posted 18 Dec 2006 in Volume 10 Issue 4
Case study: Microsoft
Microsoft and the art of blogging
There are several thousand employee blogs at Microsoft. An in-depth study of bloggers in the company highlights the issues that arise when a personal medium is applied to work goals.
By Lilia Efimova and Jonathan Grudin
Microsoft is one of the best known and most profitable companies in the world and certainly needs no introduction. Yet despite its size it remains a far from staid and conservative organisation. Indeed, staff are encouraged to embrace new technologies – as well develop them.
It therefore recognised the potential of corporate blogging early on. Not just in terms of positive public relations (PR) but as a way of communicating with particular groups of customers, providing valuable information to them, while generating equally valuable feedback, too. Blogs can also be used internally to communicate activities, project progress and more across an enterprise – especially one as geographically diverse as Microsoft.
Weblogs written by staff can become valuable knowledge management assets, too, providing ways for staff at different levels to speak in a human voice within or outside the organisation; to find previously undocumented expertise; and, to help create unexpected connections between people and ideas.
On the one hand, these benefits can spur an organisation to support blogging by either encouraging staff to get writing or by setting boundaries – in the form of corporate policies – to minimise the risks involved. For example, by setting the appropriate editorial processes to ensure that staff bloggers never embarrass their employers.
However, for staff, this creates a form of creative tension: the personal nature of the activity of authoring a weblog, even when clearly work-related, often feels as if it is outside the corporate sphere. Its nature means that companies have no straightforward way to mandate the content, timing or manner of blogging, while staff often feel that it is regarded as an alternative to work. To successfully exploit weblogs, a business must therefore understand the personal interests and concerns of bloggers and create an appropriate environment.
In this case study we share the results of our research into weblogs at Microsoft. In late 2005 we spent two months attending meetings, reading documents, e-mail discussions and weblogs. We interviewed 38 employees, including bloggers, those responsible for the blogging infrastructure, managers and executives and people in legal and PR charged with considering the impact of employee weblogs.
In this article, we will focus on the issues that arise when a personal medium is applied to work goals.
Weblogs at Microsoft
At the time of our study, the company supported several external servers with more than 2,000 employee weblogs, blog services open to those participating in company community initiatives and the MSN Spaces consumer-blogging platform. For the company, external customer-oriented weblogs were regarded as the principal value of the medium. An internal server with approximately 800 weblogs was maintained by volunteers.
On top of that, an internal survey also indicated that more than 7,000 employees (10 per cent of all staff) had active weblogs – so only a fraction of staff blogging was recorded and run on corporate servers. This is not surprising: employees are not obliged to use official company servers for their weblogs, or even to identify themselves within them.
Although guidelines for weblog practice had occasionally been circulated, people stressed that they were just guidelines. Repeatedly we were told that “the policy is that there is no policy” or that “the policy is ‘be smart’”, whatever that meant. Two corporate lawyers we interviewed noted pointedly that all policies covering the disclosure of proprietary or sensitive information applied also to this medium.
Work-related uses of weblogs
Communicating directly with others inside and outside the organisation.
People who design and develop a product have unique knowledge, but are separated from customers and users by intermediaries in sales, marketing and field support, and by the time it takes for a product to reach the market. Writing formal articles for publication on the company website does not appeal to many employees, because of the required reviewing and revision and the lack of visibility or feedback. In contrast, a weblog is an easy way to provide information, share tips and engage in direct interaction with peers or consumers of one’s work. One respondent noted, “We were trying to ship something and [in my role] I have no external exposure to people… so [starting a weblog] was partly to talk about it with outsiders”. Another respondent received permission to publish internal frequently-asked question (FAQ) materials in his weblog to benefit external readers.
Bloggers found it gratifying to inform or help others, to learn about the reception of their work in the ‘real world’, and to become visible as a domain expert. Company encouragement to interact with customers and engage with communities provided a supportive atmosphere and eliminated potential barriers, but did not directly induce blogging. As one person put it, “Blogging doesn’t come out of fear, it’s about passion”.
Documenting and organising work.
Some employees used a weblog both to communicate with others and to document and organise ideas, describing it as a personal archive enhanced by feedback from readers. “Either I could have written that down it as an internal note and just kept that or now it’s out there on internet, so I can find it more easily and also get hints from folks.” Several internal weblogs, including one by a team, were used to document and share work in progress with others inside the company. Since internal weblogs are indexed for intranet searches, bloggers felt good being able ‘to add to that index’.
Some bloggers who did not list documentation as a major motivation did mention re-using old blog entries to draft more formal documents or to provide a link for answering FAQs. Several indicated that they could avoid ‘spamming’ others with experiences and ideas by placing them in an easily accessible weblog post.
Showing the human side of the company.
As employees of a company that can seem impersonal to those outside, many described blogging as a way to show a human face, to demonstrate that people in the organisation care and are passionate about their work. “I’m tired of being called evil,” said one. Bloggers could recount stories behind products to help people understand why particular choices were made. They shared details of daily routines to give outsiders a sense of their work context. Bloggers felt a history of objectively sharing useful information enabled them to react with greater credibility in crises.
Weblogs can also change the company’s image in the eyes of potential employees. Three informants consciously crafted weblogs for recruiting and provided examples of their impact. Their weblogs told everyday work stories for different roles in the company, provided insight into selection or promotion procedures and shared tips and tricks. Other people reported new hires who applied to a group after reading a member’s weblog.
Finding and being found
In employee weblogs, ideas that were previously unarticulated or hidden in personal archives become visible, interlinked, and searchable. Collectively, this produces a wealth of information about products, practices, tips and tricks. Many respondents reported time saved by blogging: re-using entries, quickly helping others or learning, getting answers to questions, receiving feedback on ideas, finding people inside or outside the company with similar interests or needs.
A few bloggers mentioned that posting to their external weblog helped them connect serendipitously to a person or relevant information inside the organisation. One noted that an idea posted to a weblog resulted in a prototype developed in another part of the organisation. He wrote, “I’ve never met Lee or had any agreements with anyone that he would do this. Nor would I ever have been able to send mail to the right group of interested people that might be able to spend the time building a prototype. I simply blogged my idea, the idea found the right people, and we’ve made a bunch of progress that will help ensure the right feature is delivered to our users.”
A weblog also gives visibility to its author, whose expertise can be exposed beyond his nearest circle of colleagues. Our informants told us about invitations to publish articles or speak at events as a result of blogging. Several reported that their job responsibilities evolved as their interests were exposed: “[After reading my weblog my manager said] if you are so externally focused, you can be our community lead… now I’m a community lead… I enjoy it.” Some bloggers noted that being recognised as an expert gave them greater confidence in their career prospects.
Externally-visible blogging provides publicity that a role and position would not normally entail. Some bloggers acquired more negotiating power or security as people realised that making them uncomfortable or dismissing them could have repercussions with customers or partners. Blogging externally was also seen as a way of helping to accelerate internal change: suggestions made in public may get more attention than those delivered internally. Also, customer feedback can confirm ideas, giving a proposal more validity.
Of course, these power shifts can lead to tension, so visibility can be a mixed blessing. Some bloggers dislike the limelight and experience or worry about tensions within their teams when readers credit them for a team effort: “You are not trying to expose yourself or to be a star”. Also, becoming a contact point for customers raises expectations for blog coverage and the blogger becomes a focal point for questions and suggestions. Bloggers with large audiences complained of e-mail overload and discussed preventive measures. Some felt they were doing other people’s jobs on top of their own.
Blogging is still an area of experimentation at Microsoft and it is generally up to a given individual to decide if, when, why and how to blog. We identified several choices facing a prospective blogger.
Starting a weblog
Most people we spoke with began on their own initiative, with little prior discussion. “I asked only my direct manager and it was on purpose: I knew if I would ring my manager’s manager or manager of my manager’s manager it would become impossible.”
Many bloggers cited experimentation, examples set by colleagues or pressure from others as reasons for starting a weblog.
Almost everyone mentioned a work-related rationale for blogging. Personal reasons for starting to blog were central in the case of strictly personal weblogs – “it proved to be a good communication tool with my friends” – and also appear in weblogs that include work-related content. With the latter, personal motivations accompanied work-related goals; “I like the conversations that come out of blogging: it’s challenging.”
Where to blog? We expected to find that the main decision when starting a weblog would be whether to blog internally or externally. However, more fine-grained choices and a broad variety of guiding criteria emerged, usually influenced by the goals for blogging, such as:
- Access and visibility
Who should be able to access the content? How easy will it be to find? Internal weblogs are good for sharing non-public information, but have less exposure than an external weblog. Weblogs on official Microsoft servers are easily found by someone seeking Microsoft news; blogs on other external servers can be lost amid the many millions of other bloggers;
- Affiliation with the company
The choice of server can be influenced by a desire to have or avoid an explicit company affiliation. For some, their connection to Microsoft is a
matter of credibility or pride; for others it adversely affects their image, leading them to be judged as Microsoft employees rather than for their expertise;
- Freedom and control over technology or content.
Company-supported servers are an easy way to start blogging, but a self-hosted server (internal or external) can provide flexibility in configuring a weblog to fit one’s preferences. Self-hosted or third-party platforms also raise fewer questions over the nature or ownership of the content.
What (not) to blog about?
With no formal policy, the lack of explicit rules creates a risk: each blogger is ultimately responsible for ‘being smart’.
Most weblogs we examined contain a disclaimer indicating that the content reflected the personal views of the author and should not be attributed to the company. But when an author openly associates with the company, the fine line between the personal and the corporate is blurred.
Even weblogs primarily or exclusively focused on work are likely to have a personal touch, presenting information in an informal style and from an individual perspective. Many employees add personal comments to work-related notes or publish entries about hobbies, events in their private lives or opinions on non-work matters – suggesting that their readers ‘come to read the person, not the blog’.
Attitudes differ toward the propriety or desirability of mixing personal and work content. Some bloggers have two weblogs, one for work and one for personal content. Others share no private information online. Others see no problem with mixing work and private issues in a weblog that identifies their affiliation and often stress the role of personal information in providing context for work-related posts.
Many struggle to identify what can be blogged about work, finding a grey area between the clearly confidential and the clearly publishable. In one group, bloggers praised clear communication from their management that identified ‘three topics you are not supposed to blog about’. This provided clear boundaries while not curtailing the freedom to blog.
For most it takes time, trial-and-error experimentation and reflection on internal and external feedback to find a balance of sometimes conflicting interests. Some respondents started conservatively, but grew less so over time, while others described specific incidents (such as misinterpreted posts amplified by media reports) that helped them to learn where to set boundaries. In this respect the relationship with the immediate manager was critical in getting the blessing to start – or continue – a weblog, negotiating acceptable uses, or seeking support in cases of unexpected negative effects of a post.
Blogging as part of a job
Given the time demands and work-related implications, how was blogging integrated into the day job for which a person was responsible?
For a few, blogging eventually became an official part of their job. Indeed, in one case 15 hours per week was formally devoted to blogging. However, in most instances it is less dramatic. Some bloggers justified spending some work hours reading or writing weblogs by showing the impact on other responsibilities.
Others did not make blogging a formal objective, but raised it during annual performance appraisals as an extra work-related activity: “It’s not explicitly part of my objectives, it’s a means to an end,” said one. A few bloggers strove for a complete separation of job responsibilities and blogging, even for primarily work-related blogs, to maximise their flexibility and freedom in posting.
Despite the disclaimers, staff blogging about work, especially those using official servers, conceded that the company ultimately owned the content. This is consistent with the contracts governing the company’s intellectual property rights, usually interpreted as applying to hardware, software and branding, but technically covering writing as well.
However, not everyone agreed that all weblog content should be company property, but no one recounted a case where an ownership dispute had arisen, although their expressions of concern revealed uncertainty about the matter.
For many, blogging involves personal initiative, investment and time, and could have long-term value in creating and maintaining an online reputation or as a record of thoughts and experiences. This played a role in the discussions about content ownership. Many would concede the right and need for the company to have access to the content of blogs closely related to specific products, yet want to ensure their own access should they leave the company: “If they said they would delete it, I’d be thinking why am I blogging here [on company server] and not externally?” Some took the extreme position of wanting sole ownership of their words and hosted their blogs externally, blogged on their own time, or both.
Between passion and business
For an employee, a weblog can provide a space to demonstrate their passion
for their work, to document and organise ideas and work practices, and to find and engage others inside and outside the organisation. For an employer, a weblog can accelerate information flow, increase productivity, improve the company’s reputation and customer engagement – but can also create greater dependence on personalities, less control over the corporate face to the outside world and challenges to the established corporate hierarchy.
For an employee to blog about work requires the juggling a number of concerns. Blogs have potential benefits and implications for one’s job, so it’s tempting to make them part of existing working practice. Yet, it is personal initiative, interests and time investments that make a blog interesting for readers and often yield unexpected, positive effects. An attempt to squeeze those into job descriptions or formal rules could drain the vitality and utility from them.
Employers and employees who take up blogging should anticipate a degree of ambiguity. If pushed to specify limits up front, an organisation could be too restrictive and lose the benefits. At the same time, it may be good for bloggers to constantly consider limits and consequences – personal judgment and responsibility are inescapable elements of employee blogging.
Where encouraged, employee weblogs will change how work is organised and how authority is distributed by fostering direct communication across organisational boundaries – from employee to customer – and across group boundaries within organisations. The policy of ‘be smart’ is telling; it becomes more important to have employees who are broadly informed.
Lilia Efimova is a researcher in Telematica Instituut, where she works on her PhD on blogging practices of knowledge workers. She could be contacted at email@example.com.
Jonathan Grudin is principal researcher in the adaptive systems and interaction group at Microsoft Research. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.
For more detailed information about the study, please the following paper from the Telematica Insituut: Crossing boundaries: A case study of employee blogging – Efimova, L. & Grudin, J. (2007). From the Proceedings of the 40th Hawaii International Conference on System Sciences (HICSS-40). Los Alamitos: IEEE Press. www.telin.nl/index.cfm?language=en&type=doc&handle=65836