Traditional definitions often define collaboration as a team who coordinates their efforts in order to achieve a known objective. Social collaboration, on the other hand, is about collaboration in a broader sense. It is about people collaborating as an enterprise and contributing to a shared purpose by directly and indirectly helping each other achieve goals.

Whether we are having a conversation that clarifies a certain issue on a blog, updating information on a community wiki or answering a question on a micro-blogging platform, we are in fact collaborating. Although this kind of collaboration is often indirect and quite subtle, our contributions can help individuals, teams or the entire enterprise deal with major challenges.

There are many use cases for social collaboration -- coauthoring content, using a wiki or collecting feedback via a blog, to name a few. In this article however, I will focus on some of the more indirect effects of social collaboration and how those can help improve key knowledge worker activities such as sharing and finding information, finding people and locating expertise, and creating and maintaining workspace awareness.

We need to start sharing and turning content into social objects.

The Social Object

The concept of social objects is central to social collaboration. A social object is a shared digital resource that can be used for sharing information or experiences about something, creating new information, coordinating activities and so on.

People can interact with a social object in various ways such as commenting, tagging or rating. By doing so, they also leave their digital fingerprints on the object. Fingerprints can tell us what they did, when they did it, which people they have interacted with and in what context. It can also help to reveal patterns of how work actually gets done, where certain information exists, who has a certain expertise, how information relates to other information, which people share common interest, who influences whom and who is likely to be able to answer certain kinds of questions.

This information can then be used to make it easier to find information, people and expertise, as well as increase workspace awareness, both of which are important for effective and efficient collaboration and decision making.

Sharing Information

Timely access to information is critical in making the right decisions and taking the right actions to create business value. Unfortunately, a lot of information is created and kept in information silos, inaccessible to many of the people who may need it. The key to unlocking information silos is to make people share the information they encounter with each other. Interactions are the pipes in which information flows and we are the pipe connectors.

The same principles that make information flow on the social web can be used to make information -- and thereby knowledge, ideas and experiences -- flow better within enterprises. Easy-to-use social software with mechanisms such as links, feeds, signals, search and tags have all proved to make it easier for information to flow. On the social web, sharing is really easy. If we make sharing as easy as possible, we can improve a lot of the other key knowledge worker activities.

Finding Information

The exponential growth of information within organizations is often seen as problematic. One problem is that it makes it harder to find information, which leads to lower employee productivity or suffering customer service.

To avoid this, we need new and innovative approaches that help us define meaningful filters and allow relevant information to find us, sometimes before we even know we need it or are aware that it exists. The classic approach to avoid suffering findability is to remove information that isn’t that important. But this is simply not an option anymore, since we never know if or when we might need a certain piece of information, or what value it will have to us if and when we need it. 

In order to create great filters, we need to turn content into social objects. We have to share the content and make it possible for other people to interact with it. The things we do with a social object -- viewing, sharing, linking, tagging, rating and commenting -- can then tell us a lot about the object itself and the information it carries, but also about the people who have interacted with it. This data can then be analyzed to discover who else may require the information, when, for what purposes, in which contexts and so on.

So, our interactions with the content we share and the people we interact with via social objects can reveal patterns, making it easier for us to find the expertise, people and information we need, when we need it. As we begin to make use of those patterns, people will increasingly be connected with relevant information in a serendipitous manner. It is not a coincidence that Google’s resigning CEO Eric Schmidt envisions their search engine evolving into a “serendipity engine”.

Finding People and Expertise

If you want to solve a problem or find an answer to a question, it is often a better strategy to ask a colleague for help than try to find and interpret the information encoded in some form of content. The ability to quickly find the right person to talk to is therefore often more important than content search. Yet to do so can be a daunting or virtually impossible task to a large organization where you don’t necessarily know who possesses the information you are looking for.

In the past, we relied solely on our personal networks and asking people in our close proximity for help when we needed it. Today, the workforce has become increasingly distributed, and more and more work is being done in virtual environments so the need for a more systematic approach that helps us build, nurture and make use of our personal networks is much greater. That’s where social software and online social networking can be of great use. 

The key to finding people can be found in creating better digital “mirrors” -- or profiles if you like. What we do with social objects can say a lot about ourselves -- what we like to read, what we’re interested in, what we contribute with, whom we interact with, which relationships we have, what communities we belong to, what expertise we’re seen to have. If we use this information to build richer profiles, it becomes that much easier to find people who can help us, and vice versa.

Building and Maintaining Workspace Awareness

Workspace awareness is about our ability to monitor and track what’s happening in our workspace -- who is doing what, who is interacting with whom, whose turn it is to contribute and so on. The major challenge for collaboration today is that the distribution (“virtualization”) of teams and the digitization of our workspaces makes us more isolated, both as individuals and as teams, when compared to working together face-to-face at the same physical location.

We find it hard to seek constant updates of our team members. This decreased workspace awareness doesn't only make it harder for us to collaborate in teams, but it also makes it harder to coordinate the work and decisions made by different teams. Team opacity (lack of transparency) makes it harder to communicate both within a team and between the team and the rest of the workforce. It becomes harder to develop the trust and engagement that is so important for collaboration.

What we need to do is continuously share more and richer contextual information. We need to share, not only with the people we work with, but also with anyone who could have interest in knowing what we are doing. However trivial it may sound, informing our colleagues about what we are up to directly via status updates or by allowing information about our online activities to appear in their activity feeds, actually enables more effective and efficient collaboration.

Simply Put -- We Need to Make Information Flow

To better support knowledge work, we need to make information flow. Just like money needs to flow as freely as possible and at a certain velocity, if a financial system is to function well, and thus the entire economy, so too does information. 

Still, information will not flow unless people proactively share anything they think could be useful to other people. Everybody needs to participate and contribute in order to create a constant flow of fresh and easily accessible information. 

Becoming more open in sharing content on open platforms, as well as recognizing each other's contributions, is critical if we want to build the trust that makes people interact, share and collaborate across organizations, geography, time and positions.

Editor's Note: Additional articles on enterprise collaboration include: