Even though technologies will come and go and organizations will continue to battle with adopting social collaboration for many years to come, it is a concept that is unstoppable. So why is it unstoppable and what’s the driving force behind it? I will try to answer that here.

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Illustration by Luc Galoppin

First, let’s zoom out a little bit and look at the bigger picture.

Today, jobs primarily consisting of knowledge work typically make up 25 to 50 percent of the workforce, and in some industries a lot more. For many of these knowledge workers, collaborative and complex problem solving is the essence of their work. At the same time their work environments are changing and becoming more and more complex due to such things as increased time pressure, telepresence, increased specialization and virtual teams.

Much of the improvements made during recent years have relied on the use of information technologies as a means to speed up processes and reduce costs by automating -- preferably eliminating -- the manual work involved in transformational and transactional processes. We have used information technology primarily to remove people from the equation of a successful enterprise. Now we suddenly need to do the opposite; attracting and empowering talented people to reinvent enterprises and make them adapt and thrive in an increasingly competitive and changing environment. That is quite a dramatic change.

Knowledge Workers Are Disempowered

As a knowledge worker operating in a complex and highly collaborative environment, there are many things that limit my productivity, efficiency and creativity, such as:

  • It is hard for me to find out who knows what and whom I could ask for help or information.
  • There are too many places to look for information and I might not even have access to the ones that contain the information I need.
  • I constantly have to check for new updates and spend a lot of time and energy on looking for information and answers.
  • I do not know much about what is happening at the office when I am not physically present.
  • I have to spend a lot of time waiting for other people to tell me when it is my turn to contribute.

It is often said that knowledge workers spend about 2 days per week on things like these, just getting ready for work. Something needs to be done about it.

Collaboration Is Harder Than We Think

Research by MIT Professor Tom Allen presented in 1977 revealed that when people are more than 50 feet apart (16.6m), the likelihood of them collaborating or communicating about work more than once a week is less than 10%. Based on proximity, we are not likely to collaborate very often if we are more than 50 feet apart.

In a large and dispersed organization, cross-organizational and cross-location collaboration does not come naturally the way that it does in a small organization. There are simply too many collaboration barriers to overcome such as time, location, organization, culture and language. It is just more convenient and efficient to work primarily with the people in our close proximity. We develop strong ties and exchange a lot of information with each other, which makes coordination and implementation easier and more efficient. Over time, we tend to think more and more alike and to keep our ideas, information and knowledge to our own group. According to Mark Granovetter ’s “The Strength of Weak Ties” theory, the flow of information between our own and other groups decreases and so called “structural holes” are created in the social structure of communication.

When people are isolated from each other by geography and organization and where people are relatively unconnected, the structural holes which are created hinder the exchange of information and knowledge between people as well as the chances of collaboration to happen across groups. It inevitably leads to sub-optimization, bad decision-making, lower ability to innovate, low level of reuse, redundant work and rework.

We Need To Fix the Structural Holes

The only way to bring new ideas to the group is through the personal relationships that exist between members of different groups: the weak ties. More open networks, with many weak ties and social connections, are more likely to introduce new ideas and opportunities to their members than closed networks with many redundant ties. Networking allows us to build connections across structural holes and build weak ties that enable an exchange of new information.

That brings us to the driving force behind social collaboration: the need to remove structural holes by helping people to connect and build relationships across groups. The great promise of social software is how it enables people to connect with new people and strengthens the weak ties between groups, thereby allowing an organization to improve its ability to innovate, increase reuse, improve decision-making, minimize sub-optimization and reduce redundant work and rework. It also enables serendipitous encounters with people and information, building and providing access to an organization’s collective intelligence, and the formation of purpose-driven and highly dynamic and scalable teams that can create value together across barriers such as geography and organizations.

In his post “Coordination is King ”, Kaihan Krippendorff refers to the military strategy of the ancient Chinese general Sun Tzu who said power comes from formation:

Power has never been a function of what we control and own. But until recently controlling and owning things has been the most efficient way to coordinate them. New companies and solutions are arising that make it easier for us to coordinate the uncoordinated, to create power without owning, in both the public and private sectors.”

It’s about Connecting the Workforce

Getting access to and creating information and making it flow are the keys to collaboration and to operational excellence in the global and connected world. Enabling people to connect across geography and organizations is an absolute pre-requisite for enabling timely exchange of relevant information and knowledge to the people who need it as well as to increase the power that comes from formation. It is also the main driver behind social collaboration. It is why social principles, practices and technologies will be implemented and adopted by all organizations in some way or another, sooner or later. As a concept, it is simply unstoppable.