The Sticking Point with Social Collaboration Tools

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Charlene Li, founder and CEO of Altimeter Group fights the good fight in a recent Harvard Business Review article -- "Why No One Uses the Corporate Social Network" -- but ultimately makes a conclusion that's not supported by her own data.

In a 2014 study, Altimeter found that deployed "social collaboration" tools aren't widely used. (These are often called enterprise social networks, or what I'd rather refer to generically as work media, after social media). The value of any social tool increases in an exponential fashion relative to the number of users. So when few people use a tool, its value is low, and the payoff for joining is low, as well.

Here are Altimeter's research results:

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The Sticking Point with Collaboration Tools

Li goes on to make an argument that doesn't follow from the research findings: she thinks the reason that these tools aren't being adopted generally is because senior leaders don't adopt them. She came to this insight after talking with a Silicon Valley tech firm's leadership team about their faltering work media effort. Apparently only a single leader was a frequent user of the solution. Her conclusion?

"The problem was simple and obvious – because the top executives didn’t see collaboration and engagement as a good use of their time, employees quickly learned that they shouldn’t either."

However, there is a simpler conclusion: leaders and rank-and-file workers may share the same aversion to these solutions. Perhaps they simply don’t help people get their work done, and instead slow everything down.

As I wrote in the first article in this series,

My thesis is this: the Web 2.0 generation of tools were (largely) contrived around an idealized company that may have existed at an earlier time, but certainly doesn’t match today’s work environment. The pace, shape, devices and organization of business today is so different from the pre-2004 era that the principles that drove the design motifs of social collaboration tools are, at the least, dangerously out of date."

It is this evolution in work culture that has created a mismatch in needs between the workforce -- including leaders -- and the tools that ostensibly help get things done.

One factor at the center of this disjunction is communication. And the question is, "how much?"

The unstated premise behind most work media tools is that communication should be maximized. However, too much communication can be as bad as too little.

An Excess of Communication

In a well-known study, Alex Pentland of MIT and some colleagues used trackable badges to capture and analyze the movements of workers in various companies. They knew who all the folks being tracked were, what teams they were in, and where they were while in the office. After some time they analyzed the data, and looked for times when team members were in close proximity with team members -- presumably communicating.

The result was telling: the most productive teams communicated frequently. But the worse performing teams communicated too little or too much, with both extremes representing different sorts of maladaptive team work patterns.

At the end, Pentland and his colleagues could predict the likely success of new projects just by analyzing their teams’ communication patterns, without even knowing what was being said.

So, perhaps our enterprise social networks naturally lead the workforce towards an excess of communication, and as a result, people avoid them. At least those that want to get their work done instead of first line managers trying to find out what work has been done.

However, I agree with the unstated thesis that underlies Li’s focus on leadership: effective work culture for our accelerating digital economy significantly changes the demands on leaders. But the new imperative for leaders goes far beyond acting as role models: instead, leaders need to create a context in which the impediments to operation and cooperation -- such as hypercommunication -- are minimized.

But that topic I will leave for another post.

Title image from  The Library of Congress