As I’ve mentioned many-a-time UKOLN, where I work, is based at the University of Bath. The University has a central computing centre – BUCS, who do an admirable job of keeping everything ticking along nicely.
BUCS offer a fair amount of support for remote workers including information on connecting from home, VPN, Wake on LAN, access to drives etc. They have also recently implemented TeamViewer, a tool for remote diagnosis and fixing of PCs. Recently a team within BUCS have been tasked with identifying a suite of electronic communication tools that might be used at short notice to facilitate communication within BUCS (and ideally extendable to the University as a whole) should there be a crisis forcing a significant number of BUCS staff to work from home or in some form of isolation (e.g. pandemic or weather related).
Dave Cunningham was one of the team looking into this area and has kindly written a guest blog post on his findings relating to the most appropriate communication tools for the BUCS team.
Social networking tools may be the answer to intra-group communication, but do you have a clear understanding of the question?
The use of social networking tools across wide-area networks is revolutionising the way people communicate. There is now is a choice of e-mail, forums, social networks (Facebook, etc.), news feeds (RSS/Atom), microblogging (twitter, etc.), Internet Relay Chat (IRC), and instant messaging (IM). The use of social networks has grown rapidly for non-office based communication, and an attraction for many people is that there are no boundaries – the world is your audience. Some of us have investigated using the same, or similar, tools in closed group environments: in the office or in education for example. However in the office one form of communication dominates: e-mail, even though it is far from the best choice for many purposes.
To facilitate discussions information has to be two-way: e-mail is essentially two-way but is not, in my view, ideal for discussions. Micro-blogging and blogging are essentially one-way, although most blog software nowadays allow comments. IM is two-way and Yammer, which can be considered to be a combination of IM and micro-blogging, is suitable for discussions. Examples of one-way communications are news feeds, such as RSS and Atom.
E-mail is the only tool that has reached critical mass, and in the office environment you can usually assume everyone has an account, and that almost everyone checks their mail at least once a day. The ubiquity of e-mail encourages most people to use it not only for simple messages, but also for file transfers and multi-person discussions. Discussions by e-mail have many problems: in particular the sender of a message decides who is to be part of the discussion and, if others want to join in (assuming they even know that a discussion is going on), it can be difficult to catch up with the messages already sent. E-mail discussions frequently, and often inadvertently, result in information silos and poor intra-group communication. On-line forums are designed specifically for multi-person discussions, but they seem to be unpopular with many people.
Microblogging (microsharing), and in particular Twitter, is a very different way of communicating. Twitter is in many ways a remarkable concept in that it is frequently hard to explain to a non-user why they would ever want to use it. The basic idea of reporting what you are currently doing (in no more than 140 characters) at any given time seems to many rather pointless, but once you start using it it can become addictive – although to be fair some people remain unconvinced even after using it. Because messages have to be short and plain text, it is easy to deliver them to portable devices such as smartphones, and as a result many applications (Twibble, et al) have been released, feeding off the Twitter concept. The only way to transmit longer messages or images, is to upload a file and reference it in the text, and this has resulted in sites such as twitpic.com. Twitter is increasingly being used by service providers (bus and train companies, computing services, etc.) to provide service information such as cancelled or delayed trains.
Twitter is not really suitable for use within an organisation (although users of CoTweet or Hootsuite may disagree), but other microblogging tools such as Yammer are designed for this market. Yammer provides a communication service for a closed group defined by a mail domain. Users register with their e-mail address, and confirm that they are a valid user by replying to the generated message. Although superficially similar to Twitter, there is no 140 character limit, and messages can be sent to pre-defined groups (similar to chat rooms in IRC systems), or to everyone. Groups can be private or public , and messages can be sent to IM systems, by SMS, and by e-mail. Although the basic service is free, an organisation would need to pay to get control of the network, and if you do claim your network charging is based on the number of users. Other similar systems include Communote, Present.ly, and Socialtext. All these tools extend naturally to remote working: not only working from home but keeping in contact when away at meetings or conferences.
Using a system like Yammer does not by itself provide an effective intra-organisation communication system: it is important to understand the varying ways that people deal with information flow. I would expect most commercial organisations to mandate the use by staff of any system once introduced, but in other organisations this may not be considered acceptable. It would seem inevitable that any closed-group communication system will be less effective if its use remains optional. Either way it is better if staff want to use the system because they feel it is of direct benefit to them.
People vary greatly in their attitude to IT based communication systems: some avoid using them at all if they have this freedom, arguing that they have not got time to use such systems even if it only takes few minutes each day. Noise (the receipt of messages not considered relevant to the individual) is seen as a major problem by some people, but just a minor irritation by others. It is an example of the glass half-full or half-empty metaphor – some people see the noise and some the signal (useful content). So for a system to be effective I believe it is necessary to encourage people to accept that some noise is the price you pay for being better informed, and for the opportunity to take part in discussions.
Although poor intra-group communication is often recognised as a problem it seems that all too often solutions are adopted in an ad-hoc way with no clear idea of what the problem is that needs solving. This happened with e-mail which was adopted by almost all organisations, and the use of which evolved as people got used to the new tool. Evolution is often a good way to develop, but for communication within closed groups it would probably be better to have an agreed strategy.
In conclusion I believe different tools are needed to handle effectively different type of communications. However it seems unlikely that they will be fully effective in the workplace without some agreement to standardise on one or more tools. Yammer meets many requirements but is let down by poor or missing clients (nothing for Nokia or Windows Mobile phones), no plugin for Internet Explorer, and a slow website. None of these problems should be difficult to fix, and are probably already being worked on already, so we can hopefully look forward to better tools in the future. However on the horizon is Google Wave which may well be the answers to everyone’s problems – providing, of course, we understand the problem!