The collaborative enterprise: an unstable state of human relationships

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“It’s not making any progress. “We’ve been hearing the same things for 7 years”. “People are getting depressed”. “Nothing new”.¬† That’s what we can hear more and more often about the new models of enterprise, social, collaborative, even digital, showing how much some players and observers are getting disappointed.

What looks like a biased perception. Just to mention the latest Enterprise 2.0 Summit, the latest major industry event I attended, we can see that the number of successful initiatives is increasing, that more new and various cases can be found every year and that there are even cases of radical enterprise transformation like Poult, the most accomplished case of enterprise reinvention I’ve seen in France these last years.

Nevertheless it seems we’re bumping into a glass ceiling. What most observers is a major transformation of the model, not the use of new technologies to things nearly the same way they’ve been done for decades. From this perspective Poult was the tree hiding the forest and is a case apart : it’s a structural transformation with a new organisation, a new management model facilitated by technology but not caused by it, as too many still expect to happen.

The collaborative enterprise works but in a too erratic way according to our criteria

What observers also expect is something global and perennial whereas most of what they see looks too local, confined in some specific areas, specific to some activities and fragile over time.

The problem is that what’s expected is something perennial and even. Either things work every time in a given manner or things don’t work. That’s what makes it hard to move a reassuring world of even inappropriate and dysfunctional process to an adhoc, adaptive and flexible one. The point is that the enterprise as it’s dreamt and even idealized by some, made of transparency, of full and perfect collaboration, creativity, initiatives, autonomy, resilience does not meet these requirements : it’s the result of a deeply unstable state of human relationship that prevents its from getting the “global, even¬† and perennial” label.

Why an unstable state of human relationships ? Because, of course, because such an organization requires a high level of trust to work. Trust in others, in the organization, self-confidence. Then because it’s a the mercy of the least snag. A single person not playing the game with the same rules may infect the whole system. If two people are not hitting it off, the whole is at risk. And the causes that lead to such issues are numerous. As I read in this article [fr]

“It is not possible to deal with cooperation and knowledge sharing issues while overlooking the psychological and affective side of business relationships. In other words, knowledge is tightly linked to people, the way they represent things, their desires and taboos”.

Collaboration : an unstable and temporary state

Everything is said. The so-called ideal enterprise, when it works, is in a rare, temporary and instable state of human relationships that can disappear in a second. That’s also why it does not work uniformly across the organization. We can’t say it’s not working but it does not have the uniform et perennial nature we usually associate with an organization that works right.

How to fix this ?

A first piece of answer is to change approaches and mindset to understand once for all that lack of uniformity does not mean it’s not working. Stop reassuring ourselves by making the ability to control how the system works prevail over the actual quality of its outputs. Consider that like the environment, markets and society it operates in, any enterprise should be unstable by nature.

That said, we should aim at stabilizing the system as much as possible. Make it be in equilibrium as often as possible, as long as possible. There are two areas to work on : limit the deviations and stenghten the model.

Limit the deviations and strengthen engagement

Limit the deviations means making everyone head in the same direction, even imperfectly. That’s the way to deal with lack of uniformity issues. It’s a matter of structure and context of work. As Lee Bryant wrote after the Enterprise 2.0 Summit, social technologies struggle to deliver the expected benefits within current structures and culture. Rather, knowing that technology is nothing more than an inert tool that people and group bring make live, I’d say “struggle to be appropriately used regarding to the pursued goal”. Once again, people’s postures, behaviors and actions are the consequence of implicit and explicit rules that encompass culture, processes, job descriptions, evaluations etc.

Strengthening the model means making people involve themselves without restraint. It’s a matter of culture, trust and engagement. We should be very careful with engagement, which is about become the buzzword of the year, and avoid corrupting it if we don’t want to throw the baby out with the bath water. First there are two lines of engagement : towards the enterprise and towards the model. Not being engaged regarding to both won’t make things sustainable. Then there’s this common mistake made by businesses that think that engagement is an employee issue that only results from their will. “Employees must engage”. “We want you to be engaged”. Engagement is a matter of reciprocity and a management concern for businesses that need to become engaging. Holding employees responsible of the poor understanding organizations have of their needs is a too common mistake.

In the collaborative enterprise the matter is the enterprise, not collaboration

In short, the collaborative enterprise works but in a tool erratic way to conclude that a perennial and effective model has emerged. But contrary to a common misunderstanding, what needs to be fixed is not collaboration, it’s the enterprise.