Avoiding resource fetishism: It's about workflow, not tools

Don't be drawn into installing every wiki, CMS, bug tracker, issue tracker, source control system, CRM, collaborative notebad, micro-blogging service, social media application and other such gizmo unless it is actually needed. Collaboration is not about tools, it is about workflow.

One of the most liberating elements of community, particularly those that are at least a little nerdy, is the incredible temptation to build elaborate and complicated infrastructure. It is easy to see why: there is an abundance of Open Source web applications that have proven and mature track records, server space is cheap, so why not just cram as many of these tools into your community as possible. Surely, the more tools we have available, the easier and more effective we are at collaborating? Not exactly.

Collaboration is not about tools, it is about workflow.

People don't create things because a tool exists, and therefore the theory does not extend to people creating more things when more tools exist. When tools are available that match the workflow required, collaboration thrives. As such, don't be drawn into installing every wiki, CMS, bug tracker, issue tracker, source control system, CRM, collaborative notepad, micro-blogging service, social media application and other such gizmo unless it is actually needed. Instead of thinking "by eck, this looks rather cool, let's get one set up for the community", instead think "what would be the most perfect workflow for what we want to do and how can we use freely available tools to make this happen?"

We did this recently with Shot Of Jaq; a podcast that I founded with my best pal Stuart 'Aq' Langridge. Shot Of Jaq is a twice-weekly show in which we produce two shots, each of which provides a short, sharp, 10 minute long bolt of news and technology analysis that is designed to start the conversation. We have developed infrastructure to really encourage listeners to listen to show and then dig in and get involved in the site. To do this we used Wordpress and a variety of plug-ins.

The challenge we faced is that while our community have been rocking in taking part in the shot conversations, we didn't have a general space for collaboration. As an example, one such listener, Alastair Munroe, wanted to put together a collection of publicity stunt ideas that our listeners could engage in to raise the profile of the show and have a bit of fun. To do this we needed a place where people could come together to store ideas, and we needed a means of spreading the word about how to add ideas and participate.

The natural temptation was to say "let's just set up a wiki and be done with it", but instead we sat down and explored our workflow. In our discussion we identified a number of criteria in how this should work:

  • The barrier should be low for participation - there should be no annoying sign-up process, it should simple, visible and easy to use.
  • Everyone should be able to contribute to any of the documentation written by other listeners.
  • It should be really simple to create a document, and it should be accessible to everyone straight away.
  • It should be simple to spread the word about the document, and preferably integrate the publicity of the document with the document itself.
  • The technology should integrate tightly with the rest of www.shotofjaq.org
  • It should be spam free.

Now, reading the requirements above, a wiki solved most of them. The problem with a wiki is that it looks like an entirely separate piece of software dumped onto a website with little integration. It is this integration that was fundamental in wrapping our workflow with the tools. We sat down, drafted a plan, and with Aq being a rocking web developer, we now have an interesting solution called the Shot Of Jaq Scratchpad.

Let me explain how it works and how it is different. You go to the Shot Of Jaq Scratchpad in your browser, which is fully integrated into the look and feel of the site, and enter a name for your document in the textbox and click the button. This will generate a new scratchpad page which has a main content area and a column down the side. When it generates the page, it will also generate a hashtag for the page too. As an example the Publicity Bingo page that Alastair started also generated a #soj_i hashtag. At this point anyone can go to the scratchpad page and edit it, add content and get involved. Now here is the clever bit, if someone Twitters or identi'cas with the hashtag that was generated, those tweets appear in the second column on the page. This provides a rock solid way of seeing the page content and developing the conversation and promotion of the page at the same time. We are now seeing Shot Of Jaq fans creating scratchpad pages and discussing them openly on Twitter, not only giving visibility in the wider micro-blogosphere but also on the page itself.

The moral of this story is that workflow controlled the focus of our discussion as opposed to the tools. While it required a little bit of tweaking and a little code to be written, if those resources are available in your community to perform these tasks, I thoroughly encourage you to have a similar workflow-driven discussion. Don't just accept the way many communities do things: think of new and interesting ways in which you can break down the barriers to participation. It will serve you and your community well.