ways it could be improved, comment on ideas from other employees and then vote on the ideas offered? Or how about engaging employees in discussions around the actions being taken to address concerns identified in the survey, crowdsourcing the answers to questions management might have about the concern and letting your employees know that their voice was being heard – and so encouraging them to engage seriously in future surveys.
This is a great example of using an employee engagement platform for a specific purpose. But it also illustrates the extra value that comes from having an enterprise wide platform where employees genuinely engage every day, with their team, with other employees and with management, because if it is where they do much of their work it avoids the need to “go somewhere else” to take part in this process. The engagement platform becomes, in effect, part of their desktop (or, increasingly, something they always have in their pocket). That is why IBM offers its Connections technology platform in different forms – on premises or in the Cloud, enterprise wide or packaged for a specific business purpose, in a browser or on a mobile device – enabling customers to move from niche deployment to enterprise use as their needs evolve.

Cloud, Mobile, Social and Analytics aren’t just impacting HR, these technologies are also challenging the IT department to transform. Just providing a tool, like a laptop or email, is no longer enough. In today’s world organisations need well designed employee experiences that address specific business needs – use cases like the employee survey above. IT can’t create those. It can provide a rich engagement platform, with capabilities like collaboration, social networking, team places, communities, audio/video, knowledge management, jamming, etc., but in today’s world of consumer grade IT and technologically empowered employees the business needs to take ownership for using the platform to deliver results.

As well as HR doing that for itself (using an engagement platform for Onboarding, Surveys, Talent Management, Appraisals, etc.), HR needs to partner with IT to help the rest of the organisation to use its most powerful resource – an engaged workforce – to deliver more satisfied customers and better business results by not just enabling and evaluating employees but empowering and engaging them.

The return of the accidental recipe

I haven’t been blogging regularly recently – I’ve been distracted by other things – and I’ve decided that I need to fix that. However as I’ve been busy during my working hours, I decided to resurrect something from early in the life of this blog – an accidental recipe.

So often, as you work on digital transformation, the end goal changes as you progress. You start off thinking you will end up in one place, but you learn and experiment as you go, and sometimes what comes out of the other end is much more wonderful that you expected at the start. True transformation often emerges, rather than being designed (we give the name Design Thinking to a process that is not really about designing to an end goal, but designing as you go – so you really don’t know what the endpoint is until you get there).

Tonight I had an idea for dinner. Fish baked in the oven and using up the new potatoes and large beefsteak tomato that I had in the cupboard. I bought a cod tail from the fishmonger (though you could do this with any solid white fish) and looked what else he had around – some shallot onions would help, a small fennel, and the herb section included a bunch of Dill which seemed promising (may thanks to Sandy’s the fish shop in Twickenham for both inspiring and providing the key ingredients for this meal).

Now any of you who have worked with me on social adoption projects will know that I start with known frameworks that work, and tons of experience, and make the rest up as I go along (depending on the emerging business needs and the evolving culture of the participants). I cook the same way.

So here is the recipe I invented (generous for 2 people):

  1. Clean a couple of handfuls of new potatoes and parboil them for around 15 mins.
  2. Meanwhile, I used a Le Creuset casserole pot to cook the dish, on the hob and then in the oven. Lightly fry 2 or three shallot onions (finely chopped) with a chopped garlic clove in a little olive oil for a minute. Add a small fennel (sliced) and fry for another minute. Throw in a roughly chopped beefsteak tomato (or whatever tomatoes you have to hand) and half a bunch of Dill (I used just the leaves and left the stalks behind). Sprinkle with black pepper and stir together.
  3. Add a small Cod tail (skinned) to the pot in largish pieces. Add a splash of white wine. Thickly slice the parboiled potatoes and spread on top. Cover and transfer to a preheated oven at around 180 degrees.
  4. After 15 mins, remove the lid and spinkle with  good covering of parmasan cheese. Continue cooking without the lid.
  5. After a further 10 minutes, transfer to under the grill (I have a combined oven/grill so I could just switch it to grilling).
  6. After 5 minutes or so, remove and serve (with additional parmesan – and, of course, a glass of the white wine!)

It was one of those times when I really didn’t know how it would turn out, but it seemed like a good idea. And the result was amazing – the potatoes really absorbed the flavours, especially the Dill which made the meal very special.

Whether you are transforming organisations or cooking dinner, there is nothing quite like exceeding expectations!

Solving Business Problems with Better Collaboration

Three years ago I was invited to meet with a local authority to discuss advanced collaboration. They had just been informed that the council’s head office was to be sold, so they had to find ways of enabling a workforce that was used to being “in the office” to do their jobs effectively from distributed locations or from home. This required a cultural change as well as new working practices, so new collaboration tools that can help users to make this transition would be key to success.

Recently I was invited to present on “Socialising your Intranet” at the National Communications Academy Scotland event for Scottish local authorities, so I contacted the council to discuss how their project had gone and whether I could use them as a case study. It was great to hear their excitement about the journey that had been on over the last few years. From the start, support from the Chief Executive down had stronger than they expected and they had actively engaged managers and team leaders to become agents of change in their organisations – resulting in over 50 use cases being implemented already, from better supporting community hubs, to transforming the registrar processes, to improving traffic flow on the roads. The final value was much greater than simply facilitating the move from fixed desks to remote and home working that had been their starting point.
Find the pain points that will drive the necessary investment of time and effortA colleague and good friend, Louis Richardson, likes to explain how much easier it is to sell someone a headache pill rather than a vitamin pill. Sure, vitamins are good for the body, but if you can help to get rid of someone’s headache they will be much more committed taking the medicine and making the changes needed for success. In this case, the urgent need to move to distributed working was the first reason to act, but then using middle management (so often inhibitors for change) as the driving force for a new way to work was a brilliant way of finding more headaches – and curing them.

So what are the headaches your organisation faces? Could better collaboration tools and techniques help to address them? Finding a new way to work has helped many organisations become more agile and adaptive in a changing world. Could you transform your organisation into a more satisfying, more successful place to work.

Collaboration fit for the 21st Century

A new generation of tools have emerged in the last decade that can empower smarter workforces to come together to create more effective and efficient organisations (what IBM terms “social businesses”) by supporting social collaboration. This isn’t just about adding a few new features to existing collaboration tools, it’s about a new engagement platform (in the same way that Facebook on the public Internet provided a different form of engagement to previous social media tools, like blogs and wikis).

If you like, it’s a shift from social media to social networking (although the need for social networking in the enterprise still hasn’t been accepted by some, so we’ll stick with social collaboration for now).

In an AIIM white paperGeoffrey Moore articulated the difference between Systems of Record (i.e. structured data or unstructured documents and the processes we put around them) and Systems of Engagement (i.e. the way people interact with each other to execute processes), but some organisations still don’t understand or are unwilling to accept the need for different tools in these different worlds.

It’s not helped when those passionate about social tools talk about them as if they are a replacement for existing collaboration tools – whether it is predicting the end of email or decrying existing team focussed collaboration tools as inevitably creating information silos. The answer, they seem to say, is to replace them with a new set of tools enabling a different sort of collaboration.

To my mind, this ignores several realities. First, existing tools do what they were designed to do, usually pretty well. Secondly, the content that currently resides in them, and the established processes built on them, make their removal difficult. Finally, their users understand how to use them, so they tend to see them as the natural solution to challenges they face – and changing that behaviour takes effort, requires motivation, introduces a level of risk, and needs to be done collaboratively across different groups of people (which isn’t something the current tools support very well).

I believe that the reality is that we need new capabilities that complement existing collaboration tools, not replace them.

New CapabilitiesHowever this is not just about adding a few new features to an existing collaboration platform. Systems of engagement are different to systems of record.

Indeed, the difference between an effective social collaboration platform and, say, a team collaboration platform like SharePoint, is as large as the difference between SharePoint and an email platform like Exchange.

This comparison is highly relevant:

  • email is about inter-personal collaboration (I send a message to you)
  • team collaboration is about groups working together on a project (the team creates documents)
  • social collaboration is about organisation wide staff engagement (employees discovering and accessing the knowledge they need, whether it is written down or resides in someone’s head)

Providing enterprise wide social collaboration doesn’t mean that the need for inter-personal messaging or team projects goes away. While I would expect usage of existing tools to decline as interactions and processes start to move to using the new tools instead of the old, many proven and effective ways of working, and the processes they use, will not change quickly.

This can be hard for IT budget holder as they need to justify the cost of adding new tools, rather replacing existing ones. Which is why they would like to believe that adding an enterprise search tool, a basic profile page and some activity streams to an existing team collaboration solution will allow it to be used for enterprise wide knowledge and expertise discovery. It’s easier to go into denial about existing tools proven tendency to create knowledge silos, stifle innovation and prevent information from flowing across organisations, than it is to accept that existing tools need to be complemented by a people-centric fabric that can bind an engaged workforce together, aligning its efforts to efficiently and effectively achieving the organisation’s goals.

My vision of social collaboration is that it integrates existing collaboration tools, content repositories and business applications – as well as providing a new set of social media content types.

Social Collaboration PlatformThe key to an effective social collaboration layer is its ability to deliver social networking that integrates social networking and media with existing existing systems and documents.  Integration with existing tools (both the personal and team productivity tools) helps users to migrate to these new ways of working at their own pace, minimising risk and letting organisations focus on the areas of maximum return.

IBM naturally integrates its IBM Connections platform with its own email and team collaboration platforms, as well as open source solutions like OpenOffice and Sugar CRM, but it does just as good a job of integration for enterprises deploying Microsoft Office, Outlook and SharePoint – and with its commitment to continue supporting Connections on premises as well as in the cloud, all organisations can benefit from IBM’s social business prowess.

This has significant advantages, not least in avoiding the costs associated with replacing existing tools and the risks associated with changing working processes – whilst still delivering the benefits of social engagement across the workforce.

Dont rip and replaceIndeed, it can allow organisations to unify existing information silos by letting employees find information in multiple, existing repositories and collaborate effectively with users in remote parts of the business.

Cross silo collaborationFurthermore, a social collaboration solution like IBM Connections, with its visitor model that provides selected external users with carefully controlled, secure access to just the parts of your enterprise social collaboration platform they should be allowed to use, let’s you break down the ultimate collaboration silo created by your corporate firewall, enabling you to work closely with partners, suppliers and customers to better deliver your organisation’s goals.

Inter-organisational collaborationThe steps this illustrates represent the pragmatic evolution of the sort of tightly integrated, monolithic organisation we created in the 20th century, to the federated, agile, adaptive organisation that is needed to thrive in the 21st century.

Through a genuinely smarter workforce.

Social Collaboration in Government

A while back I wrote a blog post on Social Business in the Public Sector where I discussed a keynote presentation John Swinney, Scottish Cabinet Secretary for Finance, Employment and Sustainable Growth, made at Public Sector Digital Scotland, where he:

… clearly set out the need and the promise of the digital age. To move from government programs that are what they are, and either match a citizen’s needs or don’t, to delivering the personalised services that each individual citizen requires.

I was reminded of this listening to him present the keynote at ONE Public Sector Scotland last week, where he discussed progress made, the importance of enabling public sector workers to be empowered to do the right thing for the individual in front of them, and the need to become “relentlessly person-centred”.

In my social business masterclass later in the day, I tried to visualise this concept. Pre-digital, government programs were “one size fits all”:

But in the digital world, the citizen should be able to select exactly the services they need from a menu on offer:

However, you can only go so far down this path through technology, by providing a single front end that unifies services – or even by integrating back end services to smoothly move the user from one web site to another to deliver a coherent user journey that takes the citizen to what they need without them having to understand the internal structure of the government agencies providing it. To truly deliver an exceptional citizen experience, you need the government agencies involved, or more accurately the employees within them, to collaborate seamlessly as well.

 

This isn’t just about coordinating applications across the government web sites. Or even simply about aligning policies and procedures across government departments. Rather the issue is that: not only does the public not care which government department, agency, or public sector body is providing the service they need, but they want to be able to access the knowledge and expertise of public sector employees without worrying about which bit of the government pays them.

The good news is that responding to this desire not only produces more effective government services, it can also create more efficient ones. Initiatives like the Government Digital Service and G-Cloud have made good progress in reducing the cost of public services while improving their effectiveness. Now it is time to take things to the next level. To move beyond common web sites and infrastructure to start to integrate government employees into a single ecosystem of public servants focussed on better servicing the needs of the citizen.

This isn’t a new concept, like it is in some commercial companies where competition not collaboration is embedded in the culture. Collaboration is natural in public services, but what is needed is a focus on exploiting the latest social collaboration technologies to create an environment where expertise can be reused instead of replicated, knowledge can be shared as a by product of users’ day to day activities, and inter-departmental collaboration can reduce the cost of delivering services.

Cross departmental collaboration, cross agency collaboration, cross public sector collaboration – and, indeed, collaboration beyond to include local government, the third sector, delivery partners and small & medium enterprises who can help to service the citizen’s needs. The first challenge for government was integrating services – the next is integrating people.

In IBM, when we think about how public services can be taken to the next level we build stories about how cross government collaboration could save costs and change the lives of citizens. Could we help departments respond to freedom of information requests faster and at lower cost? Could we make it painless for a citizen to complete their tax return? Could we make it easier to claim benefits by removing barriers while reducing the chance of fraud? Could collaboration between local government social services, the police and school teachers save the life of a child?

Now that would be something to be proud of.