PM Articles > Kimberly Wiefling > Don’t Try This Alone! Whacky for Wikis and Crazy for Collaboration

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Don’t Try This Alone! Whacky for Wikis and Crazy for Collaboration

by Kimberly M. Wiefling, M.S.

In early December I attended a conference called the "Program for the Future" in honor of Doug Engelbart—best known as the inventor of the computer mouse, but more accurately described as a champion of technology and tools that increase our collective intelligence. Years in the corporate world had made me occasionally doubt the existence of such a thing, so I signed up right away. Legends like Steve Wozniak and Alan Kay were among the luminaries. (I'm pretty sure I was the least famous person there, outside of the one refilling the coffee.) It was a fascinating exploration into the need for collaboration to solve the most pressing challenges facing our world, and the tools that enable it. It seems to me that this should be a topic near and dear to every project leader's heart. After all, this is what we spend much of our working lives doing—steadfastly facilitating collaboration in the pursuit of often seemingly impossible goals outside of the reach of a single human being.

Bringing a Knife to a Gun Fight

Unfortunately, most of the individuals, teams, and organizations I consult with are still limiting their collaboration methods to phone calls, email, or face-to-face discussions in a stuffy conference room. Many meetings are devoid of anything more sophisticated than a pen and paper to capture a few notes, just in case anything worthwhile is accomplished. Don't get caught bringing a knife to a gunfight! In order to avoid the madness of the mob, at the very least, your meeting facilities should have a white board, a flip chart, and a couple of magic markers that haven't dried out from disuse. Maybe throw in a healthy supply of sticky notes—different colored ones, not just the boring yellow kind. These rudimentary supplies enable people to share and capture ideas before they fade away along with the sound waves and the memory of the meeting itself.

Take enabling tools a step farther and consider adding graphical facilitation to your meetings. This is where an artist jacked up on caffeine captures pictures and words from your meeting content at speeds surpassing that of most industrial robots. The essence of your meeting becomes a huge colorful chalk poster on a wall covered in butcher paper. Go completely off the hook and get a couple hundred people to collaborate on creating a forty-foot mural and you really have something you can touch and feel that starts to reflect the wisdom of the crowd.

Techniques like graphical facilitation and giant murals quite literally get people on the same page. Everyone can see what is being drawn or written. And they create a record of what has been said so we'll have a fighting chance against the entropic forces continually working to unravel whatever group memory, agreements, and organization we establish in the chaos of a large and challenging project. But the bottom line of the conference was clear—tools alone are not enough. We must fix the human problems of collaboration.

Whacky for Wikinomics

This conference put me into a remission of sorts. I have a bit of an addictive personality, and had just been recovering from a 3-month obsession with 21st century collaboration methods. The trigger was reading Wikinomics: How Mass Collaboration Changes Everything, which I hinted at in a past column. Wikinomics is not just about Wikipedia, and it's certainly not just about the internet either. It's about how hordes of people working together can solve problems and achieve results outside the reach of a single human being, or even hundreds of them. I recognized instantly the power of some of these ideas to transform project management for the better. Although many naysayers scoff at the claims of a "birth of a new era," I think that just proves that these radical notions really are destined to revolutionize how businesses run and how work is done. After all, pretty much every fabulous idea throughout history has been pooh-poohed by respected experts before being embraced.

In the simplest sense, Wikinomics suggests that there are better ways to tap the group genius than the traditional approaches in widespread use in today's corporate world mentioned above. As project managers whose success rests of the ability of groups of people to work together productively, we have got to explore and embrace some of the radical innovations in channeling collective intelligence. Email mailing lists and a shared folder on the intranet are no longer enough to equip our project teams for 21st century success. While there are lots of high-priced web-based collaboration tools out there, I've been rooting around for tools that are either cheap or free so there won't be any budgetary excuses for not adopting them. Here are just a couple I've been experimenting with. While you're reading through the rest of this, I hope you'll be saying, "Oh, sure, I already use something like that."

Skype - Reach Across the Ocean for Free

Oh, go ahead and snort or laugh. I know it's not late-breaking news. Most people grazing on the internet have heard of Skype by now, and 11,627,305 people are using it at the time of this writing. But when I suggest that my clients grab a cheap video camera and use Skype video phone calls to improve their communications with remotely-located colleagues, they exclaim, "Oh, they won't let us use that here." Hey, it's a telephone with a camera, fer cryin' out loud! Do you really think your wireless mobile phone is any more secure? Now, I'm sure some IT people are paid entirely to prevent any cooperation-enabling technology from forcing its way into the corporate computer systems, but most IT people are reasonable corporate citizens who want to do the right thing for us and our projects. Surely they can understand why you'd want to use a telephone with a camera in this day and age. And plenty of CFOs would be thrilled to know that they don't need to spend thousands of dollars for you to fly around the world to see the face of your colleagues, or install and support the relatively more expensive equipment required to make it look like you're in the same room as the other people on your team. (I've used some of these pricier solutions, and they're terrific mind you, but most of the scrappy companies I work with can't afford them.) And here's the big bonus for video phone calls. Seeing someone's face while talking with them is nice, and all, but the best part about a video phone call is that I can see whether the person I'm talking with is checking their email during the call instead of paying attention to our conversation. (Oh, admit it, we all do it from time to time!)

My laptop doesn't have a camera built in (one more reason I plan to chuck it from a moving bus into oncoming traffic very soon), and my home internet connection makes dial-up look attractive, so I only used Skype voice until recently. But I've been converted to video after seeing how my brother uses it to keep in touch with his wife's relatives in Turkey (and upgrading my home internet to increase bandwidth). On Sunday morning my brother's family gets up and turn on Skype with a camera directed toward their kitchen breakfast table. While they prepare eggs and sucuk in Houston, their Turkish relatives are just feeding the kids dinner in Ankara. A microphone lets each family hear what the other is gossiping about, and occasionally someone on one side of the Atlantic Ocean or the other will pop on over to the camera to say something directed at the other family. Oh, and it's all free, mind you. Nothing stands between you and hanging out with your team but a $20 USB camera and a few MBPS.

Wikis - Get Long-standing Home Repairs Done in Record Time

From the Hawaiian word for "quick," a wiki is just a web site, but it's a special kind of web site that enables a group of people to share responsibility for creating, modifying, and growing the content. Google Sites, PBWiki, and Wikispaces are some of the companies offering wikis for those sharing my addiction to consciousness conspiracies.

As a closet control freak, I have to admit that I initially recoiled at the prospect of allowing my teammates to decide what information to put onto a shared project web page and how to organize it. I have a superiority complex the size of a large yacht, and, like most megalomaniacs, I am perpetually convinced that I could do it better. But working on projects too enormous for one human brain to grasp finally forced me to trust the collective IQ of the team. I chose to start with a small experiment—a wiki for me and my two housemates. Here we collect lists of woefully overdue house maintenance tasks like anti-eco leaky toilets and filthy furnace filters posing a serious fire risk. Those of you who have used a wiki know that it can be configured to send an email to everyone participating in the wiki each time the content is updated, so changes in content and status are quickly shared among all users. The toilet, which had been leaking for at least a year and half in spite of my "gentle reminders" about its contribution to the destruction of the planet, was fixed within 3 days!

Emboldened by our initial success, we added things we needed to shop for; a tea kettle with a broken whistle that was certain to melt into a puddle of steel when all of the tea water was long gone, was replaced within the week. We went whacky over wikis, and added a schedule of rides needed to the airport, and, during this busy holiday season, a list of the parties we're throwing. How come a wiki can inspire people to action that a year and a half of nagging could not? I think the wiki made visible and present to everyone what previously had just been some nebulous task that needed to be done someday. It also provided instant gratification for completing the task through automatically sending status updates out to the other peeps on the wiki when it was done. We even started thanking each other for doing things. Who knows where this all could lead! Maybe next we can use it to solve the unmatched sock problem in the laundry room . . .

Web Conferencing Tools - Online Support for Visually Engaging Meetings

Meeting support tools like GoToMeeting (Cheap!) and Dim Dim (Free!) enable everyone on a conference call to see a single shared desktop. Everyone gets connected by voice one way or another to hear what's going on, and logs in to the meeting location via a web browser so they can see what's happening on the shared computer screen. A status bar tracks who is attending, and chat capability compliments the verbal discussions. (People can actually follow a voice meeting and a simultaneous chat or two.) Info can be shared synchronously, and meeting highlights, decisions, and action items can be captured real-time in full view of everyone on the team.

Audience Response Systems - When Instant Gratification Isn't Fast Enough

At the Program for the Future event, instead of sitting back yawning through the drone of keynote speakers reveling in their own mastery of some obscure topic, the audience was engaged to weigh in on the biggest challenges we face as a species and the most promising routes to averting what sometimes seems like certain Armageddon. Within a matter of minutes our ideas were displayed for hundreds of participants to see, and we used little voting machines to prioritize the list. Actually solving the problems will take a little longer, but the priority ranking took less than 15 seconds. If it can work for an audience of hundreds I figure it could work for a project team. SMS text messaging using mobile phones removes the need for the special voting devices, and enables the same capability when people are not in the same location. I'm dying to have a geographically distributed team anonymously weigh in on topics during a teleconference from around the world!

Virtual Reality - One Your First Life Isn't Enough to Keep You Busy

I'm the first one to admit that I don't even have time for a first life, but I was finally inspired to try out qwaq, a virtual reality collaboration space similar to Second Life, but with a graphics card requirement that my soon-to-be-chucked-out-the-window PC can handle. My virtual world was a beautiful conference room with a deck overlooking the ocean, and my avatar was my perfect weight with no visible wrinkles. I was in project manager hog heaven! I fell in love with the possibilities I glimpsed in the 20 minutes or so I spent playing with this before I ditched it due to agonizingly slow response times. Jiminy Crickets, I'd have to take up smoking to have something to do while waiting for the program to respond to even the most basic request. I might have stood a chance if I were a gamer with the slickest hardware, or had access to the IBM Roadrunner (currently the fastest computer in the world according to a potentially reliable source). But with a mere business PC, I was doomed from the start. It's just too s - - - l - - - o - - - w. But, make no mistake, in my mind this is the way of the future, so keep your finger on the pulse of these tools.

You're Still Probably Doomed From the Start

Even with the coolest tools, collaboration is no easy matter. I recently volunteered to help at an event put on by a group of people committed to transforming the world for the better through collaboration. I was to lead a small group of other volunteers. The day started off with several people showing up late and others immediately abandoning their posts without so much as a "screw you" over their shoulders as they fled. The light of my hope for the world dwindled further as I witnessed an argument by a couple of so-called adults over something not worth raising an eyebrow over. Any illusion of the possibility of world peace completely evaporated when I tried to intervene and become the new target of one guy's verbal vengeance. I finally resorted to shouting to the dozens of school children who were watching him yell at me, "Don't watch this! It's not a good example of how to resolve conflict!"

Hope Grows Back

But that's the thing about lost hope, it grows back. So now once again I'm noodling on how collaboration tools can improve project execution and make a positive difference on planet earth. Getting groups of people to work together on the massive challenges facing our species is critical to the survival of the planet! I think it's time for a web-enabled consciousness conspiracy! Wanna join?

Scrappy Holidays! - Kimberly

*The original sentence has been edited after consultation with the author. -Ed. (Return to the edited sentence.)

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