In May I spoke on a small panel at the annual conference of the International Communications Association. Organized by Seeta Peña Gangadharan and chaired by Benjamin de Cleen, the idea was to have the researchers and academics hear directly from those involved in “alternative content production” (alternative to what? I ask.).
The panel went well and we were asked to each write a chapter for a book titled “Alternatives on Media Content, Journalism, and Regulation.” (The individual chapters (albeit, without proper formatting) are also available here.) My chapter, “Global Voices: From Blogger Meetup to Editorial Hierarchy,” tells the story of how Global Voices went from a small meetup of international bloggers in Cambridge to what it is today (one of the three best online news sites, according to the Project for Excellence in Journalism.)
How Global Voices has evolved over the past three years is a story I repeat constantly: at dinner parties, conferences, blogger meetups, last night’s Net Tuesday. It’s an interesting story. In many ways we’re on the cutting edge – both incredibly grassroots and yet also reasonably organized and functional. On the one hand we are an international news organization with a staff of about 200 and on the other hand, we’re a bunch of geeky, passionate people with a WordPress blog.
But the real story, in my opinion, is … how have we not killed one another? We are from different countries, speak different languages, have different faiths, values, and ideologies. Yet together, every day, we produce something both beautiful and useful. How do we do what we do, day in and day out? How do we make decisions? How do we follow our organizational goals? How do we promote collaboration and synergy? How do we both keep things fun and grassroots while striving for more efficiency and accountability?
Surprisingly, these are questions that we don’t tend to ask often because, so far, we haven’t needed to. But I have come to realize that more and more companies and organizations are wrestling with these questions. They know that the internet offers new ways for their employees to work together. They know that many of their employees would prefer to telecommute rather than come to the office. They’re tempted to save rent by cutting down on office space, but they don’t yet know how the office environment translates into an online workspace.
So after reading a long report on “Using Web 2.0 Tools to Leverage Horizontal Managerial Processes” (I shit you not), I decided to jot down some notes on how Global Voices has managed to run a medium sized global organization without any physical office and on a shoestring budget.
Maxim: Not tools, but actions.
The number one piece of advice that I could give to any organization wanting to take advantage of the internet to promote collaboration and efficiency is that there is no one perfect tool that will magically make everything better. Every organization is guilty of this. At Global Voices we’re guilty of it every single week. (Georgia and I, both hopeless software sluts, are among the worst.) We say, ‘if only we had a CRM database instead of a directory.’ Or, ‘if we just had an internal blogging network that was searchable and linkable then there would be no duplicate conversations.’ Or, ‘why don’t we move everything to the wiki where all of our data can be collaboratively edited.’
At Global Voices we’ve had all of these conversations. And we’ve tried out nearly every single solution. Yet, without any doubt, email is still our most effective tool. Which brings me to the heart of this post. Like I wrote above in bold, it’s not so much about what tool you choose, but how that tool enables you to consistently achieve six different actions that are applicable to all organizations.
Action 1: Staying in the Loop:
Language is the liquid that we’re all dissolved in. Great for solving problems after it creates a problem.
– Modest Mouse, Blame it on the Tetons
The great enemy of collaboration and efficiency is conflict, which typically arises out of miscommunication. Or, better put, lack of communication. To have a ‘horizontal’ organization is to have less of a hierarchy. Traditional management says that an organization needs to be broken down into small departments or committees in order to get anything done. That decision by consensus wastes too much time on petty bickering. While this is true to a certain degree, it’s also true that most people simply want to be kept in the loop. When they’re not kept in the loop, resentment and rumors start to build. There is nothing worse for an employees morale than to tell him/her “that was a high level conversation that you’re not privy to.” So much of what is kept ‘classified’ within an organization need not be and should be shared with anyone willing to listen. If you’re a manager and you start sharing more and more of your documents with your employees, you’ll probably find that 1.) you get a lot of brilliant feedback and 2.) they’ll be grateful for the access. At Global Voices we use a variety of tools to ‘stay in the loop.’
- Mailing lists (Google Groups)
- Internal blog
- Private chats (Skype, IM)
- Public chat (IRC)
What is key here is that we use a mixture of public and private spaces for communication. One mailing list is open to anyone who would like to sign up. Another is specifically reserved for GV authors and editors. Public channels of communication provide a sense of transparency and outreach while private channels are important for community-building and trust.
This action was formerly achieved with memos and meetings.
Action 2: Collaborative Writing:
The roles of writer and editor are now constantly shifting. One day I am editing a post for someone and the next day they are editing something of mine. The 1990’s way of collaborative writing used to be sending around a Microsoft Word document with dozens of embedded comments. On special occasions we still do this at GV, but typically we use Google Documents or our Wiki to write documents together. For example, if we need to draft a letter to a hotel inquiring how much they charge for conference rooms, one person will start a Google Doc and then invite the rest of the editors to help edit and improve it.
Action 3: Water Cooler:
The proverbial water cooler is an incredibly important part of the office environment. Obviously, I’m not talking about the blue plastic jug … I mean some sort of social space where employees and volunteers can get to know each other outside of their working roles. At GV we do this in three different ways:
- The VOICE, an internal PDF newsletter
- GVCommunity.org, an aggregator of personal blogs of GV authors and editors
- Bday emails (we all love getting greetings on our bdays)
Action 4: Coordination/Calendar:
Lots of offices have giant whiteboards with grids of tape that sort of function as real-life calendar wikis. Online there are much more effective tools. To find the best time and day when we can all meet we use Doodle.ch. To keep track of dates we use Google Calendar. And because many of us travel so frequently, we enter in our upcoming travel itineraries on Dopplr.
Action 5: Accounting:
I’ve found that this tends to be the most challenging aspect for both office and virtual organizations alike. I would love to see an easy-to-use open-source accounting program in which a virtual organization can enter in its incoming money (for Global Voices, all our money – so far – comes from foundational grants.). Then, every peson who invoices the organization categorizes each invoiced expense and the software automatically generates charts and reports that are fully available to the public.
It doesn’t have to reveal how much each employee is making, but it should give the public general information about how much money is spent on, for example, translation, travel, technology, etc.
Organizations and businesses that benefit from the labor of volunteers (Mozilla Foundation, Apache Foundation, Drupal Foundation, Automattic, Global Voices, and others) should feel obligated to be as transparent as possible about their finances.
Action 6: Strategizing:
In most organizations strategizing is strictly left to the top of the pyramid. While it’s true that those with the most responsibilities are usually best equipped to think about the future directions of an organization, a great idea can come from anywhere. This goes back to the first option of “staying in the loop”. If all members of an organization have access to all discussions, then they are better equipped to contribute innovative and relevant ideas.
I know this seems like a ridiculously long post, but really it’s just a brief outline of some of the things to keep in mind when an organization wants to move from an offline office to an online workspace. If you think that one custom Drupal install is going to solve all of your organization’s needs … well, there’s just no way.
I think that what has been key to Global Voices’ relatively harmonious ‘working environment’ is that anyone who feels that he or she needs to be heard, is confident that he or she will be. This is much less true of the offices I’ve worked at where I typically had no idea who to go to for what.
In future posts I’ll try to document what software I use for content production (ie. blogging, podcasting, and video).