I’ve been working in social collaboration for about a decade now, about as long as it’s been a serious model for enabling workforces to function more effectively. We’ve seen the conversations and lessons learned cover the whole landscape over the years, from why the emergent nature of social tools leads to richer outcomes and how to drive early adoption to what the ROI for the average company is and how to organize best for getting optimal results.
Recently, however, we’ve seen a resurgence in the popularity of team-based collaboration tools like Slack that are missing some of the key elements that makes large scale social collaboration so effective. We are also finding they are difficult for large teams to use. Thus I believe it’s worth a brief revisit of what we’ve learned as an industry so far about what makes the more open, participative, and dynamic models of social business uniquely and strategically valuable to our organizations.
The issue is not that team-based collaboration tools don’t have value. They certainly do and I’ll compare and contrast them with larger scale social collaboration platforms soon. But they don’t create the strategic value that the latter can. The concern here is that they can potentially be perceived, especially at the management and executive level, as being sufficient to enable social business within an organization. Business leaders usually understand quite well the value of collaboration and its central importance to operating an effective business, but they often don’t fully understand the nuances of the supporting technologies and what course of outcomes their decisions will commit them to.
What then is the typically root decision for enterprise collaboration in most organizations? Unfortunately, despite a great deal of experience encouraging us to avoid it, even for well managed companies, the main decision point still tends to be around technology choices and not putting the focus on the collaborative needs of the business itself. Because digital tools are considered the entry point for modern workforce collaboration and are most obviously what’s different than what came before, they tend to wag the dog in the planning process for improving how workers interact and work together. Thus a choosing between a team-based toolkit versus a broader and more comprehensive multiple scenario collaboration platform often happens early on.
To make the right decisions for collaboration strategy, we have to focus on what matters most in terms of value creation. In this light, what can we tell our senior executives and board of directors about the momentous commitments that are made by deciding on the style of collaboration too early, before you fully understand what your business needs? These days, we suggest making these key points:
- The most effective collaboration is open and inclusive. We’ve learned that to achieve the best results, those initiating a collaborative process must not assume perfect foreknowledge of who needs to participate, take excessive control of the process, or begin the process with foregone conclusions on what the outcome should be. Social collaboration encourages these values to a greater degree than less social approaches, and can achieve richer and dynamic outcomes by harnessing a much wider connected network, working out in the open, and thereby involving anybody who considers themselves a stakeholder. This perspective underpins many of today’s most effective digital workplace skills, such as Working Out Loud.
- Great collaborative environments scale easily to the size and nature of the opportunities at hand. Social collaboration was borne out of the incredible examples of mass collaboration that began happening on the Internet after the first decade of wide-ranging industry experimentation showed that older models of collaboration simply couldn’t support the sheer numbers of participants being brought together to create outcomes. We learned there were better ways to share and work together. Ultimately, social media ended up showing us the way and it’s now the primary form of communication on the planet. However, consumer social media had to be adapted to business needs, and I’m pleased to report that it largely has these days, as social collaboration platforms have matured and evolved. Today’s enterprise social tools now have the ability to enable very sophisticated and large scale collaborative scenarios to take place in our institutions that older, smaller tools simply could not. As I observed in the dozens of successful social business case studies in Social Business By Design, the leaders that ensure that these scenarios are not only possible — but proactively enabled — in their organizations are the only ones that will have them take place. In short, if you want a lot more value from collaboration, you have to make sure it has the headroom to be as strategic and impactful in the large as it can be. We should avoid retrograde models that won’t support size and open participation, and potent new ways of working. This is vital for enabling some of the most valuable business scenarios that involve large portions of our organizations, such as budgeting, forecasting, hiring, exception handling (especially in supply chain), and resource allocation.
- An outsized amount of collaborative value comes from encouraging diverse participants. The sheer amount of data that has accumulated around the business value of diversity should no longer have to be stated. However, when it comes to collaboration it turns out diversity has a particularly significant effect. Social collaboration, by virtue of its open, inclusive, and transparent nature, ensures that business processes can be influenced by stakeholders far and wide, who will discover them and contribute their points of view. This has become an essential tenet of modern collaboration, that we have to think in terms of “letting the network do the work“, and along the way we’ve learned that it very much will. Data has shown for a while now that the majority of people are interested and willing to co-create, for a wide variety of motivations, mostly self-interested. We’ve also learned that those with which we don’t have a lot of contact normally often have the most valuable new ideas to contribute. Known as weak ties, this was one of the early discoveries in social collaboration. You can study Granovetter’s seminal paper on the subject, and it has since been confirmed in many aspects of collaboration. In short, social collaboration reproduces the invaluable informal networks we had before digital tools and brings them into the modern age. But without the ability to tap into weak ties, which digital social networks do best, you can’t take advantage of them, losing considerable richness and value in the process.
Of course, there are many known benefits to collaboration in almost any form. But I too often see digital approaches to collaboration go for a one-size-fits-all, which is literally impossible for today’s largest, complex enterprise, or employ fashionable new technology, without a full understanding of what they are committing their organization to. These days, I urge business leaders to educate themselves as much as they can on the art of the possible for instrumenting their workforce with genuinely high impact tools and techniques that can truly unleash knowledge, enable remarkable outcomes, while rapidly aligning and orchestrating their workforce, business partners, and even (perhaps especially) their customers in high stakes, high value digital workplace environments.
As a growing number of large organizations demonstrate how valuable the strategic adoption of the social business model of collaboration is for driving high performance, it’s literally become a key plank to competitive advantage in today’s global operating environments. Social collaboration is that differentiating. As corporate leaders, let’s make sure we’re making the most responsible and sustainable decisions about how to best organize how we work together to create meaningful, shared outcomes with our stakeholders and the marketplace.