There are few business decisions more critical than determining how to provide an enabling environment for a workforce to operate efficiently and effectively. Yet the key levers of the modern digital workplace are still relatively unfamiliar to most executives.

Just as challenging is the technology space, which is complex enough -- and certainly fragmented enough -- that most corporate leaders are forced to assume they either have enough enabling collaboration technology already, or that someone, most likely in IT, is already working on an improvement plan.

Unfortunately, having worked with top corporate leaders around the world on collaboration improvement for most of this century, I find that these assumptions aren't usually true. 

Worse, by defaulting the decisions to those who almost certainly don't have as clear a sense of business objectives, this stance ensures collaboration becomes a mostly tactical, and not a strategic activity in the organization.

Yet the imperative remains: All businesses are entities made up of people working together to achieve meaningful shared outcomes. The manner and methods through which they do this is absolutely fundamental to the value an organization creates in the long term for its stakeholders.

This suggests -- and I'd underscore this -- that better empowering our single most expensive investment and valuable asset is now an imperative. Why is this? Recent improvements in digital workplace technology have literally revolutionized what's possible to achieve with workforce collaboration today.

In short, great workforce collaboration has become a major competitive differentiator today.

An Obvious Answer?

In recent years, most of us have witnessed major breakthroughs in collaboration that go well beyond early digital solutions such as email, IM/chat, intranets, unified communications, content management and even workflow. In particular, the most notable advance has been the rise of enterprise social networking, along with its evolution into a strategic management practice known as social business which has arguably become the largest and most significant new model for modern collaboration, though by no means the only one.

For those unaware of the history, social business describes the holistic and dynamic self-organization of the workforce using social tools to rapidly come together as communities -- usually around key business activities -- and create knowledge, enlist open participation, share the results, and do this very quickly by drawing in whomever in the organization -- and beyond -- has a stake in the outcome and is willing to contribute.

Social business methods are also known for their open and transparent nature. In my analysis of many social business case studies as well as in my practice, this can consistently and directly address the many vital challenges of employee engagement today.

Unlike earlier forms of digital engagement, social business scales remarkably well to the size of the largest corporations that exist, and well beyond, as evidenced by crowdsourcing in all its many forms. Moreover, there is now ample evidence from respected sources that social business tools and approaches are substantially more effective in creating real bottom-line value, whether that is productivity, efficiency, innovation, cost reduction or other known benefits.

So clearly, shouldn't social collaboration be the primary way we work today? Well, not exactly. Not for all of us, despite a major increase in deployments of enterprise social networks in just the last 18 months, according to noted digital workplace researcher, Jane McConnell.

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A Long Term Effort

Fortunately, the reasons for this seem fairly straightforward with hindsight. Social business, despite a growing roster of relatively impressive successes, especially in large organizations that rigorously apply technology change, has experienced a couple of steady headwinds over the years.

The first issue is that unlike earlier forms of broad-based digital communications like email, social platforms for the enterprise don't generally talk to each other well, or at all. This has consistently resulted in silos and lost opportunities for engagement as workers find they can't always collaborate with those that they wish to with the social platforms they're given. Workers then fall back to the older tools that work with key constituents, particularly customers and business partners.

This issue has become increasingly manageable however, and more social business platforms are dealing with this fairly well, though there is still considerable work to be done.

The second obstacle has been more daunting. It also reflects the nature of social business itself, which to flourish fully, prefers a corporate culture that inherently values sharing and participation, while also being conducted by workers that possess a relatively mature and enabled set of contemporary collaborative skills that take proper advantage of today's powerful digital workplace toolkits.

This then is the sticking point: The significant effort required to foster new collaborative skills broadly in the workforce while also shifting to a more open culture simply makes social business harder work. It's a longer term effort compared with more basic forms of digital collaboration, even if the latter are often substantially less valuable or strategic to the business.

It's as they say: Nothing good is ever easy.

So in the short term, we've learned that simplicity tends to win when it comes to collaboration. The ease of adoption and ready-for-immediate use nature of today's generation of more team-based collaborative tools like Slack, Lync, Wrike or Chatter -- to name just a few -- make social business look like harder work, which it certainly is. Yet it's a short term view that can put organizations at a real disadvantage.

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There is room for both models to co-exist. I think the scale, connectedness and diversity that social business offers our organizations can create a better workplace in far more than just monetary terms. Social business creates more fully engaged organizations that can create far more value than they could otherwise, in ways much richer and deeper than the old transactional ways of working. For its part, team-based collaboration is useful at the tactical levels of the workforce and has many good use cases (see diagram above).

In the end, however, social business platforms can deliver the same results, and provide the on ramp to much more substantial benefits. In this view, team collaboration and social business overlap well and don't conflict. Reconcile the two models whenever possible.

Ultimately, the very future of business and collaboration, as I observed earlier this year, lies in cultivating and realizing value out of strategic, long-term relationships with people. It's my belief that operating as a social business is actually the inevitable outcome of a pervasively hyperconnected society. In the meantime, it's perfectly all right to use the best tool for the job at hand, as long as it's really the best tool.

Leaders have a choice here, and the smartest organizations -- and the ones that will be the most competitive and sustainable in the long term -- will provide enablement of their workers that allows them to reach their fullest measure of potential.

Creative Commons Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic License Title image by  malias