Motivating Content Sharing in Business: Focus on Cultural and Filter Failures

By Ethan Yarbrough posted 03-28-2011 18:05


Your employees have a lot of knowledge in their heads. You want to extract it and turn it into a shared resource for the company. So you set up social tools like blogs and wikis and podcasting to give employees platforms for authoring their own content to share what they know and what they are working on. If employees are inclined to produce content, this can be an effective way of creating a shared knowledge base.

But that’s a big “If” as it turns out. Motivating people to produce content for the community is difficult. It takes some real attention to your company culture.

Bevin Hernandez addressed this in her presentation to the Enterprise 2.0 Conference in November 2009. She boiled down the changes that must occur in your company culture this way:




You must

Join Us


When You’re Ready

Content Approval Process

Just Post It

One Owner

Employee Owned









We Can’t Do That Here

Why Not?

If you can move your old culture toward the new culture peoples’ inclination to participate can go up.

But, even if you do get them motivated to start sharing, you have to somehow get them to keep on sharing. You have to maintain their motivation.

The Relationship Between Attention and Motivation: A Delicate Balance

I recently read an interesting paper about Hewlett-Packard’s effort to maintain a culture of sharing: Revealing the Long Tail in Office Conversations. HP’s efforts center around their internal social networking tool, called Watercooler. Watercooler contains groupware elements like blogs, wikis and forums in which employees can produce their own content. HP’s research revealed that one of the primary factors in motivating employees to share through these groupware tools is attention. Attention from peers and management.

Quite simply, employees wanted to know that someone was reading what they had taken the time to write. Where employees received attention for their contributions, those contributions continued. Where attention dropped off, so did contributions.

That sounds like a gem for anyone planning the introduction of collaboration tools. Make sure the tools highlight contributions and the culture delivers appreciative attention.

Sounds easy enough, but as the HP paper points out, attention is a finite resource in most organizations. Many companies already suffer from information overload problems. Many company environments are characterized by employees’ inability to efficiently locate the information they need, or even to find it at all. Introducing new groupware tools as a means for employees to produce even more content can mean that there is now just more content for employees to wade inefficiently through. As they are increasingly unable to sift through the volume of content now available, employees have less attention to spend on content. As available attention cycles are used up, contributions increasingly go unnoticed. As attention to contributions drops off, those employees who were sharing now lose the reward that had motivated them to share in the first place and so they stop sharing. It becomes a destructive cycle.

We’re Gonna Need a Better Filter

This is where a better technology strategy comes into play. Clay Shirky put it best when he said that “information overload is filter failure.” I do agree and that idea certainly applies in a scenario like I’m describing here. You can’t just increase content; you have to create better filters too. Your technology needs to cut through the information overload for the employees. That strategy can and should include optimizing your internal environments for search. But it should go beyond that to enable the delivery of content employees didn’t know they were looking for. That’s the principle of “emergence”.

HP has built this ability into their Watercooler tool. Systems run behind the scenes on the Watercooler servers which parse content produced for the groupware tools and from that content infer keywords. From those inferred keywords, the system is then able to programmatically deliver content to any employee who produces similar content.

The system is constantly “listening”, identifying similarities and acting on those similarities to put content in front of people who are most likely to find it relevant. And HP takes it a step further. In addition to serving up content from the inferred keywords, Watercooler also serves up the people who produced that content. So you add a blog post, the system infers the connections to other content already in the system, delivers that content to you along with the authors of that content so that you can add them to your internal social network. HP calls that process “bootstrapping a social network -- automatically providing ways for users to identify people like them" without requiring any conscious management of the process by the employees.

Making Use of Content Outside of Groupware Tools

I think HP’s approach is a step in the right direction. It makes the formation of networks something that happens for employees rather than something that employees have to invest time and ego into.

However, I still think it needs to be taken a step further.

The problem as I see it is that groupware tools like blogs, wikis and forums still exist outside the normal flow of employees’ work. Comparatively few people will take the time to write a blog post about what they are working on, even in cultures that rain down positive attention on them when they do so. Meanwhile, vast numbers of people are producing content in email, in documents, in Instant Message conversations and other communications that are just part of getting their work done.

All of that content can and should be mined for keywords just as the groupware tools can be. This approach requires server-side configurations to monitor content flowing across the network -- a significant job to set up, but it is possible. And the result would be that employees who are not comfortable stepping away from the normal flow of work to share on blogs could, nonetheless, be pulled into the network of social connections building within the organization.

A willingness to maintain a blog or post to a wiki need not be the price of entry into a state of connectedness with peers.

Bridges That Build Themselves: Works for Facebook, Why Not Office Networks?

A final thought about all of this. As I was writing this post, I came across a tweet from Oscar Berg:

Org silos exist due to inability to extend rich, informal & frequent (social) interaction beyond teams & locations

If Oscar is right that we have been unable to extend interaction beyond teams and locations, is that because we still rely on human beings to make a choice to share and interact? Could an approach in which technology facilitates connections for people and thus takes human shyness out of the equation be the answer to this challenge?

What if the technology, not the people, built the bridges? What if peoples' own words built bridges for them, bridges they wouldn’t notice until they were put in front of them complete and ready to cross?

#TechnologyStrategy #HP #blogging #BevinHernandez #CompanyCulture #SocialBusiness #SharePoint #wiki #ClayShirky #HPWatercooler #socialnetworking #sharepoint