Email is the central nervous system of most modern organizations, from startups to large corporations. Every communication, from the most important (planning for the big client meeting tomorrow) to the most trivial (fresh donuts in the kitchen) takes place through the corporate email system. The results: email overload and lowered productivity for the entire organization. Employees are tethered to their email via Blackberries even over the weekend, leading to communications burnout.
The biggest single reason for this is the inherent nature of email itself: it is a point-to-point communication medium. The sender has to decide both the content of the message as well as who the recipients are. If the recipient list is too large, it contributes to email overload. If it is too small, that could lead to communication gaps and "informational silos" in the organization, where one group in the company doesn't really know what the other group is doing. Another problem is that each email message is a single unit, making it hard to track conversations among multiple parties. Many email readers thread conversations, but that is done at a syntactic rather than semantic level. Finally, putting everything in email makes it difficult to build institutional memory.
We hit the email wall at my company Kosmix recently. When we were less than 30 people, managing by email worked reasonably well. The team was small enough that everyone knew what everyone else was doing. Frequent hallway conversations reinforced relationships. However, once we crossed the 30-person mark, we noticed problems creeping in. We started hearing complaints of email overload and too many meetings. And despite the email overload and too many meetings, people still felt that there was a communication problem and a lack of visibility across teams and projects. We were straining the limits of email as the sole communications mechanism.
We knew something had to be done. But what? Sri Subramaniam, our head of engineering, proposed a bold restructuring of our internal communications. He led an effort that resulted in us relying less on email and more on wikis, blogs, and instant messaging. Here's how we use these technologies everyday in running our business.
Blogs for Status Reports
Each employee and each project has a dedicated blog. People can post as often as they wish to their personal or project blog, but they are required to post at least one weekly status update. All blogs are visible to everyone in the company. Anyone can subscribe to the feed for any particular team or individual blog. So for example, Josh in engineering can follow the blog of Mike in sales, if he's curious what Mike is up to. This results in complete 360 degree visibility throughout the organization. People can also post comments on these blogs. Someone might post a problem they are facing, and others can post comments providing suggestions. This results in automatic grouping of conversations based on topics of interest.
The biggest advantage of the blog approach is that it is a publish-subscribe mechanism. I don't need to decide who to direct my communication to; I just post on my blog. Anyone in the company who is interested in what I'm doing can subscribe to my blog to be notified of updates. And if someone just has a passing interest, they can always read my blog periodically without subscribing to it. This approach also breaks silos, for example, between engineering and marketing, or between marketing and sales. Sometimes the best product ideas come from sales people. And sometimes the best sales ideas come from engineers.
No one is required to read any particular blog, with two exceptions:
- Managers are expected to read the status updates of their team members and post feedback.
- People working on a project are expected to read each other's blogs.
The blog approach has reduced email overload at Kosmix and even reduced the number of time-consuming "status update" meetings. Most important, the blog serves as an institutional memory -- an electronic record of our business. Conversations do not get lost in the ether but are recorded and can be searched at any time in the future by new people on a project or new company employees.
The Wiki for Persistent Information
While blogs are great for status updates and discussions around ideas, they are not the best place to put items that serve as reference material: for example, documentation, specs, reports, and so on. The problem is that blogs are in reverse chronological order, and each blog can have just one author, preventing collaborative editing. For these situations, we use a wiki. The internal corporate wiki has sections corresponding to each project and each functional group in the company. Documentation, specs, and reports go into the wiki.
The other critical section on the wiki is the Team section. Every employee has a homepage on the wiki, with a recent photo, describing their responsibilities at work and interests outside of work. As the team grows, and you see a new face at the office, this is a quick way of finding out who that person is.
Instant Messaging for Spontaneous Discussions
As Kosmix has grown, we now have people working from more than one physical location. In addition, we promote a culture of people working from home whenever it is compatible with their job responsibilities. Thus, we need a substitute for the face-to-face hallway conversations that cannot happen because someone is working from home or from another location. Email is not the best option because it is asynchronous and thus loses the spontaneity of a hallway chat.
Instant messaging fills this need very well indeed. The entire Kosmix team is on IM. Each team member is required to set the "status" message on their IM client during normal sane working hours to indicate where they are working from. They can also post a "Do not disturb" message to indicate that they don't welcome interruptions at the moment. Instant messaging leads to quick resolution of many issues without spawning interminable email threads.
If I needed to have everyone in the company on my IM buddy list, that would be a very long buddy list indeed. To avoid this problem, every team member's IM handle and status are displayed on their wiki homepage. You can initiate an IM session with anyone from their wiki homepage.
Convention over Configuration
The effects of the communication restructuring have been immediate and very visible. They include a lot less email and almost none on weekends; better communication among people; and 360 degree visibility for every member of the Kosmix team. After we instituted these changes, everyone on the team feels more productive, more knowledgeable about the company, has more spare time to spend on things outside of work.
Kosmix is certainly not the first company to use internal blogs, wikis, and IM for corporate communication. Google has been using blogs for status reports for a while now. The big difference is the conventions we have established about we use these tools. For example, one of the common complaints I've heard about Google's use of internal blogs is that most employees feel no one reads their blog. I've heard of one case where an employee for several weeks posted a status report that read: "Is anyone reading this?" By establishing conventions around expected read-write patterns, we have avoided this problem so far at Kosmix.
No doubt as Kosmix grows further, even this model will break down at some point and we will have to look for new communication models. I'll post an update when that happens! In the meantime, please do share your experiences of innovative corporate communication practices.
We use twiki for our wiki and blog software at Kosmix. The wiki functionality in twiki is great, but it took quite a bit of customization work from our indefatigable Sri Subramaniam to make it work well as a blogging platform too. We are planning to release our twiki tweaks as open source in the next couple of months, once we have a chance to package them neatly.
Another great option for blogs is WordPress, which allows you to host blogs internal to your company. We went with twiki because of the integrated wiki/blogging solution.
We have standardized on Yahoo! Instant Messenger for instant messaging. However, the other IM products such as MSN Instant Messenger and Google Talk have comparable functionality. I would suggest you pick the one most people in your company already use for personal communication.