Behind my PhD research is an interest in translating practices of early adopters of weblogs into something that those that come after them might use: an understanding of relative advantage of blogging in knowledge-intensive environments and it’s compatibility with existing practices. Below is another piece from the final chapter of my dissertation, the one where I draw the implications of my findings for an individual knowledge worker, a pragmatist, who wants to know what blogging might bring for him in order to decide if it is worth the effort. [There is also a piece on facilitating weblog adoption, probably tomorrow]
Wondering how far it makes sense: would you show it to a colleague thinking about starting blogging?
Is blogging for me? Why? What do I need to know before trying it out? Although answers to these questions should be specific for each particular person considering blogging, this section might provide a starting point for formulating them. Here I outline the characteristics of weblogs that make them useful for one’s work and the changes in working practices that blogging might require.
Flexibility is a main characteristic of blogging tools: weblogs allow to “switch gears” using them for communication on a variety of topics in a number of ways.
In most cases weblogs are used as personal tools. Unless intended to be used for a very specific purpose (e.g. to communicate to customers about a product) or within a very restricted environment (e.g. in prison*) one can use a weblog to write on personally interesting issues in a personally meaningful way. However, since weblogs are public, it is useful to think about them as one’s front garden: it’s up to the owner to decide what should be in there, but general cultural norms do apply (e.g. cursing might prompt neighbours to take another street to walk).
As a tool weblogs might be also used in different modes. Publishing to a broad and often unknown audience is what weblogs are primarily known for: one can use weblog tools to make particular piece of information available to others without pushing it to them. In addition to that weblogs could be used for conversations with self and interaction with specific others.
Uses of a weblog for conversations with self are up to an individual blogger: a weblog can serve as a tool to collect personally relevant notes and organise them in a variety of ways; this collection then provides an input for reflection and reuse.
On the other hand, weblogs could be also used for an in-depth interaction with others, allowing to build relations and trust and to develop ideas in dialogue with one’s contacts. Weblogs are not perfect as a conversational tool: there is no guarantee of a reply and once a conversation started it might become fragmented between multiple weblogs. When topics and people for conversation are known it is better to choose other tools, however, blogging works well as a conversation starter since others could choose topics that interest them.
Blogging might fit one’s work when some elements of it require publishing, conversations with self or unexpected interaction. For example, it might replace email for sharing news with a team, be used for documenting one’s work to reflect on it over time, or to find out who might be the person to discuss a problem.
However, in many cases the open-ended and public nature of weblogs does not make them a good tool to do one’s job directly; in those cases their strength is enabling work by developing ideas and relations that might be needed in a future. Weblogs are about microcontent: writing and reading in small bits does not require much effort, so blogging might fit in moments between other tasks. In addition, a weblog post does not have to communicate a specific idea to a specific audience, so weblog might work well to collect notes that do not fit anywhere else. Over time, this collection of thoughts provides an overview of one’s ideas and expertise, enabling unexpected connections across boundaries.
Weblogs are probably most useful in settings where one doesn’t know what is waiting “down the road“. Which of the current ideas might be needed for a future project? Who is the best person to ask for help? What jobs I never thought about I’d love to do? In those cases weblogs help to build a foundation: to collect ideas “just in case”, to grow a professional network, to make one’s expertise and passions visible.
While weblogs support publishing and interaction, an audience for it does not come automatically; it emerges through discovery and interaction over time. In addition, while it’s easy to “place” an email into one’s mailbox, it is impossible to make others to read a weblog. What does it mean in practice?
- Writing needs to be enticing; readers come when a weblog adds value for them. A good way to do so is to write on the issues one is knowledgeable and passionate about.
- Bloggers discover each other through comments and recommendations. Taking effort to find interesting bloggers and commenting to their work is a good way to be found. Engaging with people who comment to one’s own weblog, tracking who is linking to it and following links from one’s favourite weblogs are other ways to get into contact with bloggers.
It takes time and effort before one can enjoy social effects of blogging. To sustain blogging before those effects appear it is important to have a personally meaningful way to use a weblog. For example, while documenting ideas about work might result in finding like-minded people in the future, it is easier to carry on doing it knowing that doing so is useful even if nobody appear to be interested (e.g. as a reminder of one’s activities for a progress report).
A learning curve
It is relatively easy to learn how to use blogging tools. However, productive uses of weblogs in relation to one’s work require another type of learning: personal nature of blogging, as well as visibility and boundary crossing that it brings might challenge one’s existing working practices. Blogging is likely to bring cultural shifts to be addressed and lessons to be learnt**:
- Personal passions have a legitimate place at work. Personal stories and voices turn into trusted relations. People are more likely to believe another human being than an organisation or a computer. Showing emotions, telling personal stories, being passionate in hierarchical environments could be a challenge, but it is becoming an essential part of work.
- Transparency is here to stay. Weblogs provide a visible, often public, trace of one’s expertise, actions and mistakes: what is written may stay “out there” forever and be searched, aggregated, transformed and linked back to the author. When there is no way to escape one’s past, it is essential to learn how to make mistakes in public and how to handle them gracefully.
- Visibility can turn into information overload. Being visible as a weblog author might extend one’s reach, but may also bring an unexpected explosion in communication as a result. With its low threshold for online publishing, blogging brings into public spaces ideas and stories previously hidden in private collections. Blogging requires reconsidering one’s routines of working with information in order to be able to deal with fragmentation and abundance.
- Everyday routines matter. Unless one has nothing else to do, blogging survives only if integrated into the everyday world. Starting a blog is easy, continuing requires more – embedding the activity into one’s information routines, work processes and interpersonal practices.
- Authority becomes fluid. Formal hierarchies are still there, but blogging provides alternative routes. However, new blogging authorities are only as good as posts on their homepages, networks constantly evolve and anyway the share of attention one gets is more and more mediated by search engines.
- Organisations might set the rules and create conditions, but at the end it’s up to an individual. Making judgments, taking risks, taking responsibility. Crossing boundaries. Having fun.
From the reality of working in an “average” business environment the challenges that have to be addressed to make blogging work might look like too much trouble to deal with. Before that scares you, it is important to take into account that they also reflect some of the broader shifts in the nature of work, so embracing them as a result of blogging might help preparing for those.
* I keep wondering if “prison” is too irrelevant in this context (it comes from a story of blogging from prison told by Bev Trayner :). May be I should use something more business-specific, like an example from a company that should stay unnamed where super-secret R&D researchers started blogging.
** Yes, you’ve seen it before: ‘Beyond blogging’ lessons learnt.