Collaboration is a collective activity (and why you should care)

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The same thing happens in nearly every workplace : a satisfactory level of collaboration and networking has not ben reached despite of the new tools and adoption plans. Of course, things have improved over time but it’s “a little better”, sometimes even “less terrible” but we’re far from the optimum, from the ideal state of collaboration.

Collaboration requires three things : willing, being able to and knowing how to. I’d add a fourth one : having to.

The “will” is not the point of this post. The “being able to” is partly addressed by technology and I won’t elaborate further today. My point today will be about “knowing how to”.

People know how to collaborate but they don’t do it the same way

Knowing how to collaborate requires three things :

– mastery of practices and collaborative behaviors

– mastery of the tools supporting collaboration

– collective mastery of the two previous points

What I’ve often noticed during more then 10 years observing the social collaboration and enterprise social networks field is that the first two points are addressed at the individual user level. One by one, users are being told that it would be good to do things “this way” and that they should use “such tool in such way’ to do so.

It’s somehow logical to start with the individual. In this field, businesses are afraid of pushing a radical change the tough way so they try to seduce, not to impose. So users are being approached individually and each one decides to play the game or not, knowing that they’ll never be forced to. That’s why I think the “having to collaborate” lacks. I would, of course, require mangers to play a major role in the adoption of new collaboration practices. But as managers seem to be a very sensible body, businesses focus on employees. The adoption of collaborative practices by managers as managers remains the bottleneck of collaboration.

However, imagine that 100% of users buy the new way of collaborating (don’t dream…30% is already a high score when it comes to go beyond words and really act), no spectacular result will be achieved.

The sum of individual usages is not a collective usage

As a matter of fact there are as many ways to collaborate as there are people, as many understandings of what it means, ranging from task sharing to full collaboration, including file sharing.

And it’s even worth when tools enter the game. One can subscribe to the big picture without adoption the chosen technology. One can adopt technology…but not the one chosen by the company. And sometimes everybody adopts the chosen technology but each person uses it his own way.

Bottom line : even in case of individual adoption of collaboration by everyone there is no collective adoption, everyone playing with his own rules. Yet, collaboration is a collective game that requires everyone to play with the same rules and master the same technology.

What we can see in practice is an agreement on the usage but not on the technology. “I will share but by email”, “I’ve a simpler solution and it’s free”. And when people agree on the technology, they all have different levels of mastery.

In short you can have 10 people willing to play the collaboration game, if each one plays with his own ball you’ll get 10 soloists. Soloists willing to collaborate, but soloists playing alone.

The problem with collaboration is not how good the best are but how the weakest ones and reluctants are doing. They are the lowest common denominator that will make a group adopt new practices or not because they need to work and move forward together, evenly.

The fewer people, the easier collaboration is

So the conclusion is obvious : the fewer people, the easier it is to find a lowest common denominator on usage and tools and find a way to work that is accepted by everyone and helps the collective to move forward.

That’s the reason why large scale programs work…on a small scale. Tools are deployed widely and, depending on entities and teams, it will be easier or harder to learn to play together. That’s why cross-company use cases are so hard to implement.

Adhoc collaboration is the collaboration that works

That reminds of an interesting debate that raised a couple of months ago : should we keep on investing on large scale task focused collaboration tools or focus on tools with a bigger social potential but working on a small scale. I invite you to read what Stowe Boyd wrote about that. Even if not everybody agreed with him, I think the matter is worth being investigated.

But this point also raises a governance issue : what works is hyper local with – history repeats – employee-pushed technologies while businesses are deploying a single coherent  technology on a large scale. What’s the right solution ?

In my opinion, both must work together. There’s a need for tools with a high social potential on a small scale and more structuring ones on a large scale. Businesses need both, what allows to cover the entire range of collaboration needs. The question is rather to know if such functionalities will continue to exist in separate solutions or if large ones will, one day, integrate the smaller ones.

A group always adopt the collaboration practices of its least advanced members

Anyway, nothing will change about collaboration without shared practices and an even level of mastery of the technology among the group that needs to collaborate. If not, having 10% of people “out of the game” is enough to put the whole team out the game because the need for a coherent way to operate makes the group adopt the lowest common denominator.

When you lead such a program don’t focus only on individuals but on the groups having to work together and make collective patters emerge. If not, you’ll have nothing but brilliant soloists.

Image Credit : collaboration by  Rawpixel via shutterstock