In October of 2011, AIIM (the Association for Information & Imaging Management, a non-profit research, community and educational association), published a survey-based report that examined social business and Enterprise 2.0 trends. I had the good fortune to hear about the results first-hand when I co-presented with AIIM’s President, John Mancini, on a social networking panel at the Gilbane Conference held in Boston last November. John summarized the work and results of the study. One of the more interesting data points and trending analysis I found intriguing was a growing interest in a class of social application AIIM refers to as “Enterprise Q&A”. Historically, when people ask what the common application use case scenarios are for E2.0, the most frequently cited examples have been: expertise location, online communities, and ideation (innovation).
Why the growing interesting in Q&A applications? Perhaps because it’s a pain point all of us – from front-line worker to senior executive – can relate to in our everyday work experience. All of us can recall situations when we’ve had a question about something and have not been able to find an answer through the information and contacts at our disposal. We ask our colleagues. We send out e-mails. We might try discussion forums, knowledge-base applications, and of course – search engines. However, even if we are fortunate enough to find the content, the information may not be presented in a fashion that addresses our need. Sometimes the “question” is not easily resolved by locating content related to the question. Often, what people are asking for (indirectly) when they pose a question is to have a conversation with someone to “make sense” out of that issue. Connecting co-workers via Enterprise Q&A enables people to reach consensus, collaborate on a response, and co-create a workaround. Beyond “answering the question”, this type of conversation allows participants to contribute personal experiences and share work practices that are not formally documented. Passing along the folklore, the unwritten context around a particular question can be a powerful means for people to learn in a social situation. The insight collectively gained can be more insightful to its participants than simply sending someone off to read a document or wiki.
As organizations invest in social collaboration platforms, many of these systems will have, or soon include, an Enterprise Q&A capability. I believe design methods that prioritize the user experience and social interaction, not just Q&A automation, will deliver the best solution in the long run. While it seems to be straightforward (ask a question, get an answer), the cultural and social networking dynamics are nuanced. Those nuances are easily overlooked if solution providers implement Enterprise Q&A from a technological perspective. Below are several questions you might want to ask yourself if you are looking into this topic:
- Where should the question get published to maximize the change of getting a applicable answer? While industry exuberance for activity streams makes it the likely candidate, is that always the proper mechanism?
- If activity streams are leveraged, is posting a question into a stream cluttered with lots of other items vying for attention the right approach? Should we visually distinguish a question from other types of activity stream entries? What other filtering options should be considered so that questions receive the proper priority?
- If posting a question into a stream is not always the best design decision, what other options should be considered? Should we decipher the meta-data associated with a question and map them to expertise tags of people and communities? If so, we can then define a notification process and ping those individuals and groups through different alerting options?
- Should submitting questions into an activity stream include the ability to specify people, roles, communities, or other group structures? If so, will this design approach become a forcing function for better filtering of activity stream items so that “my questions” pop up in a pre-defined view of my activity stream? Cisco Quad already does this via its Watch List capability.
- What if certain types of topics and questions can only be answered if people possess certain credentials? How do we address security and compliance (risk mitigation) needs in a Q&A solution?
- How far should we go in terms of automation? Should there be some type of workflow included that supports an escalation or service level parameter? Should people matched to a question receive reminder notifications? Should questions have “due dates” associated with them? Or does this capability remain informal and rely on voluntary participation? Should people be able to “opt out” of Q&A requests?
- As people participate in the Q&A environment, should they have the option to link those questions and responses to their profile? If I answer questions on E2.0 for instance, should my profile have a tab (or other design construct) that shows “My Q&A” where people can quickly see the types of topics and insight I’m currently involved in and historically provided? Today, we add tags to our profile to make claims of our expertise. Associating Q&A to the profile allows people to see how I am performing those claims – this in turn helps validate the relevant tags I’ve added (e.g., E2.0).
- Should the organization be able to apply analytical reporting to Q&A data collected over time? Organizations are often interested in connecting people and groups from different parts of the enterprise. Q&A interaction data can potentially show how people are traversing organizational boundaries of various types (e.g., geographic, reporting, role/title, etc). For instance, it might be a surprise to find that answers are coming from groups unaffiliated with the person and business unit posing the question. Organizations might find that Enterprise Q&A helps bridge disparate groups or that there is an advantage in this type of serendipitous interaction that can potentially lead to more regular conversations between people and groups over time that are spatially or structurally separated.
- What role will “gamification” practices have when designing the Q&A user experience? Beyond the obvious badges, leadership boards and such, how do we design affordances that encourage personal and teaming motivations, how do we interweave incentives that balance cooperation and competition, feedback loops, and reinforcement mechanisms? However, I have not (yet) explored the topic of gamification to any great detail so my thoughts here are a work-in-progress.
Questions are powerful social constructs – more so when they are placed in a public sphere for broad audience participation. A question creates an invitation for co-workers to visibly participate. That public interaction provides people with the opportunity to reinforce their identity as a subject matter expert, or expand their identity if they are not known for, or expected to have, that type of insight. Self-presentation in a public sphere can help workers become recognized beyond their job duties (which might be stereotyped by colleagues and management). If their contributions are valued, that reinforcement can help employees gain a sense of “belonging” which in turn can influence how workers identify with the organization, its goals, and its values.
Since questions and answers are often an iterative social process, the collaborative mass of contributions over time weaves together a network of people connected by a common interest even though they might have differing professional backgrounds and views. These types of “answer networks” can potentially create value in their own right. Participants in such Q&A exchanges have access to social scaffolding they can leverage to form their own communities and perhaps come together on issues beyond the Q&A connection that brought them together. From a design perspective, the question acts as a social object that can mobilize networks, enable social roles to emerge, and allow for creation of social capital.
However, establishing a technological structure that facilitates Enterprise Q&A should not be positioned as some type of panacea. There’s no assurance that employees will share what they know, or that answers will always be perfect. It does not guarantee spillover affects that lead to better levels of employee engagement elsewhere. Alone, it’s unlikely to transform the organization or cause dramatic cultural change. Enterprise Q&A is just one of many affordances social collaboration platforms mediate. There are a host of organizational, leadership, communication, governance, change management, and related practices that need to be designed and championed effectively to influence employee participation and deliver desired business outcomes.
The report is available for download here (note: you do need to provide contact information prior to access).