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This is the first blog in the series.

 

In a nutshell...
1. It works pretty well...
2. It could work better...
3. I've only tried and tested it in a business-critical but nevertheless open environment.

What follows is the detail of using Facebook in a small, local, grassroots project, using tools that a group of of high-school students opted for (treat that as a disclaimer.)

Environment


I coach a team of motivated high school students, locally, to build a business in less than a year. The marks they get in this subject do count towards their final grade and they do take it seriously. The rules of the game are given by a German non-profit organization (www.juniorprojekt.de/home/?L=1) but is basically collecting cash (successful) and turning into more cash (in progress).  There is one 150 minute lesson a week to meet, discuss, decide and execute - so time is short and there's no time for any extra frills. That means project management and communication outside school hours is mission critical.
What do I get out of it? Isn't that what I do every day in my daily work? Well, this is an opportunity to experiment, as well as learn from the next generation who will leave school and then university and transform business themselves.  It's a chance for me to see beyond the horizon.

image

Fig 1. The environment

What works well?

1. Transparency
2. Efficiency and progress
3. Amplifying spontaneous good ideas
4. Compensating quickly when things start to go wrong.

 

The team-discussions being in the web keep the project moving forward. When there is a disconnect between what was decided in the classroom and failed to be propagated to the whole team, this quickly becomes transparent through the Web discussions. This replaces traditional meeting minutes (which are kept as one of the rules-of-the-game) but as so often is the case in real office situations don't get read properly (or written properly in the first place).

 

Threaded discussions can be handled in traditional mail clients (you can sort/group by subject line/conversation) but with Facebook it works better because the header text (someone's idea) is so prominent, and is simply followed by comments relating to this header instead of traditional meandering e-mail threads. Very powerful is the famous Facebook "Like". This helps identify very quickly successful suggestions and gives hollow feedback when an idea does not resonate. The feedback is virtually instantaneous because the team members, like most young people, are simply online. I've used the same technique in the First Lego League to use thumbs up or down during a discussion to curb rambling as an idea is accepted. BTW: I do the same in office meetings but get very strange looks from the participants.

What is missing?

Documents. There are crude capabilities in Facebook, but it cannot handle spreadsheets or diagrams (as far as we can tell) or collaborative editing. So far we're split between Google documents and local PC tools. The later has not worked well (copies of documents getting lost or overwritten) but some of the team prefer working offline when it comes to authoring.

 

Tools. Maybe I just haven't searched hard enough. But we haven't found simple task management tools, or to-do lists, or graphic tools for planning actions or brainstorming. So a fair amount of material is discussed on the whiteboard (nothing wrong with that), but then lost or photographically captured (and forgotten).
And there is no scheduling or Gant planning tool either. Google calendar might work, but a more compact graphic view helps better so we tend to use printed calendars when planning timelines.

Obstacles

Not everyone will have or want a Facebook account. This is a hurdle, a significant hurdle. We had to find ways to work round this, but it is an effort.
Not everyone has or wants online access round the clock. Again - this is a hurdle and you simply have to expect that important decisions and recaps have to be handled in the classroom rather than online in Facebook. But that does not slow things down.

Private versus "Office" and round-the-clock availability.

These are typical concerns for office workers, but for school pupils it doesn't seem to be relevant. Schoolwork is handled at school but also after school (homework) so they not uneasy mixing both. Because of the Facebook groups, students can be online and chat in their private area, while being "offline" (invisible) to the teacher and myself. But they can join a project thread if the content or focus interests them enough (and they are not working/recreating on something else.)

Synchronous Conversations

Conversationing seems to be handled by chat. Not centralized like ICQ, but on whatever chat medium in the browser happens to be available. More often than not this is Facebook, but if they happen to be in a Google document it's often Google chat instead. I find it fascinating that they aren't flustered at not having the one medium. Similarly for telephone there are some on mobile and some on the household land-line. They will know who's available through which medium - and if it's group feedback that is needed then a post in Facebook covers it. E-mails are rarely written; and even rarer read.

Facebook and Security?

Take a deep breath - this is the deep end. Facebook doesn't have a tremendous reputation for security and privacy so this is something to look at critically. The other teams aren't competing against each other directly (as far as I can tell) so spying is not an issue. Nor is the subject of Intellectual Property rights. Because the company closes before the year is over there is no legacy to be concerned about.
To avoid intertwining business with social, the team has set up a private group for the project, with the school teacher, experts and me being part of the group, but without being friends with any of the schoolchildren. This works well. The only handicap is that we "externals" can't send private messages to team-members; instead such discussions are done face-to-face in the classroom situation. It's worth noting that direct private contact out of the classroom is exactly why Facebook teacher/pupil contact is forbidden in some parts of the world and I'm not sure if this arrangement complies. But, the bottom line is that because the communication is done in the Web there is a public-to-the-team auditable trace of what was said, when; and this is available from the classroom, home or even on the road with mobile - out-of-the-box.

Summary

There is no summary. This is an ongoing experience and we'll only see at the end of the project whether it was a success or not. But my first impressions are that productivity and creativity are significantly higher using this medium than traditional email or phone. If it wasn't for the corporate issues that are bound to arise, I'd be keen on trying this for business, too.

Epilogue

Those who know me well will be asking why I didn't use SAP StreamWork in this project, despite being passionate about how useful and unique it is. Well maybe they'll use this later. But to start with Single Sign-on is really critical to successfully using different tools together. The team members already have Facebook accounts so it's a question of whether they can access StreamWork through their existing logins. The Google users can access StreamWork from their mail or document accounts but not all the students have Google accounts (nevertheless they can still access the Google documents anonymously so this is not a hurdle).

I guess single sign-on is not available because Facebook (unlike Google) does not support OpenSocial, which might also explain the scarcity of tools, so StreamWork is at the moment beyond reach. It might change, when the project requires more productivity or focus than is currently available, but time will tell if they can get through without it.

 

Next blog in series.

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