Zombies and Skeletons

Zombies and Skeletons

Strategic management of collaboration communities and social content

In many organisations, enterprise collaboration systems (ECS) are an integral part of the digital workplace, providing tools for collaboration, communication and coordination between employees and supporting knowledge and document management. When an organisation goes through the process of introducing a new enterprise collaboration system (e.g. IBM Connections, Sharepoint, Atlassian Confluence etc.) the immediate focus is often on getting the collaboration platform up and running, registering new users and providing training to help users to integrate the new system into their everyday work. Less attention is given to managing the large volumes of social content that are subsequently created by users as they go about their daily work. Social content is the traces and artefacts that are generated within the collaboration platform’s communities and team spaces and includes content types such as social profiles, wiki entries, blog posts, shared office documents, comments, likes, tags etc.

A key strength and quality of enterprise collaboration platforms is their flexibility and malleability; they are not fixed or pre-defined but can be shaped by users to meet their specific collaboration and knowledge sharing requirements. Collaboration platforms are ecosystems that support a wide range of functions that enable different types of communities or work spaces to be formed. These communities can be formal or informal, they can range from those designed to support long-term collaboration and knowledge management over many years to those intended for organising a one-off event such as a conference or meeting with a limited life expectation of weeks or months. See the article “Different types of communities in Enterprise Collaboration Software” for discussion of the different types of collaboration community.

As a consequence of this potential for design through use, collaboration platforms tend to grow organically and be somewhat unstructured, and contain a wide and diverse variety of content. Failure to strategically manage the large volumes of content being generated within communities and workspaces can bring significant and potentially unpleasant consequences downstream. Without careful planning, an enterprise collaboration system and its content can become uncontrolled with content and communities in various stages of life (and death) and with no clear picture of which communities are active and useful and which are inactive and contain content that is no longer required or out of date. We have named these dead and dormant communities skeleton and zombies.

skeleton_bearsSkeleton communities are the largely empty and unused communities of a collaboration platform. They are communities, that have been set up and launched for use but were never actively used, they are the bare bones of a community with little or no content in them. Perhaps a few items were uploaded when the community was first created, a few hopeful messages posted and after that, nothing further. Skeleton communities probably don’t cause too much trouble, but if they have no business, operating or evidentiary value they should probably be deleted. How many such skeletons reside on your collaboration platform? How many communities are inactive and contain little or no content? Is there any reason not to delete them and clean up the platform?

zombie_bearsZombies are the living dead of a collaboration platform. They are the old communities, wikis, blogs etc. that were once highly active but have now fallen into disuse. The project is over and the team members have moved on and activity in the community has ended. There may still be some life left, for example, some information that could have important value as useful business knowledge or as an historical record. However, by now much of the information is probably outdated or irrelevant. These communities as with the skeleton communities are still buried on our collaboration platforms. Few people, if anyone, use these communities and there may no longer be anyone responsible for them; but they live on and every now and then they surface and haunt us. When we search for items, the content of these communities can slow down search queries and fill search results with irrelevant information. This could be dangerous and misleading to the unaware user who takes action based on outdated information or wastes time discovering that the information is no longer relevant. Such zombie communities could still contain valuable gems of information that should be retained for future use, such as a useful report, workflow or other such information product. They may contain information that is needed to meet legal or regulatory requirements and should be retained for compliance purposes. Or information that is required for institutional knowledge management or as part of the business’s history and therefore has value to the business. Filtering this useful information out from the rest of the zombie information is a task that must be managed so that the platform maintains a high level of information quality and integrity. How many zombie communities are there on your collaboration platform? Is there information that should be kept or deleted? What actually happens when a project or community ends, are there guidelines about how to close a community and archive the important information?

Community lifecycle management

Although somewhat playful, the notion of skeleton and zombie communities focuses our attention on the lifecycle of collaboration communities and the identification of communities that are active, dormant, or inactive. Preparing a strategic plan for the management of the collaboration platform and its social content can help an organisation obtain the best performance from their collaboration platform whilst at the same time avoiding information risks. Such a plan provides a basis for thinking more broadly about the strategic management of social content, enabling us to make decisions about which content is valuable, which is required, which should be retained and which deleted. As with most things it is better to get things right at the beginning than to try and retrofit things later when problems arise. How should such a plan be developed and what could be included in such a plan? A good starting point is to think about collaboration communities and their management in terms of two dimensions, the level of management and the life stage of the community and its content.

platform_community_contentFigure 1: Three levels of collaboration community management

We can view community management from three levels: platform, community and content (see Figure 1). At the platform level the focus is on the oversight and optimisation of all the communities that exist on the collaboration platform. For most organisations, that may already be many hundreds of communities and as discussed above these communities may have been established for different purposes and timeframes and be in various stages of life. The questions of interest at the platform level are about the nature of communities and how they might be more effectively managed. For example, how many communities exist and what types are they? How many are long-term and how many short-term? How many members are in each community? How many active members are in each community? Can you identify dead or dying communities, how many communities are skeletons or zombies? What should be done with dead or dying communities? What kind of content do these communities contain? Is any content subject to legal obligations and specific management requirements? By analysing communities and their content at the platform level we can understand how the platform is being used, and more importantly identify dead communities, at risk content etc. and improve the performance and compliance of the system and its content. We can also set cross organisational policies and guidelines for the usage of the platform. For example, guidelines about the naming of communities, rules for establishing a community (e.g. each community should have a designated owner who is responsible for the management of the community and its content), guidelines for how to end a community and what to do with its content.

At the community level the focus is on the single community and its everyday use and management. This requires us to think about how the community will be developed and sustained over its lifetime and making sure that any organisational guidelines for the setting up and running of a community are applied. For example, allocating responsibilities for the community such as a community owner and a community manager; identifying responsibility for the stewardship of information in the community; ensuring guidelines for content creation and access rights are being adhered to and that any sensitive information is appropriately protected and managed; ensuring information quality is maintained etc. At this level, the management focus is on making sure the community is functioning well, that project information is being captured and managed efficiently and members of the community are able to use the community in ways that supports their work and collaboration needs and meets any legal or company information management requirements.

At the content level the focus is on the information itself, the social content that is created in the community through the interactions between community members and the documents that they create. The focus here is on developing the rules and guidelines for the long-term management and preservation of the content and documents being created and stored in a community. This is a more technical focus and requires us to understand the nature of the documents and information artefacts that are being created. Social content is different in structure and nature to most traditional business information. Social business documents are compound documents made up of different atomic elements. For example, a blog post has the main content of the post which is enhanced or extended through additional elements such as file attachments, comments, likes, tags etc. This complex and compound structure presents many challenges for the management of social content. For example, with a wiki page the information can be updated many times by many different authors. This brings problems in defining who is the responsible author and, as the content of a wiki page can be overwritten, it is possible that the provenance of the information in the page is lost. This would raise problems if the wiki entry was declared as a business record. Some of the questions to ask at the content level are: is there an audit trail showing the changes that have been made content elements such as blog posts, comments etc.? Is it possible to set retention periods for documents so they can be evaluated and, if necessary removed from the system when they are no longer relevant or needed? How easy is it to export content from a community into another system, for example a records management system? The questions at the content level require us to understand what happens with and to social content, so that we can put in place methods and safeguards to make sure it is adequately managed. See “Issues for the long-term management of Social Business Documents” for a fuller discussion about the nature and structure of social business documents and the challenges of their long-term management.

We can also think of community and content management in terms of the life stages of creation, use, disposition. At the point when a community is created decisions need to be made about the type of community and its purpose, the nature of the information that will be placed in that community, how it will be organised and managed, and by whom. Protocols for the establishment of a community could include identifying the community owner and who is responsible for managing the community. Regarding the content in the community, it may be necessary to establish rules for creating and organising content or to comply with organisational and legal requirements. For example, is there a specific classification scheme that should be used to classify the criticality or confidentiality of information? Will the community contain information types that require special attention and management or are there specific legal requirements such as those surrounding the capture and storing of personally identifiable information (PII)? Are there rules for naming and tagging documents and folders? And so on.

Managing the community in-use is about making sure the community is usable and serves its required purpose. Are all the members trained and able to make use of the system, have the correct access rights been set. What strategies can be used to encourage use of the system? How can information quality be ensured? Are community members aware of the legal requirements around the kind of information that can be shared and the protocols for working together? Are there different requirements for working with colleagues from a different country based on cultural or language norms? Managing the community in use is about maintaining the health of the community, ensuring it is fit for purpose and contributes to an effective digital workplace. A badly managed community can have a negative impact on the participants and on the quality of the information being generated and used.

The disposition stage of a community concerns managing its end of life – making decisions about what happens to a community and its content at the end of its active life. What plans are there in place for handling information that must be retained for a certain period, for example information relating to human resources or tax related matters? Should community content remain where it is, or should it be moved to another system, for example a records management or archival system?

Collaboration community management is important and should be addressed from the point that the decision is made to introduce the collaboration platform and constantly monitored to ensure the effective use and performance of the collaboration platform. Without clear community and content management guidelines and practices a collaboration platform could easily evolve in an uncontrolled way into a messy landscape of information silos full of digital landfill.

Through our research in CEIR we are working on various aspects of the strategic management of collaboration communities and social content and developing tools and methods to help organisations build an effective digital workplace and to get the most out of their enterprise collaboration systems.