Last week, the European Physics Laboratory, CERN announced they were dropping Facebook Workplace as a teamwork platform. The press release indicated the organization was unable to attain a critical mass of Workplace users. What went wrong?
Ideally, teamwork tools should be conceived to increase interaction between workers. When designed and used properly, teamwork apps extend our inner thoughts and ideas to colleagues. Case in point, today most people are so comfortable with email and documents that they might even consider these artifacts part of themselves. In fact, a recent study found that when workers lost an important email or document, they felt like they lost a limb.
The idea that we view our possessions as extension of ourselves is not a new one. In 1988, marketing professor Russell Belk published a paper entitled “Possessions and the Extended Self” in which he formalized the intuitive idea that a person’s possessions play an important role in their sense of self. One doesn’t need to crave a Gucci bag or the latest Tesla to understand this concept. Anyone whose spouse has threatened to throw out old clothes, records, or CDs (depending on your age) understands the pain of having our valued (but often useless) possessions wrested from us.
With the advent of digital technology, the idea of ‘extended self’ took on increased importance. In a more recent paper, Belk expanded his idea to encompass digital devices like computers and mobile phones. In this paper, Belk claims that digital devices inherently possess a unique characteristic; namely, they are more than a valued possession, they also function as a person’s external memory. We all know this experience. Today you don’t need to remember anything; you just need to ask Google. Google Search in a sense, has become an extension of us.
Teamwork Apps Should Be an Extension of Self
And like Search, it is easy to see how teamwork apps can become an extension of ourselves. Tian and Belk explored this idea in a paper entitled Extended Self in a Digital World, observing that mobile devices, laptop computers, and email enable workers to transcend physical space, by “virtually transporting themselves from one domain to another.” You can literally work on a project with remote colleagues anytime, anywhere. Presumably, teamwork apps like Microsoft Teams and Slack provide the medium through we which we can achieve this virtual presence on our mobile devices. But that assumes the tools have become so easy to use that that become transparent; instead of focus on manipulating the application, we can focus on the content. Think about the telephone as an example of transparency. We hardly notice when we are using it. That’s what it means when the app becomes an extension of self. But how many of us feel like that when using teamwork apps like Microsoft Teams and Slack? How much effort do exert trying to navigate these tools to find important information? And finally, how many of us would feel like we lost an organ if a team conversation with a colleague went missing? Not exactly as easy to use as a telephone.
I don’t know about you but the workers with whom I speak are frustrated by the complexity of today’s teamwork tools; they exert considerable energy trying to find and share information using the tools, so it is hard to look at these tools as extensions of ourselves.
What Went Wrong?
Not many organizations post a press release to announce a project has failed, but that’s exactly what CERN did, claiming that while “1000 members of the CERN community have created a Workplace account, there are [only] roughly 150 active users of the platform.” In other words, it was a major achievement that CERN was able to get 1000 of CERN’s 2500 employees to try the tool in the first place. On the other hand, the program was a failure.
By way of comparison, CERN’s adoption numbers for Workplace don’t seem different from those of other teamwork platforms like Microsoft Teams or Slack. While the two vendors traded barbs about how many workers are NOT using their competitors’ products, I showed that most Microsoft Teams users are in actuality early adopter types who readily embrace technology without formal introduction or training. These folks represent roughly 10% of the potential user base; they are not the 90% mainstream and laggard users. There is still a long way to go before workers will feel as comfortable with teamwork apps as they are with the telephone, email, or chat.
It’s Not [Only] About the Features
Part of what’s wrong is the ill-placed focus on features and integration points. Most people are just looking for a simple way to share quick messages in near real-time with colleagues, not for a full suite of communications tools.
But it’s not always about product features and capabilities. In Facebook’s case, most CERN employees know how to use Facebook. At CERN, the reluctance to use Workplace was a lack of trust in the vendor. CERN makes no usability claims from the results of its HR and IT-sponsored trials, they simply conclude “many people preferred not to use a tool from a company that they did not trust in terms of data privacy.
The bottom line is that if you want to people to seamlessly communicate with colleagues using a teamwork app, you need to focus on how to make that product so simple to use it becomes an extension of yourself, just like a Gucci bag and a Tesla.