I remember listening to Jim Whitehurst at Red Hat Summit a few years ago speaking about open organizations. Open organizations act as enzymes for value creation processes inside internal and external communities, by empowering flow of ideas and fostering creativity. In a section of the book The Open Organization, the author explains the use of simple communication tools to foster collaboration and create spaces for discussion.
Communication is a big piece of an architect job and communication skills are fundamental for all technical people. Writing is a critical skill and one that has to be learned and practiced. Nothing is so clear as when we write it down and face our ambiguities and unresolved nudges.
Writing is a refinement tool for our thoughts
The importance of writing had already been understood at Imola Informatica and the organization had started since 2016 an initiative called Palestra Aziendale to build up writing skills with a communication partner, Pidiprogetto. The goal was to train on writing and promote knowledge, sharing and growth as communicated in the initiative manifesto.
One year ago when joining Imola Informatica, I started an internal blog open to everyone inside Imola Informatica to read or contribute to.
When I started blogging, I had four major goals in mind:
- Get up and dance
- Learn bidirectional communication
- Engagement is not about the tool
- Pennies in the Piggy Bank
The primary intention of this post is to underline the importance of communication skills, writing in particular, and the relevance they have for organizations, consulting organizations like Imola Informatica in particular. It is also directed to IT organizations in general, our customers, to urge bringing back good communication in writing as a competence and a common practice, eventually reducing the abuse of presentation format. A phenomenon I mentioned with some frustration in a tweet in October 2022.
I want to share some personal reflections on running an internal blog and what were my motivations. This is the story of Zublog, an internal blog.
Get up and dance
The first step with writing for an audience is to get up and do it. Some may remember school dances with an empty floor until someone got up and slowly others followed. Getting up is an important step.
The goal in starting Zublog was to create a more ambivert environment and promote people openness, while respecting individuals, and build an open space where people could train and engage. The internal blog had to become a writing and thinking gym.
We, as Imola Informatica, have been running for a couple of years a Friday event we call Lunch & Learn (L&L) where people can share their knowledge and experience in closed or open door mode. L&L allows people to share own learnings and experiences and speak about what matters to them. It is an important gym, one where people stand up on a volunteer basis to share something they have learned or are expert on or care. It involves presentation skills, but also requires willingness to get on stage.
From the perspective of this post, L&L promote an environment where people can experiment without the pressure of an external public, unless they wish so. If this can be done for speaking, it should be done for writing as well.
Learn how to write for an audience
in a friendly but open environment
When I joined a central architecture team in Munich under the lead of Gregor Hohpe, I had the opportunity to learn how to write technical content for Busy People. I did so with help and the first attempt to write a tech brief for the executive team took a good number of iterations. What I learned since, authoring memos and technology briefs, is that it takes training and practice and time, but is rewarding.
Building good content is challenging and requires effort and training. Zublog is a space where you can learn to structure content and build self-confidence by practicing it in a space that is open, polite, and unbiased. without the pressure for high quality of a public internet space.
Linking an internal blog with communication skills development initiatives, provides the needed tools for learning effective writing.
Zublog is built on a chat tool and if there is something it does well, is to support a conversation. By choosing the tool and the format, more emphasis has been placed on the content than the format. The ability to create a post as short as two lines is important to trigger impressions and engagements. But if someone feels like, it can be longer or a threaded discussion. Usually posts are around a page long.
My assumption is that if there is an opportunity for conversation and we put more emphasis on content than format at first, we create an easier access path and encourage participation.
The blog at this stage values content over format
I see this as a useful tool for fostering diversity and inclusion and to stimulate people to develop writing soft skills and especially important for new hires to get to know and be known. People can listen, show appreciation or give a feedback on the topic. The place is not moderated, but we rely on our internal culture and values and so far we have never experienced any issue.
Engagement is not about the tool
Among the tools we use in Imola Informatica, we have Zulip, an open source chat platform, as a communication backbone and we have channels for many purposes. We also have other tools for collaboration like Office 365 and we are never shy to try something new and eventually build our owns – for example CRM, HRM and ERP are home grown.
But when the blog started, the idea was to put the interaction over the tool running an experiment and see what would the experience be like with a chat, tool favoring engagement and interaction over editorial aspects.
Individuals and interactions over processes and tools
Choosing the tool, we were aware that a lot of features would be missing but we were also clear that we may have moved away later or enhanced it with its API and our expertise in ontology and semantic web. We wanted to push more on people and interactions and less on tools and processes. Good culture trumps a good tool.
One year later, we have experienced the ups and downs but I am pretty fine with the ease of use and accessibility. There is a pretty good text search tool and people can react or reply easily and link posts into other conversations. People can be mentioned and there is a draft feature. We are now in the phase of moving to a different tool, better integrated with the intranet space and suited for content authoring, but we will have to be careful not giving up the conversation aspects for the tooling sake.
Pennies in the Piggy Bank
A good piece of advice I had in the past from a mentor on professional attitudes, has been to capture ideas and even when not fully developed or fuzzy, save them for later in a piggy bank.
Going periodically back to the trove, we can find small gems which have matured through small iterations. As engineers and architects we cross a lot of topics, start and drop sometime small ideas and pet projects or get absorbed for a moment from an interesting idea or concept we pick up by someone else. At first we do not know what they will bring but is a good habit, even if you do not aspire to become an author.
Save your ideas for a later time, they may become valuable
The threaded nature of Zublog is meant to help append more thoughts to what may start as rambling and link posts and synthetize new ideas. Threads around sustainability, cloud adoption and architecture improvement, captured inside the blog, have inspired later on conversations and advisory activities and stimulated internal research.
Measuring the engagement
One third of Imola Informatica employees have subscribed to the channel, around twenty have actively engaged in conversations, and five have authored content on their own in addition to myself. More detailed analytics are not available, but was not the goal to set up web analytics to measure engagement. Yet, the fact that periods without content get noticed, is an indicator of interest.
Technical topics are the more common ones, but we have also threads on workplace and work life balance or diversity, or the direction of media platforms like Twitter. Some topics like performance engineering or service architecture, that are particularly appealing to our engineering or architectural background, have more traction in terms of engagements. A few posts have related to green software and found their way into sponsored research via our academic partnership.
Communication is important, it is an organization skills that must be embedded into practitioners and not managed only centrally for corporate or marketing communications. While we spend a lot of our school time learning how to write essays, it is a skill we either do not master well enough or we lose. Training and practicing are important.
Writing requires an audience, the interaction with an audience is important to improve the quality via feedback and get used to the habit of making our thoughts more visible. Nevertheless, since writing is not our primary activity, we need to be able of doing it in a way that fits our time and habits. A venue to practice and the spirit of engaging both as reader and writer help mature the skill into competence.
IT organizations can benefit from better communication skills, because well written technical content brings more clarity on solutions and directions. IT organizations need to learn reading again and value good and thorough writing, also in regards to technical concepts.