bloomfire

Learn Or Die: A Primer

Next Story

ioSafe Crowdfunds Its Latest Disaster-Proof Hard Drive

Editor’s Note: The guest post was written by Craig Malloy, the CEO of Bloomfire, a knowledge sharing tool for the modern workforce. Malloy previously served as Founder/CEO of ViaVideo (acquired by Polycom), and the Founder/CEO of LifeSize (acquired by Logitech). You can follow him on Twitter here.

Behind most productivity problems is a learning problem. Productivity is a loaded term for good reason. We’ve seen an endless parade of newfangled systems and near-religious dogma — high aspirations and endlessly failing experiments. We’ve been there and we’ve done that.

Our Current Condition

U.S. productivity fell nearly a full percentage point in the first quarter this year. Businesses are scrambling to find ways to squeeze more juice out of the same orange.

Making matters worse, there’s a hiring war on, in case you didn’t notice. It’s increasingly difficult to wield manpower at any scale. More is not more, and practical field knowledge is more valuable than any substrate.

What else?

New skills and lefts hands talking to right hands can be the difference between winning and losing. Most organizations have the knowledge they need to succeed. They’re just not getting into the hand of the right people at the right time.

It’s also easy to make the mistake of assuming that “doing more with less” necessarily means running people ragged, risking burnout and decreased retention. Superhero work and duct tape aren’t an answer. It’s time to throw off our coping mechanisms and take a fresh look at what productivity for the modern workforce really looks like.

Finally, it turns out that above and beyond your monetary goals, most people want to leave the world a better place that they found it, to the greatest extent possible. Dan Pink wouldn’t have it any other way.

As frustrated as we may ever be, productivity is still one of the greatest levers any executive has at her disposal. Job satisfaction and employee retention is ultimately all about getting things done, and accomplishing great things as a team. Otherwise, why are we working so damn hard? Everyone wants better knowledge sharing.

Fred Wilson has written that the job of any CEO is to hire and retain talent, set vision, and make sure there’s always money in the bank. To me, knowledge sharing is that CEO’s secret weapon and core competence, something that meaningfully improves your chances.

In this post, I’ll outline how a new software category is coalescing at the middle of a Venn diagram of sorts, and what it means for your ability to build an incredible organization that shares its knowledge in the best possible way.

Everything Old Is New Again

None of this stuff is new, if you were wondering.

Business software has always tried to mirror how we actually work. But the ways we work have lately evolved so significantly that we’ve outpaced our usual tools.

What’s really new? We are.

There is institutional knowledge that needs to be disseminated and accessed more readily, and in parallel, there is a mass of new information and learning that needs to be shared around your company with less friction, every single day. We don’t need “professional development sessions” anymore — we need a better way of life.

Businesses need to think more strategically about how they implement their knowledge sharing programs. And no, none of what I’m saying involves a conceptual leap of faith. Instead, the challenge is shaking your organization out of its collective stupor, and inspiring a new kind of learning-driven culture that begets the success you seek.

We are still using software designed for a different era, an era with different pain points and different expectations of what it means to work. We’re social, mobile and always connected. We instinctively search for answers to our questions. Business is moving at an incredible pace, no matter what industry you’re in.

The Periodic Table of Productivity

Four elemental properties make up nearly any modern effort at knowledge sharing. I’ll quickly take you through each.

First, traditional learning management systems (LMS) are complex, old-fashioned software suites that want to train massive amounts of employees with minimal human effort and contact (push instead of pull thinking).

They are focused on one-way, top-down communication. And for a while, they worked quite well, because the mere availability of information was a big deal. You might have interacted with one of these systems when you were first on-boarded to your current role.

LMS came from academia, and they still have traction in that vertical. They have lost ground in business contexts because we no longer learn on the job the way we learned in school. Recent successes have focused on the HR market, where trainers often come at the problem from an academic point of view.

Classic examples include: Oracle’s iLearning, SAP’s Cornerstone OnDemand, Plateau Systems, Taleo, SumTotal, and Saba.

Most LMS vendors have been tacking on new features to stay up with the times, but haven’t bothered to rethink some of the core assumptions they originally made about the workforce when they first architected their systems in the 1990’s.

Some of the more innovative companies in this category include: Instancy, AbsorbLMS and Interactyx.

Second, content management systems (CMS) have long had the opportunity to define a knowledge sharing market, because they’re where content is most often created and manipulated.

But most CMS plays require serious time, money and customization. You drown in features, because they try to be everything to everyone. CMS tries need to be big, scalable and powerful — that makes the IT department happy. Not surprisingly, most CMS solutions are IT-owned, instead of chosen and run by the business side of the house. CMS deservedly has a reputation for being bloated.

So-called intranets also fall into this category too, by the way — they use different jargon, but the functionality is no different. Intranets are just a single use case of a CMS.

CMS names you might have heard include: Drupal, Sharepoint, Documentum, FileNet, OpenText…and even WordPress.

Now, have you ever met someone who actually enjoyed using SharePoint? SharePoint in and of itself requires training. Even WordPress, which has a reputation for being user-friendly, has moved upstream and has enough fields and plugins to make the common man weep.

On the other hand, recent innovations strive to be more social, presenting nimble front-ends and “what you need is what you get”.

More innovative CMS players who are pushing this category forward include: Alfresco Cloud, ThoughtFarmer, Mindtouch and SocialText.

Third, file sharing systems (now mostly cloud-based) work with little or no configuration, are super organized, and can handle any kind of content. Who doesn’t love Dropbox?

However, they aren’t very social, and they don’t display or let you consume content like you can with social media services like YouTube, or Facebook. And they’re not useful for collaboration, or content creation — those activities take place out of context, by definition. File sharing systems are in fact too constrained — they don’t do enough. They’re receptacles to be filled — little more. And, they can get rather expensive — those GB’s add up.

The usual suspects include: Dropbox, iCloud, Rackspace’s JungleDisk, Citrix’s Sharefile, and EMC’s Syncplicity.

File sharing is a critically important feature to knowledge transfer, but it’s still just one feature. For this reason, companies like Box.net have smartly moved horizontally to include more holistic functionality, allowing me to comment on and edit documents, digest streams of updates, and understand via dashboards the broader sum of the work being executed.

The more innovative players in file-sharing include: Google new Drive, Box.net, Egnyte, and YouSendit.

Finally, social software can indeed be said to be eating the world. Social networks, forums, stream players and Q+A sites make it incredibly easy to create and consume content among networks large and small.

But, it becomes difficult to manage these networks once the user base grows beyond a very small number. Put simply — most of these plays are designed to be one-to-many systems, instead of a many-to-many channel.

The obvious players here are: Yammer, Jive, Kickapps and Lithium.

Yammer is great if you’re less than 15 people, but it can quickly devolve into a constant stream of activity or status updates. You end up drowning, or giving up.

The great promise of social business software is just that — making the business social, and horizontal. The consumerization trends we hear so much about are very much real, but most companies committed to the cause are nonetheless experiencing a backlash. Social risk being a distraction, or worse, an even more cluttered inbox.

The best new players in the social business space include: Chatter, Huddle and Podio

But Craig, You Put Me In the Wrong Category!

I almost definitely did. Why?

Most of the innovation in business productivity and is coming from the convergence of these elements into what I would properly call “knowledge sharing”. The lines are quickly blurring, and that is absolutely intentional.

This will be a defining trend for the next 18 months or so. Everyone is ultimately looking at the same chart.

There’s a reason that Microsoft bought Yammer, even if they overpaid. Box.net just raised a ton of new money and it’s not just for more servers. Box has its eyes firmly set on becoming a real enterprise company, moving more and more upstream.

Jive is apparently fielding M+A offers left and right, and you had better believe that Salesforce bought GoInstant to spur better collaboration inside of Chatter. The same can be said for Citrix with Podio (to be paired with ShareFile too, no doubt).

PBwiki became PBworks, building use-specific solution for agencies and law firms, adding project management capabilities and social signals galore. MindQuilt, the “B2B Quora,” is making noise about social collaboration, too. VMWare recently announced the beta version of Project Octopus.

And the list absolutely goes on and on — please chime in with things I’ve missed in the comments.

Okay, Why Should Anyone Really Care?

For tool providers, if you can blend all four elements in the right quantities, you’re in serious business. But you need the right balance of content, collaboration, file management, social, and learning capabilities.

For business owners, if you want to turn your entire organization into a true mesh of people and expertise, you can’t possibly believe that wiki or a blog or another intranet is going to be enough.

What do you do about the person who starts the day after the training session, missed the webinar and doesn’t have the password for the shared drive? What if someone has a question that wasn’t covered or needs an answer or information right now to close a deal and the Product Manager is on vacation?

The founding story of my own company, Bloomfire, is a perfect lens. I had founded Lifesize nine years ago (we eventually sold to Logitech). At just the right moment, two years ago, we happened to stumble across this small company based in Utah called Bloomfire. At the time we were fed up, and frustrated. Business was great, but we needed to operationalize our collective knowledge, quickly. The biggest need at the time was in our global sales and channel organization.

In the end, Bloomfire made a huge difference. It was so contributory to our success in fact, that when I left Logitech, I made the easiest decision of my life. I bought Bloomfire, with the goal of getting it into the hands of as many people as possible. How’s that for a passionate customer?

I have serious skin in this game, and so you have to take everything I say in the proper light. I hope you try to like Bloomfire. But no matter what, take with you the lesson it ultimately taught me.

However it is that you choose to get after the knowledge sharing problem, know that there are tools out there that your humans will actually like and use — software that can become a habit, software that sparks organizational change. And that makes all the difference. Striking the right balance is a beautiful thing.

Conclusion

Existing technology doesn’t meet the needs of your employees, and they’re going to keep using back-channels and “hacks” until you give them the tools that match their work style and preferences. The longer you let that happen, the weaker your business will become.

Tribal knowledge needs to stop being exchanged in hallway conversations as some kind of corporate civil disobedience.

The average employee spends nine hours per week searching for information that they need to do their job. If we could get this number down, the work of 4 employees would be comparable to having hired a fifth.

Imagine how powerful the effect could be? This is about addressing structural economic and business problems in the modern world. Empowering our workforce ultimately empowers our businesses, and we need knowledge sharing systems that correspond with both the urgency of the situation, and the real-world needs and habits of our employees.