When I first wrote about a company called FinancialForce.com, it was in the context of how the always-on collaborative approach of Salesforce.com's Chatter software, which the company uses, affected its employees. Due to my own experiences with Instant Messaging, I was concerned that some of the new types of collaborative software, which promise to insert themselves completely into workflows, could be distracting.
I read an eBizQ column by Phil Wainewright that seemed to confirm my hunch. It indicated FinancialForce had asked employees to refrain from putting some content into their Chatter streams. I later hooked up with FinancialForce CEO Jeremy Roche for an interview in which he set me straight. Chatter wasn't disruptive -- quite the contrary -- and it wasn't creating flows of unchecked information. But FinancialForce did have to remind employees to post certain types of static content in Content, another Salesforce.com tool, rather than Chatter so it could be indexed and more readily searched. FinancialForce had an existing policy around this; it simply had to remind employees to adhere to it.
Roche likened it to how many people use Twitter. He said:
You don't post a picture in Twitter, you post a link to TwitPic. TwitPic stays in the same place and you can index it from multiple places. We learned all that after the first few days.
Chatter incorporates elements of social networking by allowing employees to create profiles, follow each other and hop into and out of message threads. A common corporate concern associated with social networks is that they tempt employees to spend lots of time on non-work-related activities. Roche said that hasn't been the case at FinancialForce.com. Even when more personal information is posted in Chatter streams, it tends to be messages relevant to the work at hand, such as folks letting coworkers know they'll be gone for a few days.
They might mention they'll be at the beach, perhaps prompting some envious comments from colleagues. But that's pretty similar to how similar conversations might play out in person, creating a very momentary diversion. In fact, with Chatter, folks who might have inadvertently been left out of the loop before will know a coworker is away. (At our small company, we are pretty laissez-faire about announcing absences outside of our own departments. It's rarely an issue. But on occasion, I've spent several minutes trying to track down someone who isn't here.)
Roche agreed with me that Chatter and similar tools will force some organizations to become less hierarchical in how they distribute information. Those that don't adapt to this new way of communicating, which tends to facilitate more transparency and quicker decisions, will get left behind, he told me:
There's nothing better than a team knowing what's going on and feeling a part of the business. We don't need a suggestion box anymore. It's out there, loud and proud. I think organizations are starting to move in that direction because the old view of managing making a decision and communicating it through a conference call is starting to seem old-fashioned and slow.
There's a growing sense of inevitability that most companies will need to look at ways to streamline their standard ways of collaborating, as FinancialForce has done. However, some companies will adapt to collaborative tools like Chatter more quickly than others. (And Chatter may not make sense for every company.) Still, it makes sense for all companies to proactively try to think out some of the possible impacts of a collaborative tool before implementing it.
IT Business Edge's Lora Bentley writes fairly regularly about the need for companies to provide guidelines for social tools to their employees. While much of her commentary relates more to outward-facing tools such as Facebook, some of the advice applies just as well to internal tools. I mentioned one of the best pieces of social policy advice I've ever seen, from Mashable's Ben Parr in one of my posts: Sit down with employees, address any concerns up-front and create a policy that takes everybody's interests into account.