‘Collaboration’ is being used pretty loosely these days and often in the same breath as enterprise 2.0. But, simply because people work together to meet objectives and reach goals, doesn’t mean they are collaborating. Other ‘c’ words like communicating, co-operating or co-ordinating may be more appropriate descriptions of what is actually taking place.
By recognising the nature of the interactions, we can better understand the restrictions of, and relationship between, the associated behaviours. We can then focus more sharply on initiatives which (i) improve controls and efficiency, or (ii) add value through creativity and innovation, or more ambitiously (iii) both! In terms of technology, that aids in the design and implementation of appropriate spaces for people to work in, equipped with the right tools to facilitate the capture, exchange and creation of information and expertise.
In his article “Collaboration vs C-Three (Cooperation, Coordination, and Communication)“, Leo Denise (1999) distinguished between those terms as follows (and to which I have added a few thoughts):
- ‘Communication’ refers to how people understand each other and how information (including prospects, rumors, feelings and failures) is transferred. Often the problem of communication is thought to be solved with more newsletters, memos and meetings – which often serve only to waste more time by circulating floods of irrelevant generic news and distracting people from the critical activity of listening. Now there’s nothing wrong with noise, provided the means are available to filter the things worth listening to, and then something constructive can be done with the filtered information.
- ‘Coordination’ is about efficiency and making sure people know when and how to act. Because of natural overlaps in organisations, it is important for people to have visibility of what others are doing to avoid redundancy or inconsistency. Whilst coordination tries to get people pulling together, the effort must nevertheless be directed towards a desired goal.
- ‘Cooperation’ is a factor in moving in a unified direction, but highest value doesn’t derive from group think and continually following established norms. Consequently, it needs to be balanced with diversity, and the spark of creativity which comes from ideas, dissent and debate.
- Whilst the above ‘C’s tend towards controlling and centralising efforts, ‘collaboration’ is about creation and is the driver of innovation. It involves bringing people together to achieve a goal which cannot be achieved by applying more effort to the other ‘C’s. ‘Collaboration’ thrives on difference, insight and spontaneity, rather than structural harmony. As such, it requires a shared space, time and environment to allow people to devise the solution to meet the goal.
Conventional enterprise technology that accelerated people’s productive 10 years ago no longer has the same impact, and in fact is counter-productive for many workers in today’s global, information overloaded environment. The classic example here is the systemic overuse of email as the means to facilitate each of the ‘C’s. Whilst email doesn’t necessarily need to be replaced, it does need to be put in its place. And with the range of social tools presently available, companies’ competitiveness will depend on identifying and adopting those tools which best suit their work processes. In fact, when integrated in a platform, social tools can facilitate new models of interaction, co-creation, collective intelligence, networking and user participation, whilst supplementing traditional face-to-face, telephone and email communications.
This is precisely what Gary Curtis of Accenture was reporting in yesterday’s Financial Times (5 November 2008):
“At Proctor & Gamble … an internal social network modeled closely on YouTube is proving effective for communicating complex programme initiatives and for better connecting large, geographically dispersed teams. … Other consumer-oriented [social tools] are proving equally beneficial in enterprises. Members of a team at a multinational had been sending as many as 150 emails a day discussing their project while never being certain of involving the right people. When they moved the discussion to a blog, their email boxes emptied, and the key team members joined in as needed.”
These examples illustrate how efficiencies can arise from facilitating better communications and coordination of efforts. We are also seeing improvements to these ‘c’s through the use of personal dashboards. They are ideal for allowing people to easily add content, and organise their feeds and information widgets. As a result, people have precisely the information they want, in the manner they want to receive it, which helps increase their productivity and connections. And because people’s activities and interaction with content are aggregated, everyone has a clear up-to-date picture of each other’s work, status, interests, favourites and connections with other people in the firm.
Enabling people to interact with information and each other in this way has a dramatic (measurable) effect on people’s productivity, by reducing the amount of time spent looking for information and expertise, or re-doing work completed in another business unit. It also means that people send and receive fewer emails and instead get more precise requests for assistance.
We have also seen how teams are better able to co-ordinate their resources through group spaces (e.g. in wikis) and online discussions (e.g. in group blogs). Those tools give people visibility of a range of information, including recent or important projects, actions, discussions, comments, news and events, and ensure people know who’s working on what. With greater delivery of information, and its filtering using tags and ratings, the immense flow of information which now inundates people can instead be tailored to their needs, put into context (e.g. of a project, client matter, pitch or operation issue), and made more relevant to daily work.
Instead of broadcasting information in mono-directional newsletters, people can engage in discussions. And through those discussion, views can be debated, actions negotiated and common goals established. But that requires the creation of spaces where people feel confident about participating and that it is worthwhile to do so. In other words, to ‘get with the group’ there needs to be a culture which accepts that people don’t necessarily add value by contributing non-contentious thoughts. Consequently, ‘cooperation’ in the enterprise 2.0 sense provides the space and leadership to cope with challenges to existing norms, processes and assumptions.
Improvements to each of the above ‘c’s sets the stage for a culture and organisational structure conducive to creative and collaborative work practices. Practices that thrive on spontaneity and interaction, and result in the types of innovative products and processes which give a company its edge. Practices that are so well supported by new social technologies, such as facilitating social connections between employees split by geographical and organisational distance, increasing people’s peripheral vision and thereby enabling them to stay up-to-date with and share information, ideas and expertise, and ensuring they can easily create communities of practice built up around conversations and common interests revealed through on and off line activity.
Therefore, providing workers with more flexibility in how they communicate with each other, and customers, can result in new forms of cooperative action, more fruitful collaboration, faster decision-making, and greater productivity. And whilst its a question of ‘when’ rather than ‘if’ companies introduce social tools, having a clear view of the driver for their introduction (i.e. tending towards efficiency or value-added/innovation) will ensure the appropriate technologies are implemented and organisational behaviours nutured.