The commonest error in plans to develop social collaboration in an organisation is the most obvious error. Too many plans aren’t focused on the work. You don’t have a strategy for realising the value of collaboration in your organisation if it doesn’t focus on the work of your organisation.
Early Friday morning last week was the #ESNChat tweet chat. Rita Zonius and Dion Hinchcliffe were discussing a question about the plans for developing ESNs. Dion reiterated an important point – adoption or other abstract goals don’t matter. Your business is in business and needs your employees doing something meaningful.
One Success Measure
The only measure of success that really matters to your business is the value that you create in your social collaboration. Value doesn’t have to be measured wholly in monetary terms but for a great majority of businesses value will have clear measures and commonly direct financial elements. Value creation, broadly defined, is what separates successful businesses from the pack.
Your organisation exists to fulfil some purpose. The strategy that is in place in your organisation sets out how you will maximise the value of the work to realise that purpose. If social collaboration in your organisation is not directly connected to this strategy and the value to be created for purpose, then everyone in your organisation has the right, and the obligation, to (a) question why it matters and (b) ignore it.
Measuring value in collaboration is hard. This challenge is greater when organisations are often sceptical of new ways or working or chains of benefits. Usually the benefit realisation happens away from the platform and is measurable only in other systems. Many proponents of social collaboration choose to ignore the hard to measure benefits and focus on easier to track goals, like adoption, satisfaction, sentiment, engagement or measures created specifically for the organisation’s collaboration plan. The danger of failing to align the measures of social collaboration to the measures of the meaningful work of the organisation is the danger of irrelevance.
The most damning criticism of many social collaboration networks showing high degrees of adoption and engagement is that they are a “parallel universe” to the real organisation and its interactions. In this parallel universe, the hierarchy is levelled, leaders are proactively engaging people in conversation, employees are empowered to speak up and discuss their whole lives and great strides are being made in engaging employees and advocating for social issues. In the office, not so much.
In this scenario, the lack of accountability for real work outcomes has allowed the collaboration network to drift into play-acting an ideal organisation. Without real work there are no hard decisions and no ugly compromises. Without real work, it is easier for everyone to get along. You only need a little bit of fantasy to undermine the interactions of an entire network.
When a collaboration network is focused on supporting the real work interactions that network is bound to what goes on across the organisation. There is a greater chance that the discussions in the network will reflect the issues, the challenges and the interactions that happen in the corridors of the conversation, for good and for bad. Getting tough work challenges into a collaboration network, as ugly as they may be, enables the network to help address and improve them.
Many organisations like the idea of a utopian network that shows them their better side. Role modelling is a valuable purpose. However, role modelling only works when the interactions are real. The network can only contribute to making those interactions better, if the work is being done in some way across the network. Without the work, there can be no greater value.
A better network for social collaboration does the hard work to fulfil the organisation’s strategy. You don’t have a strategy for your social collaboration if you don’t have that work and aren’t measuring its value.
Effective collaboration in your organisation depends on trust. The best way to build trust in your organisation is through collaborative work.
Trust is a consistent theme of this blog because it is fundamental to effective performance in organisations and social relationships. However, we mostly take it for granted and organisations often go out of their way to remind employees that they are not trusted and should not place their trust in the organisation.
Trust in the Work
One commenter on my recent post on collaboration and every day work suggested I was missing the need for trust to support collaboration. My response was that trust comes through actions and interactions. Organisations often talk about trust as an abstract and something that can be worked on itself.
The reality of most trust building activities is that they create no trust unless they are connected to the fundamental interactions of the organisation. Trust is a manifestation of the expectations of interactions in the organisation, i.e. culture. Trust is human. All the fancy trust building exercises will fail if people believe the real interactions that support the work will occur differently.
Founding trust in and around the work to be done is important. Collaboration can deliver this new foundation for trust. Transparency helps employees better understand what is going on in the organisation. Networks leverage that transparency to deliver new accountability to help people have confidence in the work of others. Collaboration networks better enable employees to judge the intentions and capability of others based on the past performance in public interactions with others. Each of these interactions fosters a better level of understanding of the potential for trust.
Most importantly of all, collaboration networks can increase the interactions and the experience of generosity between employees. We all find it hard to trust strangers. Sharing a social network enables people to develop a deeper understanding of all of their peers not just those in their own teams.
Organisations that want to increase the level of trust between employees can benefit from focus on encouraging employees to work out loud and seeking opportunities for collaboration in their everyday work.
Get Out of the Way
Organisations also need to take care that they send signals that reinforce the value of collaboration and trust in every day work. Treat collaboration as inherently risky and you will discourage your employees from participating, trusting their colleagues and trusting the organisation.
When collaboration technology enables new interactions in an organisation, it can be easy to identify all the new risks that can be created. The traditional corporate approach to risk is risk elimination. Why not turn off the solution or the feature that creates the risk so that there’s no exposure to one poor decision by an employee. However, to avoid a rare event, this approach either excludes collaboration opportunities from the organisation or signals to employees that they cannot be trusted.
A better management of those risks is to place accountability on employees to manage the risks, both for themselves and others. That is a signal of trust in your employees and your willingness to make them responsible for a better workplace. That’s usually how you manage those risks outside collaboration technology where you have less control over what employees say and do anyway. Treating collaboration technology as specially unsafe is a bad signal for trust and ignores the opportunity to teach employees to the benefit of all the work.
This last point is significant. Trust, collaboration, agency and agility that you grow in your collaboration platform doesn’t stay there. Each of these capabilities are based in our human characteristics and follow wherever your employees go. They spread through the whole organisation. Manage trust well in the collaboration of every day work and the whole organisation will benefit.
Yesterday I saw a list of all the reasons why people don’t use social technology to collaborate in their work. You know the kind of list: fears, habits, lack of understanding, lack of leadership, etc. I have to admit I sometimes tire of the focus on the negatives, especially as a sales pitch for consulting work. My response was to point out to the author that at the heart of almost all the points that were raised was a lack of an understanding that collaboration is how work gets done. When we are clear that collaboration is an important part of work then we get over our objections and make it happen. It also opens us up to consider the most effective ways to connect, share, solve and innovate together.
Ain’t Nothing Special
We can easily fall into the trap of selling collaboration technology as special. We’re adding new technology. Magical things will happen. You can have new conversations. You can do new work here. We will achieve all the abstract goals that you have always wanted like engagement, innovation, customer loyalty, productivity, and much much more. As much as we talk about them, these abstract capitalised nouns remain abstract because they aren’t the work most people are doing.
Positioning collaboration technology as different and special runs straight into a priority problem. Where do I get the time to do this new and different thing? How do I even find the time to learn how to do it? With new and different also comes risk. What if I aren’t any good at this new magical and different thing?
Positioning collaboration technology as wondrously different also runs into the problem it is not new. This technology has been in use for nearly a decade and stretches back to models of technology that have been around far longer. Why are we talking as if it is special?
What is the Work?
Ask a different question instead. What work in your organisation requires people to collaborate? Focus on the work and not on the technology. Go find all the instances in each of your work processes today where people have to find coworkers to help, share information, share documents, solve problems together and meet and interact around business challenges. That work is going on right now all around you. Start with the collaboration and bring the technology.
When you start with the collaborative work, you are having a different conversation. The work is going on. You don’t need anyone to prioritise their time different. You only need them to consider which way will make their work more effective. How could that collaboration be different if they worked out loud? How might it be easier, faster, better quality or otherwise more effective?
Put the collaborative work of your organisation at the heart of your collaboration technology. Your users probably don’t want anything else there.
Talk is Talk. Work is Value
Because collaboration technology is often owned by support areas, we can see it as a communication technology. We can focus far too much on the new conversations that will come along as the community builds. You do not want to position collaboration technology as a place for chat or social interactions.
The purpose of your organisation is the work that you do. That work involves connecting, sharing, solving problems and making change. Do that work in your collaboration technology. Focus obsessively on creating strategic value by connecting to the collaborative work across the organisation. When you do so, you will surprise the organisation with the value that can be created by working differently. You will also find that most of the barriers disappear as people race to be involved.