Author: Paul Culmsee
“the ideas from this article have been drawn from the forthcoming book “Beyond Best Practices” by Paul Culmsee and Kailash Awati”.
You can read more about "Beyond Best Practices" in a previous article by Paul and Kailash here.
Many years ago, Richard Dawkins (the atheist/evolution guy) wrote about the concept of memes – how ideas themselves strive to self replicate to survive from one mind to another. If the notion of ideas themselves having an evolutionary instinct sounds a little mind bending, then consider the power of the “leave Brittany alone” meme. Here, a video of a sobbing teenybopper was viewed by half the world population and was even spoofed in a movie. “Memetics” is the study of this phenomenon of self replicating ideas.
What does this have to do with SharePoint, you may ask?
Actually, it explains a lot about why SharePoint can be a tricky product to get right. To see why, let’s take a memetic view of organisational life.
In the beginning…
When one person has a radical idea they are branded a mad heretic – like that one person in every office whose stock answer to any question is “Just buy a Mac”. But when that mad heretic manages to convince someone else that their idea is good, something magical happens. The heretic suddenly becomes the visionary and the memes behind the heresy become the seed of what will eventually turn into body of knowledge.
All of us adults remember the adolescent stage of our lives when we dealt with acne, hair in funny places and making the transition into adulthood. A bunch of like minded heretics turned visionaries have to go through the same adolescent process of self identity and crystallisation of their memes. Here, the various memes fight for survival and after a year or two there is enough of a corpus of related memes known as a memeplex. From this corpus, people will start to ponder new job titles that encapsulate their ideas and philosophies.
Once job titles appear, it takes around another year for the next evolutionary stage to occur: The creation of the industry body or community of practice. These are usually characterised by organisations with the word “Institute” in their name and aim to codify the memeplex into a “Body of Knowledge”. With that comes the offer of certifications for new disciples also wishing to be visionary too. Around this time academia gets in on the act and develops courses to teach these same visionary new ideas to students.
At this point, a critical memetic change takes place. Up until now, it has been the practitioners that have created the body of knowledge, but now it reverses. It is the body of knowledge that produces the practitioners. The popularity of the industry certification attests to this.
At this point the memes are self replicating and mature, and we have a cool new job title to show for it. Disciples of this body of knowledge have now been given the absolute truth, and go out into the world to preach the good news. The result being that the memes propagated to others are good based on the practitioners myopic notion of what is “good”. This, in turn, makes collaboration with people of other memetic persuasions difficult”
Memetic maturity also means that the chances of a radically new idea making it through to mainstream are small, because new ideas that are even slightly radical are typically discarded if they conflict with the current memeplex. This is known as the corporate immune mechanism.
Rebellion and rebirth
Often a new memeplex represented by a job title will conflict with an existing, most likely older and more mature memeplex. After all, if we go back to the start of our process, a heretic is, by definition, someone who was dissatisfied with the doctrine that they have been brought up to believe.
Therefore, the only way that a heretical new idea can survive is:
- Being engulfed and assimilated by the memeplex
- By achieving a “critical mass of acceptance” where the heretic has become a visionary. As stated, the telltale sign of this is the appearance of a new job description appearing in organisations.
In general, any existing memeplex challenged by a new idea will do its damndest to achieve (a) and will succumb to (b) only if it is unable to deal with the adapting environment in which it finds itself operating.
You do not have to look far to see how this plays out in organisational life. Business Analysis is a relatively recent discipline that arose out of systems analysis and project management. BA memeplex maturity happened around 2003: The International Institute of Business Analysis (IIBA) was founded in October 2003, and the Business Analyst Body of Knowledge (BABOK) was released in draft form two years later.
Even before this official legitimisation of the profession (and more so after), academic institutions began offering courses on business analysis, oriented around what became the BABOK.
Many Business Analysts were attracted to what the role entails through frustration with project management. But Business Analysts themselves have an identity crisis because a more recent memeplex like Agile software development approaches actually do not explicitly call for their role.
Another good example is the role of “Information Architect”. It is less than ten years old, often conflicts with records management and is already being assailed by the memeplex of “knowledge managers” and “social networking co-ordinators”. My prediction is that at some point a heretic will convince someone that a “Semantic Web Co-ordinator” role is where it’s at, thereby challenging the ideals of social networking co-ordinators.
Records Managers, for what it’s worth, have a really tough time convincing other disciplines the value of their memeplex (likely because nobody else will ever read the relevant state and federal records management legislation) and other memeplexes (like anything with 2.0 in its name) are currently much more popular.
The SharePoint Flight Club
SharePoint 2010 is an amazingly feature rich and powerful product. If one were ticking all of the boxes of features for a comprehensive platform that can handle more recent memeplexes like social networking (and with it enterprise 2.0, government 2.0 and education 2.0) as well as more traditional memeplexes like records management, information management, enterprise content management, business intelligence and so on, SharePoint can do it all and if put together the right way can do it exceptionally well.
Of course, with that power and that feature list, comes considerable technical complexity. Therefore the geeks have their work cut out to ensure the platform is stable, fast and responsive. SharePoint governance documentation abounds about how to do this but just because your system is rock solid, stable, well documented and governed through good process is absolutely no guarantee of success. In fact, the crux of a successful collaboration project is an area that the governance documentation does not touch.
In essence, to put in the collaborative platform, we actually have to know how to collaborate first.
Simple as this may sound, we often persist in looking at SharePoint the other way around - as if this feature rich integrated tool will magically improve our collaboration because it is so shiny and new. By that logic, buying a Ferrari should make us better drivers. From a memetic viewpoint it is clear why this rationale has turned out to be problematic.
SharePoint is essentially the boxing ring for the memetic smackdowns that inevitably occur between disciples of different persuasions, armed with the absolute truths of their respective bodies of knowledge. SharePoint’s compelling, wide ranging set of features means that it crosses all of the memetic boundaries which creates complex territorial overlap. The more features we have, the more overlap we get. This in turn leads to conflicting versions of the truth, vague and hard to pin down requirements, and ultimately a fragmented understanding of the problem at hand.
It is the fragmented understanding of reality caused by and fed by memetic smackdowns that causes all the pain. The simple fact is that without a shared understanding of the problem, you will never get shared commitment toward an effective solution. Therefore, without shared commitment to a solution, all the technical and process governance in the world won’t save you.
This creates an unfortunate paradox – the more feature rich and more capability that SharePoint gets, the trickier it is to do it well.
Time to put on the boxing gloves?
Please see the following links to learn more about Beyond Best Practices:
Author: Paul Culmsee