There’s a little known feature in SharePoint that provides a place for all staff to share ideas, information and knowledge, it’s called Discussion Boards.
I suspect it’s under-utilised thanks to Microsoft’s unique name for it – so we’ll call it what it is, a Forum.
Another reason why forums may be avoided is due to some managers fear of feedback and letting staff freely share their thoughts on a somewhat public forum. Here’s my take on why forums are helpful to your business and tips for using them.
As a trainer and business analyst, I’ve learned to love feedback – good and bad. I can’t possibly be a great trainer and deliver quality courses without hearing what my audience have to say.
You have to very quickly get over the scariness of feedback, depersonalise it and flip any negativity into motivation to improve.
This attitude translates into using SharePoint forums, be it for gathering feedback or encouraging staff to share their knowledge and expertise. Remember, whether you provide a forum for staff or not, they are (without doubt) going to be talking about this stuff amongst themselves.
Why not take this away from the water cooler and into a place where you can proactively combat any negativity and allay any fears or reservations they may have?
Feel the fear
Don’t be afraid of comments, they’re an insight into what and how your employees think.
If you’ve set up the forum ensure that your initial post helps drive positive reaction. Take advantage of the ‘reply’ button. Take on any negativity in a positive manner and address the issue or ask for more constructive criticism or information.
Consider it a compliment that your staff feel they can openly critique or candidly question the way your business works. Use the information to assess the ‘state of the nation’ – is one comment a true reflection of how all staff think? If lots of staff are complaining, do they have a valid point? Can you overcome an issue with training, performance management or simply by communicating why a decision was made?
Who does that negative Nancy (Susan!) think she is anyway?
In the July comment above, Anne could politely reply to Susan that she’d like to know specifically what “sucked” – was it the black and white images, did the flyer not spell out the required info about our product? Alternatively, Anne could depersonalise the entire interaction and assume that Susan was purely giving feedback in a rushed and informal way, where she felt “sucked” was an appropriate descriptive term.
Humour is another way to combat negativity – a reply to Susan asking, “is sucked the technical term?” could lighten the tone and help the marketing bod who created the flyers to laugh it off.
Control the convo, or don’t
If you need to, you can nip back into a forum discussion and steer it back into a positive space.
But take care not to over-censor your staff. If the language stays appropriate and noone oversteps by slinging personal insults, there can be value in providing a safe space for staff to vent. Colloquialisms and colourful language don’t necessarily equate to disparaging the organisation or its ideas.
In fact, some companies have a culture of informal speech and over-looking this to some extent may help you elicit true feelings and candid observations from your staff.
Set the tone
One of my clients set up a forum and announced a major change to a process that meant staff now had to perform a 10 minute task in only 5 minutes.
The boss wrote a succinct (read: blunt) blurb and didn’t outline the rationale and objectives for the change. Within hours staff were leaving multiple outraged comments, as well as raising questions and concerns for the quality of their work and their client’s satisfaction.
The boss panicked and deleted the entire discussion.
When I found out, I recommended that the boss set a positive tone (and use more words!) in his next forum, and that he could’ve replied to the angry/worried commenters about the advantages of the new process and why the business decided to change it. This simple act would’ve turned the conversation around.
Always start the forum with relevant information and positivity. And keep an open mind – your staff may provide insights that your customers would never share, and good ideas can still be found in negatively worded replies.
Stop the rumour mill
Another client successfully uses forums by letting staff start the discussion themselves.
Management use the forum to find out what rumours are going around, they let staff discuss it, and if needed, chip in to dispel or explain the truth behind any rumours.
The client told me that management don’t often need to address rumours, as eventually other staff members will add comments and correct anything that is untrue or just office gossip.
Venting can be a good thing
We all feel better after a good safe vent. Some things just shouldn’t be vented to a large group, but if your staff are trained in what is and isn’t appropriate on SharePoint, you might just find that after they get to blurt out a mini-rant they are then much more optimistic about the issue at hand.
The same client I mentioned above is open to staff venting, they quickly noticed that other staff join in the conversation and extinguish any negativity using empathy, pointing out helpful guides or instructions, or by suggesting ways to help the original poster get their job done with less frustration.
There are times when it’s not appropriate to use a discussion forum, for instance some policies (such as sexual harassment or health & safety) just shouldn’t be up for debate.
When you do use forums, or you see your staff touching on a touchy subject, be transparent in your replies. You could even set the terms in the first post by explaining that feedback is sought, but the policy stands.
Consider the forum a place to be frank and truthful, be open to alternate views and be ready to respond if you need to clarify or reassure staff. Use forums as a place to ‘sell’ changes to policy and procedure, as well as gather feedback and share how the business the works.
FAQs and sharing expertise and knowledge
A great example of a successful forum is when it becomes a FAQ – a place where frequently asked questions are answered, particularly if the answers come from colleagues and product/project owners rather than from management.
You have true collaboration when staff help answer other staff’s queries through sharing their experiences and knowledge. You can also add links to any policy documents or training guides that relate to the original question.
The FAQ forum can be referred to for years to come, or if it gets really large, can be transferred into a Wiki or a training guide in its own right.
Users can set their own alert on a topic of interest, or the Administrator can set alerts for relevant teams. When a new comment or reply is added, users will receive a notification instead of needing to regularly check back at the forum.
It doesn’t have to be all business
Another client asked me to set up a personal forum for the social club to use to discuss outings and ideas for events and fund-raising.
As they didn’t have a specific person to administer the social club, this meant all club members could collaborate, quickly share ideas and gather feedback.
It also gave them a historical view – so that when a new member had a suggestion they could easily check if it had been raised in the past.
This same client also runs a classifieds forum, where staff can buy, sell and trade with each other.
Often posts are about upcoming garage sales, links to auctions on trademe, notices about their children’s charity cookie sales and sharing extra tickets to rugby games or gigs. What a great way to foster team collaboration and staff relations, the bonus being it stopped all those non work-related topics becoming long, and potentially disruptive, email chains.
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