Collaboration requires more than the people on your team. The future of collaboration has moved beyond top-down task assignment and required participation with set deliverables. Instead it increasingly relies upon two key items: the serendipity of finding content and expertise that is just right, right now, and the willingness of people to exchange their time for that expertise.

In short, collaboration is mirroring the shifts taking place in the world of SEO.

SEO used to be about keyword loading, link building and gaining likes by any means possible. With the advent of Google Hummingbird and the Google Semantic Search Graph in 2013, SEO has shifted back to being about the content and experience.

The results are dramatic and organizations who flaunt the new model in favor of old model keyword and link bombing have been severely punished (BMW, JCPenny and recently Rap Genius). In his book,"Google Semantic Search," David Amerland wrote that the new SEO is based on five key factors that are measured, blended and delivered as the most relevant information for you at the time of your search, even if you don’t know exactly what you’re looking for. These are:

  1. Trust
  2. Authority
  3. Reputation
  4. Serendipity
  5. Citation

These factors provide important guidelines for the future of collaboration as well.

  • Trust means the established pattern of appropriate and correct information
  • Authority means the earned right to communicate definitively on the topic at hand
  • Reputation means the recognition of authority within the social context
  • Citation means the explicit connection to information and expertise.

We’ll return to Serendipity in a moment.

The Five Keys to Future Collaboration

None of the first four items can be taken by a person. They cannot be established by fiat or rank or managerial title. They are all given by others.

Even the word "given" is inaccurate -- for we exchange a grant of trust and authority for something of value. It might be expedited decision making (in the case of SEO). In the case of organizational collaboration, it is trust exchanged for efficient team leadership and expedited production of deliverables. Authority is granted by the collaborating community in exchange for direction and focus (when dealing with teams) and as a proxy for assumed quality when dealing with inputs and deliverables. Citations are metadata that explicitly connect an implicit recognition of authority and trust with a resource like content or people who produce consistent, quality results.

In the world of human resource management systems and talent management, citations are recommendations and references. Anyone familiar with LinkedIn can see these kinds of citations and recommendations immediately. Over time, reputation is established and acts as a support to (or detractor from) trust and authority. None of these are given by a person or content collection to themselves.

Serendipity means the ability to deliver relevant information or expertise even when it was not directly sought. This is the only systemic, organizational and technological feature of the new SEO and new collaboration. It is the ability to discover inferential linkages to information and expertise that are not direct matches. Elsewhere, I have called this accidental collaboration. The future of collaboration, like the new SEO, relies heavily on the ability to discover and tap into information and expertise that is similar but not the same as what is asked for.

What About Technology?

It should be clear by now that the future of collaboration is less about the technology or the latest "real time" feature. At best, tech can deliver incremental improvements on serendipitous delivery or discovery of content and expertise. But technology companies that focus mainly on the system are missing the bulk of what makes collaboration successful: the willing and excited exchange of information and expertise.

The real question for the future of collaboration is what are you going to offer that others are willing to trade their time, recommendations, insight and added wisdom for?

Once organizations start realizing that they have to move from an authoritarian to a commercial posture where they offer and invite participation rather than mandate and compel it, they will expose the need to have content and expertise that is recognized as valuable to the intended collaboration partners.

This should have many organizations running scared. The expectation of collaboration has just shifted to an invitation for participation. The invitation must be interesting and worthwhile if the guests are going to attend.

How to Prepare

Here are three ways you can prepare for the new collaboration:

1. Develop an Organizational Emotional IQ

This helps establish trust. You have to take the time to get to know them, their needs, their areas of unique expertise, their availability, their competing interests and obligations. Get to know what the people you invite to collaborate want. People will trust that you’re not wasting their time and that their engagement and evangelism for the project will benefit them as well.

2. Consistently Recognize and Reward Achievement

This helps benchmark authority and reputation. Protect expertise and insight from frivolous requests, associations and projects as this is a net detractor from authority and reputation. It is as damaging to content as it is to people. Gamification, leaderboards, loyalty programs work well for people. Ratings, reviews and active promotion of great content works well for information assets. But even if your content and collaboration system has these features baked in (many do) make sure they're used and consistently so. Make it worthwhile for users to take the extra time to rate and review and reuse information.

3. Make it Worthwhile

Put into place or improve current systems that automatically tally and promote the results of use.  Make it worthwhile for people to bother. Do this by building up the organizational muscles described above. But don’t overcomplicate systems with extra features. No matter how sophisticated your system is, there is a hard inverse proportion between use and perceived complexity. Remember, you’re engaged in an exchange with your users. Their goal is not to use your expensive collaboration, enterprise CMS or portal. Their goal is to participate meaningfully in their projects. Your expensive system is background.

The worlds of SEO and collaboration are emerging in parallel into a new era of value-driven engagement and voluntary convivial exchange. The old brute force models that compelled high SEO ranks or team collaboration are insufficient to deliver meaningful results. By watching how the SEO leaders are driving into new realms of meaningfulness, we can see a clear pathway ahead for the future of collaboration.