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The topics discussed here grow out of the bread-and-butter issues that confront my consulting and software clients on a daily basis. We'll talk about prosaic stuff like Membership Management, Meetings and Events Management and Fundraising, broader ideas like security and software project management, and the social, cultural, and organizational issues that impact IT decision-making.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Capability Stairsteps

When we begin a new deployment of our software applications at an organization, we always ask the users "How will you know if this project was a success or not?" We're usually expecting to hear things like "Our staff will spend significantly less time putting together monthly reports" or "We will finally have agreement between the membership lists on the website and in the AMS." But at a recent project kickoff the bar for success was really low: "Our staff will actually use the system."

Problems with the adoption of new IT tools can rob an implementation of much of its ROI. And the the solution is not simply making sure you've picked the right tool and delivered the proper training. There are specific steps that need to be taken to encourage user adoption.

My friend Russ Eisentstat of TruePoint uses the phrase "capability stairsteps" to emphasize the incremental nature of such transitions. These steps may involve partial use of the new tool, use by a subset of the eventual target user community, or both. But before you can climb these steps you need to design them - adoption will not necessarily spread naturally or completely unless the organization creates a plan and monitors it.

The example Russ and I discussed related to the use of a wiki to capture organizational knowledge. One of my long-standing contentions is that an enormous amount of organizational knowledge exists in emails between stakeholders. If these emails were simply captured and organized, a great deal of knowledge documentation could be managed with little or no new writing. But both of us had limited success in encouraging our own organizations to use our wiki.

What would a stairstep model for adoption of the wiki look like? First we need to put someone in charge! This is a step that is often ignored in this type of change management. Someone needs to take personal responsibility for the effort to develop the wiki into a useful tool. As soon as we have identified the wikimaster, we have at least one more committed user.

The next step is to identify the barriers to adoption so we can plan to eliminate them. Russ and I both agreed that the main barrier is the catch 22 of social sites: the wiki is not attractive to users if it is not yet rich with useful information -- but this will not happen until people begin using it. This barrier can be reduced by "priming the pump." Step two is that the wikimaster takes active responsibility for getting the first fifty articles on the site. He can poll users frequently to get them to send him any material that would be apporpriate for inclusion. This spreads some buzz about the wiki without asking people to utilize it themselves in any way.

A second barrier: it takes a bit more learning to become adept at posting than just to read the site. So this suggests the next increment. Step three is to encourage the use of the wiki as a passive repository of information, without leaning on people to post. People can still rely on the wikimaster to post their articles, but can begin to turn to the wiki to look for information they might need.

Only now do we tackle active contribution - again a step at a time. In Step four might the wikimaster to encourages people to comment on exisiting articles - reminding them of this capability, and having existing champions comment to prime the discussion on this forum.

Step five might be then to put in place rules for how others should post their own articles - how to tag them, how to deal with the home page, how new articles are announced, and so on. At this point a training or informational session might be held for new posters.

So what I had thought was a one step procedure - "let's start using this new tool" - has become a five step staircase. This model of identifying barriers and building a step to climb over each one in sequence can be used to encourage adoption of systems of all kinds.

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