Internal Forums

For nearly as long as I can remember Readify has used an internal mailing list to facilitate discussion within the technical ranks. For me personally this has been an amazing resource that has allowed me to easily reach out to those people who have stronger skills in particular technologies than I do, and where I can occasionally provide the benefit of my experience. In fact, the mailing list is one of the major advantages that Readify has over its competitors and is often cited by past Readify staff members as one of the things that they miss. The kinds of things discussed on the mailing list include:

  • Debugging problems with the frameworks we are using.
  • Getting advice on some technology or technique.
  • Discussing something generally geeky.
  • Explaining to newbies why C# is better than VB.NET🙂

Mailing lists certainly aren’t unique to Readify, but the fact that it was introduced so early in the companies life means most technical folk have had to learn how to communicate via the mailing list in order to access the collective knowledge of the organisation. Each new employee certainly needed to adapt their own communication style but it is also true that the culture created around the mailing list is also a moving target. The result is a gradual evolution in the way that we communicate internally as an organisation – it is an internal forum where we can thrash things out openly and reach some kind of consensus or happy truce.

Structured Management

Anyone who has worked in business that has grown to several times the size it was when they joined would know that the foundations on which that organisation were formed can start to show some stress. The internal mailing list as one of the foundations of the organisation is no exception.

Over the seven years that I have been at Readify there have been several discussions about the effectiveness of the mailing list. From time to time we have tried different things to see if we can squeeze more out of this internal resource by either breaking it up or trying to introduce policies and procedures to make it more manageable. The Exchange Global Address list is a testament to these largely failed experiments.

Do we give up trying to optimise this internal communication channel? Probably not, but we have to accept that we are going to have nearly as many failed attempts as we are going to have successes which will result in evolutionary change rather than re-architecture of the way we do it. Such is the nature of most social instruments.

Natural Human Clustering

Another thing that I have noticed is that humans being humans tend to cluster with those that have like beliefs. Given a large enough group of people you will start to see fragmentation along some arbitrary lines. In all the world we see thing along political, socio economic, geographical (nationality) and genetic lines. Within a company you see echos of this but you might see other interesting groupings like (examples from within):

  • Those who like Agile methodologies, and those who don’t.
  • Those who like Enterprise Library, and those who don’t.
  • Those who like 100% web-based applications, and those who don’t.
  • Those who like VB.NET, and those who don’t.

Mind Games

This clustering effect seems to occur because of a curious balance between our need to belong to a group, but a complimentary need to have a high standing within that group. Not everyone can occupy the highest standing within a group so the only solution is to create more groups (assuming you can’t change human nature).

Interestingly, your standing within a group is probably more of a reflection of your own state of mind rather than any real understanding of what the group thinks of you as a participant. High performers are often high performers because they continually down-grade the value of their own contribution and increase the stakes of the game by contributing more and more.

Growing Pains

All this discussion is interesting but we still have challenges with our internal mailing list. Recently we experimented with adding a second mailing list which was kind of a hotline for those people who are out on client sites with limited e-mail bandwidth who need to get help fast. I was initially against the idea because previous attempts at fragmentation hadn’t worked.

In the end I submitted a request to get the mailing list created simply because I myself had said that if you really don’t think something is going to work there is no harm trying it because in the end – reality wins (if it isn’t going to work, it isn’t going to work and you change approach again) and you only run the risk of being pleasantly surprised by the results.

In this case we found that whilst we started out with the best intentions we ended up having off-topic discussions on the tail end of threads on the hotline mailing list. The result – a reduction in its value to those who started the threads.

What do we try next? I don’t know, right now we are having discussions about tagging posts. I am a big believer in the usefulness of tags as a solution to information categorisation especially when you have a large enough crowd posting content and a percentage of those contributors tagging theirs and others contributions. Is that the situation at Readify?

Previous attempts at consistent tagging haven’t worked, but by the same token I don’t know if we have seriously tried. Is it a lesson that we need to learn again? Sometimes it is good to challenge old assumptions, but we also need to benefit from wisdom already gathered.

5 thoughts on “Internal Forums

  1. silky

    “dynamic” tags aren’t good because the specifically allow people to view content differently.

    i may view your post as “boring and obvious” someone else “insightful and worthwhile”.

    imho it’s better for force strict categorisation. possibly an option for a ‘weaker’ ‘personal-tag’ system, if you really wanted to go crazy.

  2. silky

    what i’m suggesting with the personal tags is that you could put a ‘weight’ on my opinion of your posts. so against silky you have a weight of 1:10 which means you’ll need 10 other people to agree with my analysis for it to be considered useful. someone else may have a rating of 10:1, which means their opinion overrules mine to the value of 10.

    something like that could be quite amusing. but maybe useless. who knows. probably not particularly appropriate for what you’re doing. but it’s your typical ranking system, maybe you could look to what reddit do. of course that’s not tag based, but you could adapt it, as i’ve shown.

  3. Mitch Denny Post author

    Sheesh Silky, I thought you were having a go at me there – or are you?😛 I wonder if there is some kind of paper on all the different ranking systems that people have come up with specifically focused on online forums.

    I’m sure certain ranking systems only become useful once you reach a certain size where is where I think tagging can fall down sometimes.

  4. silky

    if i was having a go at you you’d know about it😀

    i’d say ranking is good when you want the ranks to mean something to more than just 1 person (the person who tagged it).

    say on delicious; my own tagging is maybe useful to me (this is arguable anyway). but it’s reasonably uninteresting to you. i may be ‘learning’ about java, so i mark it as ‘[learning interesting]’ when all it is is about autoboxing. a subject very obvious to anyone else.

    so for a bunch of people to see that tagged on ‘learning interesting’ isn’t valid.

    now, what the rank may allow is for me to ‘rank’ people who are at a similar level of java interest to me. then i basically ‘trust’ their opinion.

    i would think that something like this is way overkill for your internal forum. but i don’t know.

    yes i agree a paper outlining all the ranking systems would be cool. (even more hilarious would be to then rank them :p)

  5. silky

    personally if i was going to have some form of company-wide internal knowledge system i’d first go with personal blogs. which you guys obviously do. second to that, i’d have a mailing list, as you also do, and if a topic there expands such that it needs a post, i’d put it on the relevant persons blog. that way the public can benefit.

    you could argue for a mediawiki/sharepoint rubbish, but making it into a public post would probably not only increase quality and motivation to get it done, but help out others.

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