Making collaborative work work

Everyone talks about collaboration in the workplace today but what does it really mean? How do you get from here to there? Every snake oil salesman is selling social something: enterprise social; social learning; social CRM; etc. For me it boils down to three principles.

Narration of Work: This means actually talking about what you are doing. It’s making your tacit knowledge (what you feel) more explicit (what you are doing with that knowledge). Narrating your work is a powerful behaviour changer, as anyone who blogs regularly can attest. Of course, I mean personal or professional blogs, not writing articles just to attract eyeballs and increase advertising revenue.

In an organization, narration can take many forms. It could be a regular blog; sharing day-to-day happenings in activity streams; taking pictures and videos; or just having regular discussions. Developing good narration skills, like adding value to information, takes time and practice, so don’t expect overnight miracles.

Narration of work is the first step in becoming a social enterprise.

Transparency: This is an easy concept to understand but much more difficult to implement in the enterprise. It’s switching the default mode to sharing. This can be enabled by social media but note that social media also make the company culture transparent. A dysfunctional company culture does not improve with transparency, it just gets exposed. Here’s an observation from Ross Mayfield, founder of SocialText, in 2007:

But I’ll also make one argument, about how the change in tools may be deterministic for changing culture and about cultural spillover.  Blogs and Wikis are inherently more transparent than email, where 90% of collaboration occurs.  Users are first gaining exposure to these tools as consumers, within consumer culture.  The default in that culture with these tools is transparency and sharing.  Corporate cultures vary. I can say that we see earlier adoption by corporations with healthy cultures and management practices such as 360 degree reviews, and adoption practices matter.  But it should be noted that consumer culture spills over to corporate culture.  And because this culture shift aids practice building, I’d assert that these tools will trend us towards transparency.

Use social media to promote transparency but be ready to deal with the culture that is exposed. Transparency means real knowledge-sharing. The prime benefit cited for social media in the enterprise is increasing the speed of access to knowledge. This is what transparency enables and it’s necessary to implement the third principle.

Shared Power: Jon Husband describes wirearchy as; “a dynamic two-way flow of power and authority based on information, knowledge, trust and credibility, enabled by interconnected people and technology.” This is the desired state, but getting there is difficult. Companies that start with this objective have an advantage over existing hierarchical cultures. Examples of shared-power organizations are growing, but not so much that they are the majority.

Start with narration and move toward transparency, with a longer-term objective of shared power. This third principle is essential for social businesses that derive their value from complex and creative work. In these organizations, the higher value work is at the edges and power has to be pushed out to enable exception-handling, the real work in the connected enterprise.

These three simple principles should be enough guidance. The rest depends on the specific context of each organization and the ability to keep things in perpetual Beta.

“You have to have an idea of what you are going to do, but it should be a vague idea.”  ~ Pablo Picasso

 Thanks to Chris Mackay for the title of this post.

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11 Responses to “Making collaborative work work”

  1. @dan_steer

    Quite some people I know say they don’t understand WHY they would share things.

    I think the idea of narrating your work being basically valuable is great and may encourage them.


    • Harold Jarche

      If you don’t narrate your work then the rest of the organization does not know what you’re doing or cannot help with your current challenges. This may have been acceptable when we all worked in the same room, but few of us do that. By narrating our work, we contribute to organizational knowledge. One never knows what information will be useful, but we won’t have any collective knowledge at all if we don’t narrate our work.

  2. Vaughan Merlyn

    Excellent post, Harold! I love everything you say, but am especially taken with your notion of “Narration of Work.” This is a powerful concept and a new (for me) way to think about collaboration enabled by social tools.

    Perhaps the toughest row to hoe is “Shared Power.” This is not a ‘natural act’ for most of today’s organizational leaders, and therefore is not expected (or trusted?) by organizational members. Today’s common rewards and recognition tend to reward those that hoard rather than share, just as they reward ‘heroics’ that fix problems rather than quality disciples who prevent them.

    • Harold Jarche

      Thanks, Vaughan. That’s why I propose this three-step approach for existing companies. It takes time to change culture but changing daily habits (narration) is a good place to start. My experience is this takes time, measured in months, not weeks. For start-ups, they can embed shared power at the onset, but this is too big of a leap for most organizations.

  3. Mike Baldwin

    Great post Harold, I completely agree with your thesis and further would like to understand why peopl in orgs don’t embrace this. In so many orgs there are abundant tools to help narrate and share. However being truly collaborative and social rarely happens. I suggest the element of fear plays a major part in people’s reticence. The openness of collaborating and being social can lead people’s first thoughts of coping with their vulnerablity. As collaborative leaders we need to help people see the positive stories / narrations that can emerge, or indeed what journey people have been on to manage that vulnerability. We’ve still lots to learn and that excites me.

  4. Robert

    I love reading about positive ways people may work together and all the possible benefits to the enterprise. But here is what I have learned in the trenches. I think there are two kinds of companies today 1) smart companies that leverage the heart, mind and soul of every stakeholder and 2) hierarchical, centralised, and controlling companies. I think the type 2 companies exist where the business model is mature and improvement comes incrementally and it doled out by the senior management team. I think presently the majority of blue chips fall into this category. I think because of the current bonus system, control by the senior management team is entrenched and self perpetuated. In flat organisation structures, there will only be a few people who make it to the senior management team and they are happy to take the ideas of others, but keep the credit for themselves after they put their initials on ideas that has percolated upwards from below. Your article addresses the type 1 companies from my mind map of the business world. I think the these managers I am describing know full well the benefits of collaboration. But they don’t get personally measured or rewarded by traditional metrics (share price, market share, customer satisfaction ratings). So therefore, things like collaboration are labelled a “nice to have” and it never gets properly supported by senior management teams. That is why today we (all of us who want type 1 companies) are still fighting to justify cultures and support systems that collaboration. Please tell me I’m wrong about my mind map model of the business world.

    • Harold Jarche

      In “The Hyper-Social Organization”, the authors ask; “Will traditional hierarchical organizations, with multiple levels of management between the tribes and corporate decision makers, enjoy any sort of advantage in a hyper-social future?”

      I think that’s the BIG question – Can Type 2 companies survive in a network economy? Just because they are the dominant form today does not mean they will be tomorrow.

  5. Brent MacKinnon

    Those three principles bring so many loose strands together for me Harold. When I talk about social media for work and collaboration purpose, I’ve a lot of material to draw on but it’s like loose bits without recognizing the larger context of what’s happening. With those principles, I can start with the larger context and then in-fill with practical hands on experiences or examples.

    Your Pablo Picasso’s quote underscores your post perfectly and has my head spinning. Vagueness is a very useful quality and an important mind set in making collaboration work work.

    Brent MacKinnon

  6. Dave Ferguson

    As I read this, I thought about jobs I’ve had within an organization. Who were the people I valued working with? Those I’d come to know through working on some project together, or those I’d been told were a good resource on topic X or customer Y or activity Z.
    Part of what went into “good resource,” I think, was the ability of these people to make sense for me of something I didn’t understand.
    That’s a pre-social-media version of what you’re talking about. It was slightly easier for me to take advantage of this, because I worked in functions like client training that cut across a lot of organizational silos, and because I usually worked at corporate headquarters, which had the largest concentration of people.
    We’d do periodic departmental meetings and they’d often have a kind of show-and-tell: the guys in the deal-making group (arrange large, specialized contracts) would explain what they were doing, and why, and how it benefitted the business.
    Bad presentations would get lost in the techno weeds. Good ones would have people feeling like them could describe what had gotten done. And over time, in an encouraging environment, presentations got better.
    So just your first principle, narration, makes lots of sense. For many organizations and many people, I think the notion of technology gets in the way; it’s harder for them to see that this is part of the best of what’s always happened, but made potentially far more powerful.

  7. Jon Husband

    @Robert ..

    Please tell me I’m wrong about my mind map model of the business world.

    Unfortunately (in my opinion) you’re more right than wrong, at least so far. For the “inside-the-enterprise” context, notwithstanding all the buzz about ‘social” and collaboration and so on, the dominant core practice of organizational / work design and the management practices that accompany the results are not going deep enough to materially change the mechanisms that support individual decisions about how and why that individual works.

    Power, status and money are powerful barriers to deep change. In the organizational development and change world, we’ve been talking about empowerment and enlightened leadership for what .. 30 years or more ? Plus ca change, etc.

  8. Mark Britz

    Well crafted & clear post that I will be sharing with internal colleagues Harold. I was particularly caught by “A dysfunctional company culture does not improve with transparency, it just gets exposed.” I completely agree and the leaders who know this, who have these cultures BUT are looking to change must continue down the transformative path and welcome transparency. It will not be easy but there is always pain before the baby is born.


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