Gartner Blog Network

Cat Herding Systems

by Craig Roth  |  November 1, 2013  |  2 Comments

As both an analyst that covers “productivity” software (the name given to the stuff in Microsoft Office) and as an information worker, I’ve observed a need for “cat herding systems”.

Cat herding systems is a tongue-in-cheek term I’ve just made up to describe a common need: trying to get several information workers to devote a slice of their time toward creating a shared deliverable by a certain date. This is a level below the formality of co-authoring, which usually involves only 2-3 authors, simultaneous editing helps, and is more of a real project.

Usually these come about by executive fiat, like where an executive has a conflict resolution meeting and wants to be armed with a cross-functional view of the problem. For example: “Next Friday I’m meeting with the VP of customer service and want a list of incidents where customer service reps didn’t give you the information you needed to troubleshoot a problem”.

Or it could be a manager fishing for a potential problem or trying to get a snapshot of what’s going on. “I need everyone to give me a list of all the travel or time off you have coming up around the holidays to make sure we’re not left without coverage like last year.”

The default way of handling this – via email – is a pain in the butt technically and interpersonally. Technically, you get multiple threads of people responding to the last response or to your original and sometimes cc’ing everyone (clogging their inboxes in the process). If you’re trying to get them to edit an attachment rather than just a textual response, then you have to sync up a dozen spreadsheets or documents and aggregate them.

The interpersonal pain is that you have to track who you haven’t gotten responses from and chase them down. Many people figure it’s not that important if they’re not personally emailed a few times about it. Out of a list of several people, a few will be travelling or out of the office when your request arrives. And the requestor has to expend interpersonal capital every time they amp up the nagging – the requestor has to balance achieving the immediate goal with the ability to complete future goals due to cooperation, morale, and trust of the team.

Since these requests are often ad hoc, they often have to be modified in process. Then a modified request has to go out and the interim requests have to be redone or validated. For example “When you give me that holiday time off list, make sure you also tell me who is your backup while you’re gone. If you don’t know yet, just put TBD”.

So how does one handle cat herding requests? Usually email. And, while annoying, it usually works. But blogs are a valid place to lay bare the annoyances of life, so is there a better way?

The best option would be a customized cat herding app, probably built in a shared, collaborative space like Connections, SharePoint, Jive, etc. Maybe a template for this already exists, but if so I haven’t seen it.

Other options are:

  • Wiki: Great at creating the shared deliverable, but doesn’t handle tracking of who has/hasn’t responded or auto-nagging by due date.
  • Online office suites: Sure, you can use Google Apps, Smartsheet, O365, or Zoho as the list, but the auto-nagging part is absent.
  • Tasks: Assigning tasks in an email system handles the deadline urgency and one “reminder” nag. It may handle the aggregate view of completion. But it doesn’t help prepare the deliverable.
  • Discussion groups: Not much help. You get a shared view of contributions, but it doesn’t handle any of the desired automation.

Any other options you can think of?

Category: collaboration  communication  information-work  

Craig Roth
Research VP, Tech and Service Providers
7 years at Gartner
28 years IT industry

Craig Roth is a Research Vice President focused on cloud office suites, collaboration tools, content management, and how they are being impacted by digital workplace and digital business trends...Read Full Bio

Thoughts on Cat Herding Systems

  1. “Cat Herding Systems” great term for information workers, project mgrs and #productivity suite like Tabillo, for structure & unstructured data, files

  2. Edward N says:

    I like to use SharePoint task lists associated with workflows and reminders. Gives a team visibility to who has or hasn’t done their work toward the project.

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