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The Why's and the How's of 'Collaborating in a Social Era'

5 minute read
Siobhan Fagan avatar

What does an author who advocates for the power of collaboration do when he publishes a book? He gives part of it away.

And that's what Oscar Berg has done with his first book, “Collaborating in a Social Era,” making most of the graphics included in the book creative commons licensed and downloadable for free. Anyone who is familiar with Berg’s posts, both on his personal blog and on this site, won’t find the move surprising.

As an advocate of the power of serendipity that comes from sharing knowledge and working out loud, Berg walks the talk in his own work.

Getting to the 'Why' and 'How' of Collaboration

“Collaborating in a Social Era” makes a well reasoned argument for the “why” of collaboration and follows up with some models to reach the “how.” Berg explores the forces at play here: the rise of the consumer as a result of social media, the resulting pressure this places on companies to speed the rate of innovation, the dispersal of the workforce which mobile and increased asynchronous communication methods enables. 

So where does collaboration fit into the mix?

Innovation, by its nature, will not be produced through repetitive processes. And non-routine work (a term Berg uses which is, in my opinion, more helpful than knowledge work) requires new sources of information and expertise in order to solve problems and get work done. It is the very unpredictability of the problems being solved that requires people to look outside of their departments for answers, to avoid offering conventional solutions to unconventional situations.

Proximity (or lack therein) comes up a lot throughout the book. Whether this is the literal proximity that an office setting provides, or the proximity — in this case easy access — a department provides, it appears to play a double-edged sword. On the one hand, proximity — in the form of trust, familiarity, spontaneity — enables collaboration, but on the other, only interacting with those you trust and are familiar with creates an echo chamber, which stymies the serendipity which drives innovation.

This is where social technology comes in.

It’s notable that Berg puts off any discussion of technology until halfway through the book, when the specter of email arises. The failure of many social initiatives lies in the rush to technology, purchasing and implementing software without bothering to figure out what problems they are trying to solve:

“At the same time the complexity of our digital work environments is increasing. New tools and features are often deployed without taking the existing portfolio into consideration, and the usability of those tools are often poor. This is the consequence of technology-focus; failing to consider the needs and situations of the users.”

Tying Actions to Results (Sometimes Indirectly)

By avoiding discussions of specific technologies (with the exception of the email bogeyman), Berg puts the onus on companies to tie collaboration specifically to business results, rather than advocating for social for social’s sake.

By setting the grounds where openness and sharing of ideas is favored, organizations can set the stage where they can “make the connection between collaboration and market success.

Berg offers an information manager’s nightmare at one point (although he later softens it), when he discusses the long tail needs of workers and the lack of predictability for when information might be of use. In light of this, Berg advocates for retention of all information, though he later admits that a fair amount of information in organizations only adds to the noise — “duplicated, incorrect and irrelevant information that is not traceable to any creator or owner and therefore cannot be trusted.

Learning Opportunities

The book’s strength lies in that it moves past the theory and explores collaboration in practice. Berg offers several models and frameworks, with clear explanations of each, for managers to use — the Knowledge Work Capabilities Framework, the Collaboration Pyramid, the Five Principles of Collaborative Communication, etc.

The tip of the iceberg work that tops the collaboration pyramid is what most businesses see and think of as collaboration — the work and byproducts of team collaboration.

But Berg makes a strong argument for the many elements that feed the final result which exist below the surface — the social collaboration. For anyone looking for an explanation why enabling activities that do not appear to be directly related to a work product (e.g., sharing what you’re reading, checking in, the equivalent of water cooler talk), here it is.

Oscar Berg's Collaboration Pyramid

Image by Oscar Berg, CC BY 2.0

I would have liked to have seen more on how to organize and mobilize cross-departmental and non-collocated teams and how to retain this spirit of agility in an organization.

And in light of the move by some vendors to build push capabilities in the software, where the system provides the information it anticipates workers needing, I wonder what happens with the serendipity that Berg seeks in social interactions. Will these tools create new forms of echo chambers? Being left wanting more from an author, however, is not the worst state to be in.

For a business struggling with a failed or failing social initiative (perhaps due to a lack of grounding in the work at hand), or for managers looking to immerse themselves in the theory and practice of workplace collaboration, “Collaborating in a Social Era” will provide the a,b,c’s and tools to get you started. It's available for purchase as an e-book and print.

Title image by David Marcu.

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