It’s like I am the produce section of the grocery store, looking for the perfectly red ripe tomato.

No, it’s like walking along the beach, trying to find the exact right smooth, flat rock to skip across the pristine lake.

No wait, it’s like I am in a mattress store, laying down on every single bed to find the one that feels just right….not too hard, not too soft.

In my work talking about enterprise social networks and collaboration, I often find myself using metaphors. A good, juicy metaphor can often make new, sometimes complicated concepts and guidelines easier to understand. I am always on a search to find just the right metaphor to describe new concepts to new people so the concepts are easier to understand..

Wikipedia defines a metaphor as “a figure of speech that directly refers to one thing by mentioning another for rhetorical effect. It may provide clarity or identify hidden similarities between two ideas.” They cite one of the best known metaphors as coming from none other than William Shakespeare.

“All the world’s a stage,
And all the men and women merely players;
They have their exits and their entrances …”
-As You Like It

I was thinking of metaphors on a recent flight when I overheard my seatmate talking to a colleague on the phone. “It feels like everyone is on a swim team, staying in their own lanes. I need them to leave their lanes and collaborate!” Ohhh, I thought to myself. That’s a good one!

The Swim Team
Explaining to my seatmate after she hung up her phone that it is hard not to listen to someone when they are sitting six inches away, we had a good talk about collaboration and metaphors. She said she often uses the swim lane metaphor with her teams. Everyone is so used to doing only what they need to do by themselves, it’s like they are just swimming back and forth in a straight line.

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She regularly encourages her teams to break out of their lanes. Don’t be an individual swimmer, be a team, and together, we can do great, beautiful things we could not even imagine doing on our own…not unlike the beautiful things synchronized swimmers do when they work together.

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The Silo
In my work, I find myself using metaphors often. I talk about what a Yammer network can do for teams and organizations. So often, committees and task forces at our organizations are used to writing agendas, having their meetings, posting minutes and making a board report without much thought of how that information can and should be shared in real time with other committees, teams and task forces.

Capture

When groups in our organizations work this way, that may all be well and good, but it is hard to look at this structure and not realize how compartmentalized and separated our information and conversations are from one another. In fact, just looking at those rectangles, we can almost smell the sweet hay in the air. We can hear the cows mooing, and the goats braying.

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Traditional organizational structures leads to our information and conversations being silo’d from one another. The inherent challenge in the way we work needs to be recognized, and we need to be open to new ways of working. We need to be pro-active about generosity, collaboration and transparency if we ever want to break out of the silos our organizations have been working in for decades, for generations.

The Junk Drawer
Yammer provides all users, by default, an All Network discussion group in each network. This group automatically appears when a network is created. The All Network group cannot be deleted and it cannot be renamed. Regrettably, many users like to post the All Network group out of ease of use, and sometimes out of laziness.

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Posting in All Network is very easy to do, since it is always there. It is very fast, as we have not had to take the time to search for a subject appropriate group in which to share our p ost, and we have a false sense of comfort thinking that  all network members will see the post due to the fact it is in the All Network group (not true).

As the administrator of the Yammer space, I work hard to encourage people not to post in the All Network group. I call it the “Junk Drawer” of our network. Just like a junk drawer at home, it is very easy to throw information into the All  Network group, but it is very hard to find anything useful once it is there. We need to take the time to organize and to share thoughtfully and strategically.

Yammer Street
We see a lot of activity in our staff home Yammer network, but we also see lots of activities in our external networks for specific teams and interest groups throughout our organization. Sometimes, our users are confused by all these different network spaces. They are in one network, and expect to see activity from another network. They don’t necessarily understand that there are separate network spaces, or how those spaces work. They don’t understand, that is, until I bring them to Yammer Street.

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We are all on Yammer street, I explain, and every house on Yammer street is a Yammer network. The only people who get into that network (house) are people who we invite in. And, just like every Yammer network has discussion groups, every house on Yammer street has rooms. Some rooms have open doors, or are public groups, and some rooms have doors that are closed, or are private groups. The Yammer Street metaphor seems to help a lot.

It’s a marathon
When new ideas are being shared, and people are being encouraged to adopt new techniques and styles, metaphors can help make these ideas more applicable to what they know, and what they are comfortable withIt takes time. It’s like we are running a marathon. We need to pace ourselves.

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What metaphors do you use in your work? How do you help your colleagues to understand new, sometimes difficult concepts? Can it feel sometimes like a long race? Like you are herding cats? Like you are a one armed paper hanger? Please share!

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