The rapid development of new digital communication technology is changing the world as we know it.

It’s changing our society, companies, entire industries. It’s changing the way we think and behave as individuals, consumers and employees.

The fundamental driver is that the cost of communicating has collapsed. Now that we can connect with anyone from anywhere to exchange information, ideas and experience, our attitudes, preferences and behaviors as consumers change fast and unpredictably.

More and more of us want to interact with companies and be served via digital channels.

Collaboration is Key

To deal with the increasing complexity, speed of change and uncertainty, companies must master and excel at collaboration so they can serve their customers better and faster.

Companies that understand consumers and collaboration can turn these insights into innovations and, ultimately, new sources of profit.

But they won’t succeed simply through optimizing their processes and operations.

They need to focus on the collaborative and complex knowledge work that is the essence of the digital workplace today, and they need to empower their employees to do this as well as possible.

But There Are Challenges

The bigger and more dispersed an organization gets, the harder it becomes to know people — and to be able to communicate and collaborate with people in other parts of the enterprise.

This has a negative impact on employee productivity, innovation and agility.

Typical symptoms caused by poor communication and collaboration across teams are sub-optimization, delayed projects, disengaged employees, duplicated work and rework.

Serendipity

Put this in contrast to how things are in a small company, where maybe a few dozen people all work at the same location.

Everybody knows everybody. For people located within sight and hearing distance of each other, it is fairly easy for them to know what their colleagues are doing.

Days are punctuated with serendipitous encounters: A quick chat when you fetch a coffee or a discussion during lunch.

What starts as an informal conversation might evolve into a collaborative effort to solve it. A team is self-mobilized and then dissolved when the problem is solved.

Of course, people can self-mobilize in large and dispersed organizations. But it is much more likely to happen within organizational groups than across groups and locations.

As soon as an idea or problem requires the collaboration of people with different expertise and skill sets or requires people beyond the immediate organizational group, formal processes kick in.

It’s not likely that the team will emerge by itself.

Time Takes Its Toll

In large organizations, there are likely formal processes and systems in place that are designed to put together cross-functional teams.

Or the organization relies on people, such as managers, to recommend candidates.

Either way, the process of forming the team will take time, and it will rely on specific individuals acting as brokers or on systems that aim to streamline the matching process and can only provide results as good as the data that have been entered into them.

These solutions are often blunt and ineffective for finding and mobilizing the best people for a specific task or goal.

It is unlikely that the people involved in the matching process will have enough understanding of the problem or which people have the right skills, knowledge, motivations, social skills and so forth to be best suited to work on the task or goal.

These teams don’t form organically over lunch, and problems don’t get solved the same afternoon.

The Curse of Physical Proximity

Physical proximity still rules despite digital communication and collaboration tools such as email, web meetings, intranets and team collaboration solutions.

Why? Because when we are close we are more likely to have those open, frequent, spontaneous and informal conversations that keep us well informed and enable natural collaboration.

When we aren’t close, the likelihood that such conversations will take place decreases dramatically. This is the curse of physical proximity.

To break the curse, we need to acknowledge the importance of informal team building and collaboration. Then we must make a commitment to extend the power of this collaboration across groups and locations.

Nevertheless, in a large and dispersed organization, most people don't get the chance to develop relationships with people outside their own groups.

Hence their social networks are often limited to people that belong to the same organizational group and to people in their close proximity.

But It’s A Big World

Of course, we can’t all sit next to each other, in the same room or even in the same building.

The number of people involved in many enterprises makes this impossible, and many organizations also need to be present at multiple locations.

The only way for a large and distributed organization to become a bit more like a small company is to create virtual proximity between people with the use of digital communication technology.

Virtual proximity is created when digital communication technologies make it really easy for people to have frequent, rich, spontaneous and informal conversations with each other, no matter where they are physically located.

It makes the perceived distance between people shrink, making it seem that participants are physically close to each other. Organizations need to create a digital work environment where it is as easy for people to digitally communicate, interact and collaborate, as if located in the same room.

Getting Social

Outside the office walls, social media allows us to connect with anyone from anywhere in the world to exchange information, ideas and experiences.

It is now possible to interact and collaborate with people at a greater scale, lower cost and smaller effort than ever.

People from across the world can team up, as author Clay Shirky expressed it, to “collaborate with a birthday party's informality and a multinational's scope”.

Social media hasn’t just shifted the power of communication from the companies and organizations to the consumers. It has also inspired a new way of thinking about information technology and how it can be used at work.

It has inspired us to design information technology to support and leverage collaborative human behaviors and make better use of our collective intellectual and social capital. 

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Creative Commons Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic License  Title image by  Easa Shamih (iZZo) | P.h.o.t.o.g.r.a.p.h.y