What’s wrong with social collaboration ?


Whatever people say in public, there’s something wrong with social collaboration. There are more and more initiatives, these initiatives have an increasing success rate but observers seem to be less and less satisfied. Things could be better, go faster, there’s a lack of concrete results, the matter is not in fashion anymore so that’s not working. Let’s try to understand what’s happening.

Social Collaboration has lost its leadership in the benefit of marketing

Collaboration and collective efficiency have been major and serious matters for decades. Many have theorized and philosophized on the matter and it was for a reason : this is actually a major stake. Logically, every time a revolution happened in technology, organizations tried to make the most of it to improve collaboration. Email, workplaces, knowledge management, forum, social networks… But, while we have moved from the pre-web to the webized company then to enterprise 2.0, social business and digital enterprise, collaboration lost its leadership step by step in the benefit of customer relationship. If enterprise 2.0 was about collaboration, the digital enterprise will be about customer experience and relationship. Collaboration will follow.

However, it does not mean that collaboration has become a minor matter. Not at all. It only found a bigger competitor. Bigger, but not only :

– more impactful : while it’s hard to prove and measure the ROI of collaboration, the ROI of customer acquisition, retention and knowledge are well known.

– more lucrative : customers bring money in, employees take money out. The one is a revenue, the other a cost (at list from a short term perspective).

– more armed : when it comes to arbitration regarding to digital budgets, trying to sell a collaboration project versus a customer relationship focused one is like trying to invade the USA with the Navy of Luxemburg.

– more visible : no need to say why

– less conservative : the mission of the ones is to create opportunities, the other’s is to mitigate the risks. Wonder what side is more open to innovation and risk ?

The technological illusion is killing collaboration

That’s not new but it’s been lasting for so long that it’s becoming really painful. Everybody knows it’s a matter of culture, management and processes but nothing changes. Organizations still want to believe that a technology will help to change people , attitudes, postures, hierarchical and collaborative relationships by pushing a button. In the perspective of collaboration, technology has been deceiving for 20 ans and despite many rebrandings and a little digitization, the state of thinking has made very few progress since Drucker. Bottom line ? The starting point is known, so is the path, now, changes are required. The best technology won’t change anything if no one wants to get his hands dirty and take some risk. As long as these changes do not happen, technology will lead to few benefits and won’t be used because it wouldn’t make sense. That’s not the fault of technology of the fault of people.

Remember when electricity replaced steam in factories. It did not lead to any significant gain in terms of productivity for 10 or 20 years because production lines stayed the same and were optimized for steam energy. Machines were not arranged according to the production process but their energy needs : Since energy was carried mechanically, the more energy the machine needed the closer it was to the generator. It took years to reorganize factories and arrange machines according to the production process and, then only, productivity improved.

That’s the same with collaboration : any highly collaborative technology applied to an organization that isn’t does not lead to any gain. That’s not the technology’s fault neither people’s. As long as the enterprise does not change, social collaboration and enterprise social networks won’t be of any help for employees.

The time of the enterprise is not the web’s

Some also want to go too fast. Deployed and january, fireworks in march. Experience shows change takes year and that the fastest changing organizations rely – even unconsciously – on a fertile ground, a relevant culture. For others it will take 5, 10 or 20 years. Too high expectations leed to huge disappointment but it does not mean that social collaboration does not work. It only mean that people will always be the slow factor in change, most of all when change must be synchronous and collective.

I always keep in mind this words from my friend Jon Husband.

“It takes time for things to happen quickly”

It’s important that businesses pay more attention to the “time factor” to set reasonable expectations and size their effort accordingly.

Collaboration and employees : a “figure it yourself” process

“I want you to collaborate and share more”. Even if it’s never stated this way, businesses are never that far from such exhortations. From an employee perspective, the impact is terrible. Collaborate ? Why ? When ? How ? Collaboration for the sake of collaboration and sharing for the sake of sharing makes no sense if they don’t know what it clearly means in their day to day activities. That’s the main point of friction : social collaboration is explained in a too generic way, with not enough granularity. Even worse, since few organizations want to change processes and routines in an official way, they prefer to leave employees alone and see what happens, what changes by itself.

As Dion Hinchcliffe said :


Ironically, given that the workforce is the single biggest investment that most companies make, actual investment in collaboration tools remains as spotty as ever, with companies often spending millions on document management and unified communication on one hand, while frequently investing in a much more limited way in file sync/sharing or enterprise social networks. Even more challenging, collaboration is still considered a “figure it out yourself” process in most organizations, with limited planning and little training in either better ways of collaborating or education on the technologies themselves.

Collaboration needs a purpose

So, I said that customer relationship and experience were taking the lead. But internal collaboration and customer relationship are the two sides of a single things. The more visible the impact of collaboration is the easier it is to make it happen and involve leaders. Is there any impact more visible than on the customer, the revenue, operations ? But it requires that internal and external facing projects are run jointly, in a coherent way, what is fare from being the case today. When a social collaboration project is run without any clear relationship with the customer is often fails. And when a customer relationship is run…the employees in charge of delivering the promise are often overlooked too.

The human factor and its awkwardness

The force of any business lies in its employees and that’s what collaboration matters. But people are factors of variability, inconstancy, complications and, then, are one of the biggest hurdles on the way to the collaborative organization. Enough to move away from social collaboration initiatives waiting for robots, intelligent agents to fix human collaboration and help to move beyond the lack of engagement and willingness ? I won’t go that far – at least for now –¬† but I’m sure some will.

Since making people share information is not easy why not having machines doing that on their behalf ? Since an information is available somewhere in a digital format, it can be found, processed, shared by a robot, no matter the owner of the information want to share it or not. Generally speaking, we already know that a large part of activities we’d like to be more collaborative like discovery and preparation to decision machine will soon be be handled by robots, that these robots will help managers to make better decisions. Nonsense ? It already seems that humans prefer to be managed by robots and work with them rather than with human peers.

We must be very cautious with such opportunities but I have no doubt that prospectivists are already wondering if human collaboration is the Grail and if there’s not something better to do.

Politics always lose against economy

So, let’s talk about people. The needed internal changes are so big that they cause fears related to loss of control, status and question the way everyone has been doing his job for decades. It recently made one of my interlocutors say “regarding to collaboration, everything has been theorized over the last 50 years but very little has done…the discourse stays the same, technology improves but nothing actually changes“. Is it enough to explain why the focus is shifting ? Because, on the “other side”, transforming the customer relationship may be quite painful too.

He continued¬† : “yes but on the one hand you have an unclear ROI, on the other you have the company’s revenue. Nothing to add”. Political games and fears turned internal transformation into passionate but theoretical talks while, on the other side, the promise was big enough to allow risk taking, to move from ideas to actions. Collaboration is not less important, is not happening less than before but has lost a lot in terms of relative importance.

What’s wrong with social collaboration is us.

So, what’s wrong with social collaboration ? Nothing. The problem is not social collaboration but us, our expectations and propensity to convince ourselves that technology will do what we don’t have the courage to.

Social collaboration works, at its own pace and according to the many hurdles we put on its way. We only expected it to go too fast, too high, to far without the means and courage it requires. Sometimes it works, sometimes pretty well, sometimes poorly and I bet I will work better and better in the future. But we must learn to be patient or take more risk.

However, that’s not a reason for us to be in denial. While collaboration has prevailed over many matters for long time it has lost its leadership in is, at best, secondary in digital transformation. It will need to fight more than ever to be funded, get the right means and attention. Because of a lack of tangible results, it’s now the wagon looking for a more powerful and meaningful locomotive, the customer relationship one. A locomotive that often thinks that it does not need pull the collaboration wagon. But the truth is that attention has moved. For the better (less expectations, pressure, more time) and the worse (loss of credibility, less priority, less means).

Image credit : Fail via Shutterstock