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Rob Preston
Rob Preston
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Social Collaboration: A Work In Progress

Improving collaboration continues to top executive priority lists, so let's revisit whether they're "teasing out" the right tools and techniques.

It's been almost two years since I wrote a column titled "Down To Business: Why Some People 'Dread' Collaboration," in which I cited a body of research that showed unsatisfactory user experiences with social networking and other Enterprise 2.0 technologies. The Corporate Executive Board's Shvetank Shah weighed in that part of the challenge in fostering collaboration is for organizations to acquire a better understanding of users' workflows and the outcomes they want to achieve and then "tease out" the appropriate technologies, rather than just thrust collaboration platforms upon them.

Improving collaboration continues to land on the strategic priority lists of CIOs and other company executives--39% of executives in our Global CIO survey said they plan a major technology implementation in this area this year, making it No. 1 among 14 projects. So it's worth revisiting whether they and their organizations are in fact teasing out the right tools and techniques.

The short answer is that no one's got enterprise collaboration all figured out yet, owing to the dizzying array of platforms (SharePoint, Google Sites, Drupal, Yammer, LotusLive, Chatter, Jive, Cisco Quad), various Web and video conferencing systems, and of course the legacy email, IM, and other platforms. Add to that the varying personal, cultural, and some even say generational preferences. And I think we still do too much thrusting and not enough teasing out.

[ Does social business translate into better business? Read more at How To Design A Social Business. ]

In an October 2011 InformationWeek survey that asked about enterprise use of social collaboration tools, 53% of the 452 IT pros who responded reported heavy or moderate use of online company directories (including those with profiles and photos) at their companies; 38% reported heavy or moderate use of team or company wikis; 30% of company discussion forums; and 28% of internal blogs. Those findings were little changed from a year earlier. But only 38% of the survey respondents characterized the overall success of their social collaboration tools as great or good. The rest rated them average (37%), fair (15%), or poor (10%).

The findings of a more recent survey, which we conducted in April, were more upbeat: 51% of the 405 respondents said they were either satisfied (41%) or very satisfied (10%) with their companies' social networking software. Only 32% were somewhat satisfied and 5% were unsatisfied. (The other 12% were still evaluating such software.)

So it appears that users are becoming more comfortable with their companies' social collaboration efforts. But pockets of discontent remain, our extensive reporting and research find. For some perspective, let's step back a bit.

In a thought-provoking blog post several years ago, current BrainYard columnist Venkatesh Rao made the case that the enterprise collaboration movement had lapsed into something of a "generational war" between advocates of social media tools and advocates of more structured knowledge management tools. Rao used as an example a tussle he had on a conference panel session with a middle-aged "architect of a major, moderately successful, stable, and decade-old KM effort."

"Where he advocated planning, I advocated ad hoc experimentation," Rao wrote. "Where he advocated charters to declare expected value, I advocated a 'you'll-know-it-when-you-see-it' approach to discovering value. Where he talked about convincing [subject matter experts], I argued that you should just watch for opinion leaders to emerge."

While Rao admitted to "setting the cat among the pigeons," his "us vs. them" POV is still common among social networking/Enterprise 2.0 advocates (even if you don't hear much about knowledge management these days). Long after I wrote the "Dread" column, in which I not only cited research but also related my personal frustrations with my company's wiki, I stumbled upon a series of rebuttals to my column--posted on the very same wiki by our community manager and a few of his fellow E2.0 professionals--in which I was portrayed as the stodgy traditionalist. (I chanced upon that thread while searching for something else; no one had offered me the opportunity to collaborate with the rebutallists.)

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They made some valid points, the simplest of which is that you can't please everyone. Perhaps I pined for a "drop-in replacement" for my existing collaboration tools (mostly email and IM), rather than accept something truly new and different and more effective, one commenter suggested.

One respondent to our recent Enterprise Social Networking Vendor Evaluation Survey agreed: "The most challenging aspect of social networking for the enterprise is understanding the technology as it pertains to optimizing existing workflows. We tend to try to adapt social software to meet our (outdated) business processes, instead of seeing 'how things could/should be' and adjusting processes to take advantage of technology."

Fair enough. I'm never the first to embrace the latest technologies and approaches, but like most other professionals, I generally do get on board as a fairly fast follower once I see the utility. And I'm still not completely sold on enterprise social collaboration, at least my company's brand. My original point wasn't and isn't that our company wiki (based on Jive software and recently upgraded and renamed The Hub) is a poor platform for employee collaboration. It's a good one. At its best, it's a dynamic forum for discussing industry trends, business opportunities, ongoing programs, customer wins, product improvements, operational best practices, and myriad other issues.

And then there's The Hub's uber-benefit of driving enterprise-wide collaboration--breaking down departmental silos and promoting knowledge sharing among people who wouldn't otherwise interact with one another. My editorial colleagues and I have been exposed to some new people and fresh thinking on The Hub, even if we're not the most engaged participants.

For example, a month-old thread on The Hub about mobile applications lets participants see what's happening in other departments, ask pointed questions, grab ideas, and even change direction. In a global company such as ours, there's no way this collaboration would happen so organically otherwise.

At its worst, however, social collaboration can devolve into minutia. Too many cheerleaders aspiring to "guru" or "wizard" status. Too many congratulatory wishes, affirmations, and platitudes, all generating their own inbox-clogging email alerts (which users can turn off, but then they're pretty much out of the loop). A respondent to our recent Enterprise Social Networking Survey put it this way: "Social networking may work well, but not if it degenerates to the low density and high volume that email has."

Amen, brotha.

Meantime, the blunt conversations so important to doing business in real time get moved to email or IM or over the phone or in person. That's fine, as long as we all understand what enterprise social collaboration platforms do well (knowledge sharing, project management, team building, morale boosting) and how they can become a distraction (see previous paragraph). No single wiki, hub, portal, or forum can serve every corporate purpose. It's why unified communications is gaining so much momentum.

It's also the reason non-sanctioned social media platforms such as Yammer are so popular: They're off the corporate grid. Users feel free to speak their minds and get down to solving pressing problems without fear of a political backlash. Zoho, an Indian software-as-a-service provider, told me a few weeks ago about social freeware it has in beta called IT Pulse, specifically for IT organization collaboration, emphasizing that IT pros will have discussions on its platform they wouldn't feel comfortable having with the rest of the company.

One problem is that most CIOs don't want to support multiple collaboration platforms. And then there are those internal silos companies are looking to break down rather than erect. I'm not convinced there's much of a generational gap when it comes to embracing E2.0 tools. If some people do indeed "dread" modern-day collaboration, it isn't a Baby Boomer vs. Gen X or Gen Y thing, a type A vs. type B thing, or an extravert vs. introvert thing. It's a human thing. People are different; they collaborate differently.

Fostering social collaboration requires companies to constantly seek user feedback (my company recently conducted a survey of all employees). Which features are the most productive? For which kinds of work and communications is the platform most effective? Conversely, how is it being misused? What rules of engagement, if any, would users recommend?

The main job of the platform's steward, whether it's an IT director, community manager, or some other professional, isn't to be its promoter, though that comes with the turf. It's to plug in to user sentiments, positive and negative, and evolve the software and usage practices accordingly. Meantime, don't dismiss everyone who initially resists enterprise social collaboration as an outlier, Luddite, or malcontent. (I swear: I'm not.)

The Enterprise 2.0 Conference brings together industry thought leaders to explore the latest innovations in enterprise social software, analytics, and big data tools and technologies. Learn how your business can harness these tools to improve internal business processes and create operational efficiencies. It happens in Boston, June 18-21. Register today!

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