A good idea for today and everyday: paraphrasing


Paraphrasing always had a negative connotation for my French ears. Like beating around the bush or repeating things without value.

I know a much better meaning now: it’s a cornerstone of listening and learning.

I’ve been in this wonderful course from Sam Kaner about facilitation and participatory decision making. Quality stuff! And one of the first skills we learnt was paraphrasing.

Paraphrase, mirror, mimic each other, create a connection and have fun! (Credits: Arnold Newman / Getty Images)

Paraphrase, mirror, mimic each other, create a connection and have fun! (Credits: Arnold Newman / Getty Images)

This technique is useful for events and any piece of work involving people conversing, in fact even for personal life.

Essentially it’s about interpreting what someone said to check we understood. Sometimes it’s just mirroring (repeating), sometimes drawing the person to say more, or even ask others t osay more about the same topic. Obvious you would think! All the more so as facilitators. Yes, I do it often,  but not systematically. And as Sam would say, you have to commit to it.

And yet how often have I really understood everyone’s point? How often have I taken things for granted? Time to change that and practice.

Paraphrasing is my new diet. And I’ve just learned again how humbling but refreshing learning is…

Feeling thankful…

PS. And with this post I’m ending the series of short daily posts. Not sure about the whole experiment…

 

From pervasive attention to purposeful intention (the rituals of learning)


The next learning step is everywhere. Curiosity and ritualised investigation accelerate these discoveries though (Credits: photonquantique / FlickR)

The next learning step is everywhere. Curiosity and ritualised investigation accelerate these discoveries though (Credits: photonquantique / FlickR)

This may be related to the anatomy of learning. I notice that we tend to learn in a pervasive way: as we go along we discover micro patterns. But we can, and should, put our attention to the next mile, the next thing we can improve. These micro patterns that come to our attention are an opportunity paving the way for new learning, as they reveal to us a new change that is possible.

Good minds put attention to small incremental changes. Great minds – with wisdom and humility – put moments or happenings into entire wider trajectories of change, based on a conscious, purposeful, intention.
Typically that’s also what great parents do with their children: they raise their attention to the intention behind an act, and explain the very reason why it’s good to celebrate a particular moment beyond just appreciating it. They ritualise that learning.

Raising our attention is hard enough; emphasising intentions of greater significance is even more subtle to get to. Yet it’s what makes learning more collective, more sticky – and what makes long lasting change more likely to happen.

Two examples of putting measures in place to mark the intention and ritualise learning:

  • Asking for each post you share: ‘why you should bother reading this’ – because (I) you’ve realised that otherwise the value may not be so clear to readers.
  • Stopping criticising only and rather wondering what we (I) can personally do to improve something we are criticising.

Easier said than done, but that’s why learning is the holy grail and why social (and triple loop) learning is so difficult.

Who is in for triple loop learning?


Learning is hard. Hard to understand, hard to apply, hard to make consistent, hard to apply and change behaviour.

Learning about learning is a lot harder.

So when someone starts talking about ‘double loop learning’, eyes start rolling out. And when ‘triple loop learning’ splashes in a conversation, it ends in a circle of silence baked out of disbelief, compassion and impatience mixed with utter confusion…

Thing is: Are there genuine instances of ‘triple loop learning’ we can point to? There’s enough written about the theory of triple-loop learning but exceedingly little about when (where and how) it happens.

I can however think of a couple of examples:

  • People working hand-in-hand with the people involved in a given initiative to understand and evaluate their learning about what they’re trying to do – like the IKM-Emergent programme evaluation approach perhaps.
  • A community that has managed to work with all stakeholders in and around it to actually self-organise and find its own ways of dealing with its own wicked problems – possibly this was one of the objectives of the Millennium Villages.

Now the question is: can this be funded (by global development actors)? So far, very little chance, it seems. High risk, low certainty, extreme degree of complexity and abstraction (to start with).

But it’s, at the same time, remarkable that we haven’t yet put more attention to this if we want to be more efficient, more effective, more sustainable, scaled up and out and about…

How long before one funding agency, or one collective of people with a strong sense of agency, finds the boldness to just start an initiative that puts triple loop learning front and centre?

How long can we afford to stay at the surface of complex problems? When it’s too late?

Politicians discussing global warming (Isaac Cordal)

Politicians discussing global warming (Isaac Cordal)

The process arts, in defence of sustainable development


Abstrait (Credits: Roger / FlickR)

Abstrait (Credits: Roger / FlickR)

First of this series of short posts.

Maybe this year we’l be organising some sort of share fair of the process arts,  looking at facilitation, graphic facilitation, social learning and some other process-oriented approaches and tools.

But why really? What is it that ‘process’ awareness, or process literacy has to bring?

Perhaps, just perhaps, process is:

  • What connects objectives, activities, outputs, outcomes etc. The glue that holds it together. But also and more importantly it is what creates conversations: budding conversations, sticky conversations, morphing conversations. Because it relates deeply to human connections.
  • What creates engagement, empowerment, alignment, thirst for betterment – a sense of collective action, which drives that action for arguably a much longer term.
  • What keeps track of micro and macro patterns by putting much emphasis on understanding and assessing – both before, during,  and after the action. M&E and all the rest of it…

So it both pays attention to, stimulates and reflects upon the subtle ingredients that make work ‘work’. Remember: “Look beyond what to do: why and how lead to who.”

The rest is just what’s supposed to happen. And everyone thinks it’s easy enough, but not quite when you put on your ‘process literate’ glasses…

You reckon?

Musings of the past week, and a blog experiment


Last week was very rich in conversations that relate to this blog as my organisation was holding its annual communication and knowledge management review and planning meeting. And on the back of that, lots of great free-floating conversations with colleagues and friends…

The blogging experiment this week: one short working out loud post every day (Credits: Jonolist / FlickR 'Random Musings')

The blogging experiment this week: one short working out loud post every day (Credits: Jonolist / FlickR ‘Random Musings’)

 

So I start this week with lots of ideas in mind to further develop as blog posts, including:

  • What is it that the focus on processes can really bring to sustainable development? Is it all and only about the micro-patterns of learning, engagement, or even about getting to a higher level of consciousness that would help us think differently about development?
  • In relation to this, what are genuine examples of ‘triple loop learning’? And in relation, why does no one want to fund ‘social learning’ and attempting to reach that third loop?
  • Thinking about all kinds of platforms that help us save time make informed decisions about e.g. which social media to use (non profit tech for development for instance)… and taking stock of stock-taking exercises…
  • Wondering about Facebook for organisational work – a good idea? A dangerous approach? Is there such a platform as mentioned previously that can inform me well about this?
  • Using Fridays for creativity – what could be the best ideas (and boundaries) to make it work?
  • I’m also having to facilitate a Powerpoint hell trip and wondering what to do about this and in relation, wondering about setting up a blog specifically on facilitation.

…Lots of ideas, lots of questions, lots of blogging material…

And the blogging experiment will be to try to do a series of Seth Godin‘s: a short ‘working out loud’ post every day… Let’s see if I manage to get to this ;)

Knowledge management strategy development: Taking stock


Nothing like having your back to the wall to do some useful research.

Here I am, fishing for ideas on good communication and knowledge management strategies. I addressed how to develop a communication strategy a while back. And though I’ve shared some ideas on how I would go about a KM strategy, I haven’t really synthesised all the stuff I’ve found useful to do so through the years; so here’s some stock-taking exercise for resources dealing with designing and rolling out a knowledge management strategy.

How to develop a KM strategy? (Credits: UNU-ViE_SCIENTIA / FlickR)

How to develop a KM strategy? (Credits: UNU-ViE_SCIENTIA / FlickR)

Caveat: This is not a simple exercise, as most companies want to preciously hoard their information about this business-critical area of work. Case studies do exist a bit everywhere but this post doesn’t attempt at highlighting those in particular.

Caveat 2: Because it is not simple, and I didn’t get enough time to search thoroughly for all that might be out there, this will be a ‘living post': I will enrich it with other resources that I think should feature here. So, feel free to bring up your key readings on this :)

…or indeed videos (haven’t yet checked this Kana 5-video tutorial on KM strategies)…

KM4Dev conversations about KM strategies (Stock-taking on stock-taking)

A KM4Dev conversation (Credits: Westhill Knowledge)

A KM4Dev conversation (Credits: Westhill Knowledge)

As ever, the KM4Dev wiki is a gold mine of relevant information and as you might expect, KM4Devers have explored this topic more than once. So we have four waves of KM strategy conversations here, as well as some useful (quite recent) case studies at the end.

The four conversations cover:

  • How a 10-year vision about KM can be developed in an organisation
  • Where to start with a KM strategy
  • Using frameworks and getting started
  • The stealth approach in KM strategies

What’s useful: the attention to principles of action and the fact that this resource is quite easy to absorb and to implement as it has a good, concrete, summary section. An excellent starting point.

APQC’s resources on knowledge management strategy

APQC KM strategy chart

APQC’s interactive KM strategy framework

APQC have a lot of experience with KM and they are really interested in connecting with other people that work on or around KM (they incidentally interviewed me a couple of times about getting KM and comms accepted and valued and about developing a content management strategy that works across generations of workers (the second part of a two-piece series).

Their interactive KM strategy framework allows you to select a different phase of KM strategy development and zoom in on specific challenges and related posts, other writings or resources… So a good complement to the KM4Dev wiki. However here nothing is said about how you should go about it, but that’s because APQC, like quite a few other people mentioned here, makes a business out of advising you on KM too.

Josef Hofer-Alfeis KM master course (and module on KM strategy)

Josef Hofer-Alfeis

Josef Hofer-Alfeis

This series of 12 Powerpoint presentations might, at times, seem a bit dry to read  but it contains a wealth of advices regarding knowledge and knowledge management. The part 5 focuses on developing a knowledge and then a knowledge management strategy, looking also at how to measure KM successfully and how to launch your KM program.

There is perhaps nothing really brand new in this but the merit of this master course is to be quite comprehensive and to be transparent.

Designing a Successful KM Strategy (N. Milton & S. Barnes)

The recent book by Stephanie Barnes and Knoco’s Nick Milton is allegedly one of the best reads on this topic and is most likely selling fast too. I don’t like to promote pay-for resources so much, that’s why I’m keeping this for the end of this selection.

Designing a successful KM strategy

Designing a successful KM strategy

The reason why this features here – and before I have even read the book myself (though I ordered it) is that Nick Milton has been blogging very regularly the past few years, and very regularly about some very good stuff. So do check his blog.

The points that I like about his approach to KM strategy include among others: Pilots, change management (not just KM), attention to facilitation as part of the skill set of a knowledge manager, guerrilla strategy, attention to principles and key knowledge areas, in addition to the standard stuff you can find in other resources mentioned here.

The tip of the iceberg: tentative first steps in cross-organisational comparison of knowledge management in development organisations

What we think about with KM strategies is sometimes just the tip of what needs to be taken care of (Credits: Infertilegirlinafertileworld)

What we think about with KM strategies is sometimes just the tip of what needs to be taken care of (Credits: Infertilegirlinafertileworld)

Sarah Cummings and I wrote this overview of KM strategies a few years back. Although dated (2009) this comparison draws a few conclusions that are relevant regardless of the KM strategy context:

  • Four pointers to make decisions: the complexity of the organisation (or network etc.), strategic orientation (navel-gazing or outward-focused), learning phase in the strategy development and reference framework;
  • Four elements of a KM strategy: scope, approach, tools/practices, monitoring and evaluation…

The link above leads to the pay-for version of the full text article on the Taylor & Francis website but you can also request it to me here as it has become public access and will soon be moved to the Open Access platform of the Knowledge Management for Development Journal.

What about agile KM then?

Now, if I’m true to my own model of KM=CDL, I would end this stock-taking exercise by wondering how a KM strategy addresses a) cultivating conversations, b) documenting these and other experiences and c) stimulating action-focused learning, and this at organisational level but with a strong inclination to connect with individual level and (inter)institutional level. But that is too much at this stage, so more matter for another post.

You can see more resources in my bookmarks on KM strategy and as mentioned above I’ll keep on updating this so watch this space!

Related blog posts:

And of course all other ‘stock-taking’ posts

“Get me trained and I’ll become a superhero!” I mean, come on…


A short post, for an idea that is not really new in my (mind)world: Training is great. But it won’t give you the superpowers you were expecting…

Where do people get this idea from? Even in my close surrounding people believe training is the surest way to become someone else, and I see countless CVs that display a sometimes endless list of training courses like a proud badge of capacity. Like: Training transformed me into a superhero!

Become a superhero with training? Errrrm.... (Credits: MindMappingSoftware)

Become a superhero with training? Errrrm…. (Credits: MindMappingSoftware)

I don’t deny that training:

  • Can bring critical new information and skills;
  • Challenges your thinking about some theories and practices that you may not have been exposed to;
  • (If done well) Puts you in concrete situations where you have to show and encourage new behaviours.
  • … and probably a few more benefits…

But on the downside:

  • How many training courses are actually designed around your context, your issues, your needs and opportunities?
  • How many training courses pay attention to how you will apply the new information and skills in your work tomorrow, next week, next year?
  • As a result, what is the likelihood that you apply new information and skills in your day-to-day work (unless you have the capacity/authority and discipline to enforce this? We already know how difficult it is to change.
  • How likely is it that you change your behaviour as a result of training? Some psychological research argues it takes (a minimum of) 21 days to change a major behaviour. Well, how many 4-week (20 working days) training courses have you gone on?
  • How likely are you to change that behaviour if you don’t have a practice of reflection about your ongoing work and naturally try to accommodate the new skills and information in your natural ecosystem and routines?
Training goes back to way back when and yet it feels to me as likely to be a fit as playing bilboquet (cup and ball) guarantees... (Credits: Noël Tortajada / Rita Productions)

Training goes back to way back when and yet it feels to me as likely to be a fit as playing bilboquet (cup and ball) guarantees… (Credits: Noël Tortajada / Rita Productions)

This is why in KM there is much more emphasis put on coaching, mentoring and communities of practice, on ‘learning on the job’ for continuous learning than on sheer training. And though that idea has been critiqued, if not criticised, I believe much more in the idea of 10000 hours of practice, and better still: 10000 hours of action learning.

So: training? Yes! But make sure it’s adapted to you, prepare yourself to putting the training insights into your context… and just don’t put all your eggs into the training basket…

I’m just sayin’…

And for whatever it’s worth, if you consider training, you might look at how to calculate return on investment. If anything, it just shows how complex it is to have training lead to value and impact.

Related blog posts:

Don’t want to understand KM? Don’t bother, business as usual is the best thing ever :)


Knowledge management (KM) can be a very dry topic to explain, so how about a bit of fun to do the job?

A mate of mine was recently compiling some ideas to present KM to a group of people who don’t know anything about it. She picked my brains and I told her, among other ideas, to use illustrations explaining the challenges that (agile) KM can solve.

Here are some ideas if you want to ignore those challenges…

Information and knowledge are of no help when you have a hammer anyway! (Credits: Mugsy's rap sheet)

Information and knowledge are of no help when you have a hammer anyway! (Credits: Mugsy’s rap sheet)

Don’t mind your information and knowledge, it’s all over-rated

True! What’s all the fuss about the information age and the knowledge era, and being smart and all. Rote learning has proven a long time ago that it was by far the most successful way to respond to current problems, let alone future challenges. Just keep nailing (or hammering?) down your problems all in the same way, as you’ve always done. Why change a winning strategy?

Well, perhaps when it’s no longer winning, and you DO need to take stock of what people think and do around you ;)

Ensure slow, and regular death by powerpoint

Another common one that can easily be avoided by (agile) KM: Make sure your meetings and events are as loaded with information as possible (yes: encourage logorrhea). Who cares about knowledge sharing and co-creating?

Death by Powerpoint, slow and painful, and totally AVOIDABLE (Credits: Media Fake Posters)

Death by Powerpoint, slow and painful, and totally AVOIDABLE (Credits: Media Fake Posters)

Who said involving people was a good idea? What can be better than provide all your great thoughts to others and let them digest your excellent thinking rather than come up with a watered down version of it by themselves – even together?

Keep it solid, keep it straight: it’s all about your experience enlightening others, and frankly you have little to get from interacting with all those morons around you.

Make sure everyone around you is endlessly searching information and wasting time

The gazillions of hours wasted searching for stuff (Credits: Kirtok)

The gazillions of hours wasted searching for stuff are killing us! (Credits: Kirtok)

That’s right, one of the benefits of not organising and managing your information is that it forces your colleagues to search (for hours) through the web, looking for what they need. They will get really web-savvy with this, and finding lovely kitten pictures, Buzzfeed’s latest nightmarish creations and perhaps even saucy videos will have no secret for them. Finding business-critical information on the other hand… well, it’s probably not part of their terms of reference really is it? So…

Don't reinvent the wheel (Credits: Sebastien Wiertz / FlickR)

Don’t reinvent the wheel (Credits: S. Wiertz / FlickR)

Reinvent the wheel – in a worse way, and in order to reinventing the wheel

Let’s go one step further: Since searching for information hasn’t reaped any tangible benefit for your business, don’t bother building upon the past, just CREATE IT ALL ANEW, bigger, flashier, fancier, ahem, though perhaps not better.

People who worked on similar challenges before didn’t understand your context, your needs, your problems, so they likely have very little in store to help you…

Just ignore them and fix that damn wheel. Someone still needs to create it, right?

Make sure your colleagues are all drowning in emails

It’s such a hassle having to learn a new tool that pretends it can do away with (part of) your emails, so just wallow in your email soup and relish the deluge that keeps coming in and keeps your heart and tension very healthy. And you may beat the record number of emails in your inbox, or amount of emails received per hour. Just go for it, there wouldn’t be anything sillier than trying to fix this since it’s so fun replying to emails endlessly. It also keeps you away from other work that needs to be done.

Life if sweet without KM.

Try and beat that record (Credits: Gideon / FlickR)

Try and beat that record (Credits: Gideon / FlickR)

Don’t learn, don’t look back, and if you do, think single loop only

Learning? That’s for pupils and students. You don’t need it. You surely have all the best answers to all the problems in the world anyway… And even if you did need to learn, it’s just to improve your very same approach to problems – sharpening that hammer so to speak.

If you have some success, just celebrate. If you had problems, quickly ignore them. At any rate DO NOT try and document what happened. It’s a complete waste of time. Everyone knows that a success can easily be replicated elsewhere, and that a failure doesn’t help anyone, certainly not you.

Don’t bring people together to (come on, that big picture blatantly doesn’t exist!)

That big picture does NOT exist. Just relax and keep your head in the sand (Credits: Kat Banaszek / FlickR)

That big picture does NOT exist. Just relax and keep your head in the sand (Credits: Kat Banaszek / FlickR)

Thinking there might be other solutions for the issues you face, or bigger issues affecting you and your organisation is a gross exaggeration, a conspiracy from outside to prevent you from doing what you do best: business as usual. The solution must be in one deeper ply of your thinking. You’ve always found the right answers to all problems so you can figure out that big one too.

Oh, and don’t forget to run for presidency next time you can ;)

Don’t pay attention to your institutional memory, don’t do exit interviews etc.

Institutional Memory (Credits: Thomas Hawk / FlickR)

Institutional Memory (Credits: Thomas Hawk / FlickR)

One of the common challenges that KM tries to fix is to mitigate the loss of institutional memory through buddying/coaching, on site training, codifying practices at work, implementing a proper induction  program and handover process including a good, grounded exit interview.

But hey, that’s a whole waste of time. Just get on with work, focus on the here and now only and when someone leaves your company you’ll find a solution for the replacement. Anyway chances are they are not really good employees and wouldn’t leave much behind at any rate (after all: they’re working for you, a worthless company that has proved well beyond the point that they don’t take KM seriously because they are not smart).

There is so much more I could mention, all these buzz words and idiotic ideas like innovation, resilience, adaptive management etc. fail fail fail… Just rejoice at the idea that your company may start looking like The Office – so prepare your jelly supplies, and sit back, relax and enjoy the KM-free world. A world free of hassle, at least mañana

Related blog posts:

Use quality face-to-face time for synergy, not for logorrhea


How many meetings (even one on one) are spent to regurgitate something, to present ‘stuff’ of various relevance and quality, to eruct presentation upon presentation as if the audience needed to know everything ever written about the topic at hand…

Logorrhea - and it's only getting worse... (Credits: Scott Adam)

Logorrhea – and it’s only getting worse… (Credits: Scott Adam)

How many events with an avalanche of information, and so little co-creation?

Hey, I’d get it if we were in 1983 and there was no other way to get that information. But in 2015, almost everyone has a phone that can provide all the information we need. Share if you care.

Death by Powerpoint (Credits: Tom Fishburne)

Death by Powerpoint (Credits: Tom Fishburne)

This single-route approach to face-to-face is not only another (often not so) disguised attempt of inducing death by Powerpoint, but it is also: a completely missed opportunity to develop something new, an insult to our intelligence and capacity, a deliberate attempt at stupidly reinventing the wheel again and again and again (remember the reasons why Open Space Technology and World Café were created?), a real barrier to developing trust between people (who will thus not get an opportunity to meet each other) and an utter waste of money –  remember the meeting cost calculator?

Synergy (Credits: MacroMarcie)

Synergy (Credits: MacroMarcie)

How about quality face-to-face time to avoid the logorrhea of information? People coming together should remain the kindling of magic that happens so easily in personal life. It should be about everyone bringing their experience, ideas, emotions, capacities, know-how, know-who… it’s about a communion of souls and conjugation of roles – synergy made out of energies.

So: How about sharing information beforehand, online, because it’s possible but also because it prepares the participants to the purpose of this face-to-face moment. Interactive moments of discovery, exploration, alignment, co-creation, prototyping (see Carl Jackson’s ideas about this), assessment and commitment?

THAT is the mix for real magic.

A few essentials can help further here:

  • The guts to require that people coming together prepare themselves to let go and to co-create on the spot, without invading each other’s space with their pompous excellence;
  • The discipline of preparing ourselves for meetings, however large or small scale – ideally we should always have a clear learning objective for all face-to-face encounters we’re planning – and have read whatever information is necessary to kickstart the conversation;
  • The habit of managing our information (as part of PKM) and of choosing the face-to-face moments we have with others because we can fully invest ourselves;
  • And so, ok, perhaps just the minimum of information to level the playing field here – but just enough to get the substance to make magic happen. No less, and certainly no more.

Open Innovation and Co-Creation

We can no longer afford to use meetings to just ‘share information’. In this year and age that is the equivalent of encouraging online visitors to read scanned faxes posted on a website and to come once a month to a physical office to bring their (printed) comments about it.

Anno 2015, synergistic learning is well beyond faxes, prints and single-comms streets. It’s social, it’s alive, it’s enthralling. So whatever your next face-to-face moment is, be there, be together and as Delroy Wilson would say, ‘Get ready’.

Related posts:

Tinkering with tools: Asessing Asana


Asana - making genuine collaboration possible or generalising team confusion?

Asana – making genuine collaboration possible or generalising team confusion?

It’s been ages since the last ‘Tinkering with tools‘ post, so after posts about Yammer, LinkedIn and Prezi, it’s time to turn to one of the (expected) collaboration rising stars: Asana.

Asana is a team-centric virtual collaboration tool which allows collective task management, setting up structured team meetings and more. It certainly could be considered as one of the solutions against collective apathy in the workplace. It certainly weighs as a good alternative to SharePoint (SP) given the criticism SP has met, especially when used as a KM tool or as a community collaboration platform.

In any case, PC Mag rated Asana one of the best productivity apps on the market.

Here’s what Asana has to say about itself now (video). This other video below was the original introduction piece by the Asana team (from three years ago)

Now, I’ve been using Asana for the past seven months in a small team (five people) connected to a larger group of colleagues. You will be able to read more about this on our knowledge management ‘Maarifa’ blog soon. This post is actually a great way to synthesise our thinking back about our ILRI experience with Asana. But here I want to offer a more detached and generic ‘tinkering with tools’ perspective on Asana.

What does it look like and how does it work?

Asana comes as a desktop browser or a smartphone/tablet app; it is compatible with iOS and Android only for the time being. Once you have created a user account you can set up or join organizations, teams within those organizations and ‘projects’. Under projects you can add tasks, sub-activities into each of these tasks; then you can assign people, due dates, add comments to each other’s tasks etc. The task overview is all transparent and keeps all tasks in one place – well, sort of, read on…

The structure of the app is:

  • On the left hand pane you find a full list of workspaces. It gives an overview of all organizations, teams and projects, as well as access to your inbox, access to the dashboard (monitoring progress) and other admin options etc.
  • The central pane focus on your next tasks and, if you select a specific project, on all the tasks in that project (not just yours then).
  • The right hand pane focuses in detail on the project or task you want to investigate. When you select a project to focus on, it gives you information about the status, tasks accomplished/remaining. When you select a specific task, it provides details about that task: who is in charge, due date, as well as comments made. This is where conversations take place and allow someone to find out what happened – if your team makes use of that functionality.

You can also organize meetings using Asana (following this video tutorial) and since the last quarter of 2014 you can use the new ‘dashboard’ to keep track of progress with the tasks, with weekly status update reminders. It also gives an option to visualise what has been delivered, what remains etc. offering thus very good collective management features.

The strategic value proposition behind this app is that Asana can replace (parts of) email traffic to work togetherTeamwork without email. Something that many of us dream of – which I’ve also offered useful alternatives for.

The free version works for teams of up to 30 users and the pricing options are fairly affordable. There are various additional apps and extensions (find it here) to expand the use of Asana in various ways.

Pros and cons

Pros:

  • Asana provides a really nice overview of tasks – making it indeed quite easy to find out in a glance what is on the agenda of a team and how much has been in each project and for each task.
  • As it promises, Asana can really cut down your email traffic, which clears time for more quality time on other bits of work. Although in our case we actually used Yammer mostly to communicate, not Asana.
  • The progress tracking (dashboard) functionality really adds to that experience and turns Asana into a monitoring tool without the fuss of installing all the whistles and bells of a heavyweight management tool.
  • Technically it is possible to run meetings using Asana, dragging and dropping the tasks onto the agenda of the meeting, making it easier to keep all team information in one place – however read some of the cons re: this feature below… 
  • It keeps all your to-do’s in one place if you want it to play that role. And adding tasks or to-do’s is indeed ‘simple comme bonjour‘ and it’s just as easy to assign tasks to people…
  • The calendar integration with Outlook and Google Calendar makes the planning / overview of tasks even easier. 
  • Although the app is quite complex, it does not take too much time to understand how to use it, at least for a knowledge management specialist ;)
  • It certainly has worked for me to keep track of the main ‘to-do’s and to find out what the rest of my team is supposedly up to.

Cons:

  • Compared with e.g. Yammer, or Twitter, which both felt very natural for me to master, I found the interface of Asana a bit ‘messier’ and less compelling, skewing my first impression and making the navigation slightly confusing at very first.
  • That design also seems to not really guide new users very well. I have used it in a team of communication and knowledge management specialists – ie. people whose job it also is to try and test new tools like these, rather enthusiastic and versatile at piloting and adopting such tools – so it may be a slightly more difficult process for people who are not used to online tools.
  • Although Asana allows file sharing and uploading, it is not really built for it and is thus not a great file management system, although on the plus side it seems it can easily be integrated with Dropbox or Google Drive (as you can see from the list of compatible apps). I haven’t tried that option, however.
  • The search engine and navigation logic make finding content a bit of a trial and error process. For instance once tasks have been completed, it becomes uneasy to retrieve them. Tagging helps with this, but not everyone is used to tagging and some taxonomy/folksonomy needs to be established to make this work.
  • The team meeting feature did really not work well for me. I tried to follow the video tutorial but somehow Asana didn’t behave accordingly – perhaps because the interface changed since the video. But it’s probably worth another try.
  • There is no ‘live chat’ feature, although the stream of comments acts like one but always within the context of a given task, not as a general conversation space.
  • Asana does not work well in environments with limited bandwidth (such as my Ethiopian base) and the fact that there is no offline option does not play in favour of using this tool in many developing country. Although, frankly, using virtual conferencing tools is even more of an issue here.
On the quest to the holy grail of synergy in collaboration (Credits: venessamiemis / FlickR)

On the quest to the holy grail of synergy in collaboration (Credits: venessamiemis / FlickR)

 

The verdict

I have only quite limited experience with other team/project management tools (e.g. BaseCamp and some Gantt chart tools). Bearing that in mind, I think Asana is certainly worth a shot and has quite a lot going for it. It is easy enough that it does not require an incredibly steep learning curve, although you will need to train users to make the most of all its interesting features that take the Asana experience to the next level. But mind the bandwidth requirements and perhaps most importantly the behaviour of your colleagues/team before you consider using it: if they’re curious, playful, you stand a good chance, otherwise it may be difficult to get it adopted. And finally, as ever with tools: make sure you pilot it, reflect upon your pilot and decide whether to scale it up or not accordingly. So far in my team there seem to be fewer enthusiastic folks than skeptical ones…

As many of the tools around, Asana keeps changing, coming up with more developments, extensions, changes of navigating and using logic etc. This is positive as it means the company is trying to stay on top of its game, but of course it always means that your team also needs to keep abreast of Asana’s adjustments.

Perhaps most importantly, however, because Asana is team-centric it requires some collective agreement to work with it. Individuals in the team have to adapt their behaviour, stick to the discipline of managing their tasks and time, which may be perfectly normal and expected in North America, but not necessarily in other parts of the world…

So the question is perhaps not even so much about the tools we use to collaborate (we know that the tool obsession is childish), but more about the practices that come with the tools, and we have much to do on the collaboration and engagement front still… And finally, if tried in a true online environment (for meetings), I still wonder if Asana will help alleviate the evils of ‘acute meetingitis virtuales‘?

That said, assess Asana for yourself and let me know what you think… ;)

More resources about Asana

  • A recent (November 2014) PC Mag review provides detailed overviews of the most recent features, pricing options etc.
  • This tutorial from Ananda Web Services is a bit dated (December 2012) but it is about the most complete one available online
  • Of course Asana itself has lots of tutorials and information about using its product – you can start with videos here. They have also released this interesting (long) video about the vision behind Asana when it was publicly launched in 2011.
  • And finally here is what DotToTech has to say about Asana in January 2013. I put it here because it’s quite a nice introduction to the logic of Asana and how it worked in the case of one team.

What are your experiences with Asana?

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