Collaboration portals like SharePoint are powerful tools for supporting informal learning in the workplace. But like all tools, the end value depends on how well it has been implemented, configured, designed, and managed to support the needs of the user community.
Think about it this way: Let’s say that today you found a shiny red Ferrari in your driveway—your very own race car! Imagine your excitement! As you briefly check it out, you’re amazed by the powerful engine. You jump in to take it for a spin, and you quickly realize that you don’t know how to harness the power effectively. You’ve got an amazing car, but if you don’t have the proper preparation and training, its capabilities are wasted on you.
Similarly, SharePoint’s capabilities make it a great tool to support informal learning in your workplace. But to enable effective informal learning and achieve the adoption and usage rates desired, your project team must prepare properly for the project. This means carefully determining and documenting the goals and outcomes you want the project to achieve, and learning about SharePoint’s (or any portal’s) features and functions. It requires defining the success criteria and metrics that will help you monitor your progress.
Finally, it means paying attention to the user community from the start, including how they will use the system to search for and add content, collaborate with others, and learn. Here are three techniques to help you build a foundation for collaboration and content management project success.
Capture User Requirements to Avoid Mental Model Mismatch
The first place to start is with the user community. Good instructional designers and performance consultants know this, and that is why they should be included on the collaborative portal team. Unfortunately, the following scenario is not uncommon: SharePoint project is announced, and IT immediately develops a prototype portal based on SharePoint’s “out-of-the-box” functionality and features. This rarely matches the user community’s requirements or generates much excitement for the collaborative portal.
Figure 1. Mental Model Mismatch illustrates why a portal developed without the right kind of input from the user community usually falls flat. Similar to the proverbial comparison of apples to oranges; we call this “mental model mismatch.”
Figure 1. Mental Model Mismatch
Here’s what it means to you: As the project begins, the user community immediately begins envisioning how they might work with SharePoint to manage their content, share information and announcements, collaborate with team members, and search for nuggets of knowledge stored in the system. They unconsciously develop a mental model for how they will interact with the system. This model is based on the work they do, the outcomes they produce, the information they use, and the knowledge to which they wish they had better access.
On the other hand, IT may have in mind how SharePoint will operate from a technical perspective, based on its standard features and functions. The portal IT develops probably won’t meet the needs of the user community for the
- management of content and knowledge
- sharing of information
- ability to build a collaborative work place
- ability to support informal learning.
Consequently, a mental model mismatch occurs, inhibiting excitement, creating disenchantment, and eventually, negatively impacting system usage.
To improve project success, conduct an analysis of the user community—how they approach work, how they perform work, and how they learn. This helps ensure that developers understand the outcomes they produce, the key work processes they perform to produce outcomes, and the information and knowledge they need for optimal work products.
Next, analyze the requirements gathered to consolidate them across performers, and document the user requirements and functional priorities. After interviewing several performers and documenting requirements, your team may discover that 80 percent of needs can be met by standard SharePoint web features, but a few custom web tools and automated work flows are required to meet that other 20 percent of needs. This enables the client to make decisions about the project and to phase project activities appropriately, while better meeting the needs of the user community.
Use the People-Process-Portal Model
After the user requirements are known and integrated with the technical requirements, begin portal design. As the design phase begins, use the People-Process-Portal model to keep your team people-focused and to determine the best ways to realize requirements through site branding, layout and design, content organization, and navigation.
Figure 2. The People-Process-Portal Design Model
An agile approach to portal design helps developers create quick, iterative prototypes that they can show to stakeholders to obtain feedback and deepen their understanding of the client’s needs. To achieve effective branding and design, organization and layout, structure and search, and learning support, consider the following:
- People: Who is going to access the portal? Who and what kind of expertise is being sought? What outcomes will the expected user community produce? What types of content is usually created in the course of doing their jobs? What types of experts will they need to connect with? Will they have previous experience with content management or SharePoint? What kind of training and/or job aids will be required?
- Processes: What processes and workflows drive daily work? Which processes slow us down? What processes actually don’t help us at all? Which workflows can and should be automated? What processes should be changed or eliminated?
- Portal: What type of branding and design will build a sense of community? Do the organizational processes suggest any specific content organization? How should the information and content be organized to enable good access? What dynamic information will be displayed (e.g., announcements, calendars, newsfeeds, stock prices)? What key words will best fit the users’ mental model for searching for specific content and artifacts and filling knowledge gaps?
Make It Personal—Pass the WIIFM Test
The third technique is to make the collaborative portal personal. Be sure users can answer the “What’s in it for me?” question. An organization’s ability to enhance the learning of its members depends on the willingness of the members to connect, respond to requests, and consistently share new documents and other forms of knowledge. The collaborative portal project team, together with the organization’s leadership, can do several things to encourage appropriate participation, use, and sharing: motivate users to connect, motivate users to respond and share, and build a culture of collaboration.
Motivation to Connect—According to Woody Allen, “Ninety percent of life is just showing up.” While we think there is more to it than that, it certainly is a start. You can’t share expertise and knowledge until you “show up” on the collaborative portal. One way to encourage the user community to do so is motivate them to create personal sites, such as the My Site feature in SharePoint. Your My Site serves as a point of contact for other users in your organization to find information about you, your skills and interests, and even what you are working on. Each person’s My Site provides:
A central location for them to view and manage all of their documents, tasks, content, links, calendar, colleagues, tasks, and other personal information
A way for other users to learn about them and their areas of expertise, current projects, and colleague relationships.
My Site pages enable each person to present content and documents to other people, create their own workspaces, provide information about themselves to other people, and learn about the status of their colleagues (Figure 3). This makes your collaborative portal or content management system much more personal and motivates people to participate.
Figure 3. Example of a My Site Page
Motivation to Respond and Share—Informal learning through collaborative portals won’t happen on its own. The key to portal usage and adoption is quality content and knowledgeable experts. Without this, the portal will quickly get a bad reputation for having nothing of value.
So how do you get the right types of content and the access to the right experts? One key to success is to motivate experts and recognized leaders to participate. Ensure that experts in critical content areas create “My Sites,” listing areas of specialization, and uploading content to the portal. Make a global request to experts in specific areas, asking them to set up their site and participate. Ask managers to cover the request in their next team meeting to improve the likelihood of compliance. Informal motivators also work, such as contests. For example, one organization held a drawing for prizes from names that were entered after people completed their My Site pages or submitted content to be included.
In addition to posting information for sharing, experts must be motivated to respond to requests for information from the organizational community. For example, one global high-tech client has included responding to information requests on job descriptions for their technical staff positions. Experts in other organizations may not need additional motivation, finding personal satisfaction in sharing their tips and techniques with individuals and project teams. Every culture is different—find out what works in yours to motivate response and encourage sharing.
Build a Culture of Collaboration—“Build it and they will come” is a great movie quote, but won’t win any change management awards. Pay attention to your culture when encouraging and leading collaboration. Command-and-control cultures, especially, will require more overt leadership over a longer term in order to achieve true content management and collaboration. Some leaders think that a broadcast email is sufficient to get people to embrace collaboration and content management. But in fact, it requires much more than that. Popular techniques to improve an organization’s level of collaboration include:
- assess organizational change readiness and plan ways to remove barriers to collaboration in your culture
- hold town hall sessions to communicate why the portal is being developed, why it is important to your strategy and competitiveness, and how people are expected to use it
- conduct webinars demonstrating how to complete a My Site
- encourage leaders to ‘walk the talk’ and participate collaboratively in SharePoint to model the behaviors they want others to do
- deliver virtual or classroom training on SharePoint functionality, including how to upload documents, how to tag documents with searchable key words, how to search for content, and how to connect with an expert through his/her My Site page
- assign a job role in each business unit to keep the portal well organized, to retire old content, and monitor usage and adoption
- include collaboration and thought leadership in job descriptions, hiring profiles, performance management tools, and competency models
- use metrics to monitor adoption levels, usage, and satisfaction with information found, to identify opportunities to increase participation and continually improve.
Collaborative portals and content management systems have become a critical tool to support the learning process, while also enabling easier collaboration and communication. But don’t let your collaboration and content management system resemble the fancy race car that no one is prepared to drive. In this article we have described three techniques to facilitate collaboration and informal learning through collaborative portals. These techniques will help ensure that you get the organizational value and ROI you need from these informal learning tools.
- First, capture user requirements to avoid a mental model mismatch, and to make it more likely that the user community will use and adopt the system.
- Second, apply the People-Process-Portal design model to ensure that the portal design reflects the organization and supports the people who will use it to collaborate, search, reuse, share, and learn.
- Third, make it personal to pass the “what’s in it for me?” test. Encourage users and leaders to actively participate, connect with others, share expertise, and respond.
Don’t let informal learning be an afterthought in your organization. Plan for it, support it with well-designed tools, motivate participation, and involve learning and performance specialists in its design and management.