If you’ve been reading headlines – from the Times to New Years reflections across the blogosphere – there’s a lot of chatter about the value and challenges of ‘the new era of collaboration.’ If you haven’t seen any of this buzz, here’s the bottom line: spend more time working more by yourself, but share more online. Plug those headphones in and you might just be the next great innovator (anyone sensing a reality TV show on innovation in the making?).
This will make sense for people who consider themselves solitary geniuses and will seem anathema to folks who work productively in teams, prefer happy hour and cocktails to uncorking a bottle of red in a cozy couch. But is this new maxim true, a preference, or neither? Not surprisingly the research is mixed.
And when the research is mixed I turn, at least at first, to my observations.
We live in a world of distractions when the “feat” of multi-tasking has been extended to a point where it’s OK to have someone texting and tweeting while you’re talking to them. I’m not OK with it, and it bothered me 10 years ago when folks would plop out their cell phones on restaurant tables as they sat down with friends and colleagues. That’s one trend I would have preferred not to import.
But today people have taken it to the extremes – paying top dollar for web-free vacations, internet “de tox” camps, and applications for your computer that block the web. It’s not too hard to imagine schools introducing an ‘internet curfew’ for the good of its own (or so they would say) or colleges that ‘offered’ dark hours for students to focus on their studies (at a premium rate of course).
It’s not just the personal side of being connected.
Twitter-frenzia has crept into the office. Not only are companies monitoring and using social media for marketing (can’t blame them), but “activity streams” and micro-blogging have found their way into the enterprise. And it’s not new. If anything, when old-school giants like IBM make huge changes to their keystone products to work more like Yammer then it’s definitely not new (and probably here to stay). They’re just starting to get more strategic and purposeful about it.
A slippery slope or a sustainable strategy?
Is there a difference between an over-connected populous and a over-connected company?
When I look at my increasingly irrelevant Yammer feed (no offense… just too many people), I’m sometimes tempted to say no: it was nice while it lasted. On the other hand there is hope.
And as much as I doubted IBM’s ability to “get social”, I’m equally as intrigued by what happens when they bring their analytics weight to process, workflow, expertise, and collaboration. It comes down to a challenge of scale: the good stuff is here for those that can pay. The lower class will have to settle for Facebook-like tools that can be more distraction than value drivers. And that’s frustrating, even more so because it seemed like the consumerization of IT was helping to level the playing field.
The difficulty lies in balancing individual creativity and focus with two competing trends: over-collaboration and over-sharing.
If you spend more than half your day in meetings, you know exactly what this looks like. It’s not just that decisions are made in groups, but that every decision is made after a half hour of sharing. It leads to weak delegation and management, and often slows progress of the whole. If you wonder why firms everywhere are looking for people with proven management skills it’s this: they’re rightfully suspicious of overly-collective leadership and want people who can get the job done and get others to do it too.
Here’s a simple test of whether you’re headed in this direction: do you send your boss and peers a very rough first draft of a proposal or white paper, or do you try to polish it and then send it along?
If you’re in group one, check yourself. I recently found myself moving precipitously in this direction and was able to turn myself around by focusing on doing a lot of external research and playing devil’s advocate (explicitly) with my own work before presenting with even my peer group. It took us from a place of discussion to decision significantly faster than we had in past projects.
The bottom line here is leverage collaborative technology to a) make it easier to share, and b) find insights from others before bringing something to the table. Show you’ve done your homework and everyone will like you just a bit better, even if you’re wrong.
The extension of over-collaboration is over-sharing. This wasn’t just a product of Millennials entering the workforce. We all know a Doe at work who likes to tell everyone about the zillions of projects they’re working on and what they ate for breakfast. Technology just made it easier for them, and then got everyone else caught up in the affair.
The issue with the sharing phenomenon is that just the right amount can lead to a tremendous amount of benefit for an organization, but skew too far in one direction or another and you either end up more awkward than a 7th grade dance or end up working your way through Times Square on New Years.
So what does good sharing look like? Pretty simple actually: a combination of frictionless tools matched by strong community management.
The beauty of frictionless sharing is that it levels the playing field. The danger of frictionless sharing is that without a strong analytics backbone you end up with even more junk that no one wants to know. SalesForce figured this out – and it’s what separates Chatter from other activity streams and newsfeeds. I don’t care who recently followed whom – I care about changes someone made to a person record I’m watching, or a major update in a doc library I’ve contributed to. I expect we’ll see more of this, and IBM’s Connections Next is a strong contender.
What took so long?
I’m fortunate to be close (relatives, actually) with the folks that built SupportCentral at GE into what is, and was, basically the best-in-breed online knowledge management/collaboration tool in the industry. They were doing what people now consider novel back in 2000.
So, what took so long? What are your theories?