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Instant messaging and wikis: Social media tools critical to ALM

In this response, ALM expert Kevin Parker discusses the evolution of chat platforms and wikis amongst developers, explaining how managers can use these technologies to their advantage.

How are collaboration and social media tools used in the application lifecycle? What are the benefits and drawbacks?

Like many shifts in development infrastructure, the introduction of social media tools was led by the grass roots of the organization. Like with open source before it, it took management a long time to understand the implications of social media, and even longer to bring control to this new feature of the development landscape. We still do not fully understand the implications of it.

First came instant messaging (IM), with developers interacting real-time with one another across the office and across the globe. IM was fast and easy and immediate and quickly pushed email out. Developers loved the sense of being in the same location as their remote colleague and the informality of the IM style. The chat abbreviations (like BIW – boss is watching) were a secret code for secret geek society. And there is no doubt that productivity, quality and clarity improved because the tool was there.

As IM systems proliferated, IT organizations became increasingly concerned about the holes in the firewall that were opening up for the chat systems. The company lawyers became concerned about the content that was travelling over open and public services with no audit trail. They also became concerned about the potential for inappropriate commentary. And managers were concerned about the novelty of the technology causing a drop in productivity.

Fortunately, wise heads prevailed, and we now see corporate IM systems on every desktop, both inside IT and in the non-IT business units. These IM systems are integrated with email, calendaring and presence detection systems. The progress of chat has been so strong that we even see B2C chat systems built into many ecommerce sites.

Wikis were the next technology to be introduced, which was precipitated by the business wanting a searchable place to store business information. Individuals also wanted a place where they could contribute without the bureaucracy of the business having to approve and verify -- and correct grammar. Again immediacy and ease were key.

As IT started to implement wikis, they noticed the many advantages and began to deploy their own sites. Agile wikis have become an essential element for the self-organizing development team. Wikis provide a repository of all the insights and experiences of the team, so other team members can keep abreast of the project activities no matter where they are located in the world. A little structure to the wikis goes a long way in speeding their adoption.

Of course, the content of wikis is rarely verified, but errors are soon corrected using the “wisdom of crowds” model where each person takes responsibility to update the data as they find it. Attempts by corporations to mandate the content of the wiki have largely failed because they miss the point of the a wiki’s organic nature, that it grows on its own to meet the needs of the situation.

Overall, social media technologies have improved the lives of the software development team. The business is finding ways to exploit them, too, and IT is helping drive that now. Executives are rightly cautious that this might be a huge productivity hit, but so far are letting the technology evolve and thrive while maintaining a cautious oversight. Whatever technology comes next, you can be sure some developer will find a way to use it.

For a comprehensive resource on social media, see Social media: A guide to enhancing ALM with collaborative tools.

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