The Selfish Community

Social Collaboration

Like many I have found the power of social collaboration on projects such as Linux, Wikipedia and many others awe inspiring. As described by Clay Shirky in “Here Comes Everybody” modern technology has taken away the friction from connecting with people, based on a common interest, and working toward a common goal. Creating communities and groups has never been easier, publishing information and thoughts is as simple as pushing a button.

Social in the Enterprise

But in recent years the focus, for many of us, has been on how we can apply these models  in the enterprise. How can we harness the seemingly awesome power of the social community to improve the way our businesses work? McKinsey report that:

by fully implementing social technologies, companies have an opportunity to raise the productivity of interaction workers—high-skill knowledge workers, including managers and professionals—by 20 to 25 percent.

So far social networking has been most effective, and to some destructive, in the marketing space. Social savvy marketers have used these networks to raise awareness and drive traffic. At the same time many businesses have stood by powerless to influence these social networks one way or the other.

But what about the promise of self organizing groups within the enterprise? Getting work done more efficiently, providing value and adding new intellectual property where it hadn’t previously existed? This should be easy right? We already have goals and objectives, teams and organization, social media should just make that easier.

There still appears to be a great deal of skepticism surrounding the effectiveness of social media tools in the workplace, specifically Enterprise Social Networks (ESN) built especially for the workplace. Vendors provide services and direction to help embed these tools and build a case for return on investment. Some commentators argue that the grass roots movements, that drive some of the internet’s most successful mass collaborations, are not possible in the enterprise and that you need to provide senior management direction and organize social collaboration around a specific project.

Using the Enterprise Social Network

Here I wanted to share my own thoughts and experience using ESNs. Many of my colleagues have been generally skeptical about the use of these tools, arguments, or rather excuses, range from; I don’t have time, there’s nothing in it for me, I miss things, there’s too much information, information gets lost, the tool doesn’t support a feature I want, etc.

For many of these I think the problem lies in the fact that people have possibly been oversold the value versus effort. They expect to login on day one and get value from it straight away. Individuals must invest valuable time in the network, valuable time that is being pressured from every direction. ESNs are not like other software tools where the value is easy to define, take a word processor for instance, the choice is to write something by hand/typewriter or use the new tool.

By contrast the argument “better collaboration” or “better networking/communication” is a difficult thing to place value on, especially for workers that do not use social tools regularly in their personal life or don’t believe they necessarily have a problem with “collaboration” or “communication” today. And yet I personally have found these tools incredibly valuable, in one company I used a micro-blog to gather feedback in an open forum. Feedback was asynchronous,  fitting in with other’s schedules, there was little duplication and it was focused.

That company was acquired by a much larger organization that also used an ESN. And this, for me, was when it really got interesting. We suddenly became a very small corner of a larger city. Using the tool I steadily built up a network of connections through brief conversations and comments by taking part in open conversations. I gradually got to know people and learnt about projects that I simply wouldn’t have known about any other way.

This benefitted me in the long term as when I needed help or advice in a particular area I knew where to find it, instantly. That conversation may have taken place over the phone or on instant messenger but it wouldn’t have taken place at all had I not made the connections in the first place.

And for my team there were benefits, aside from improving my own productivity, as we integrated, sales opportunities arose across the larger organization. People that normally would have had to work to find contacts in our team knew me already. In the first six months I brokered many conversations between our own sales team and those of the larger business.

Focus On Your Own Objectives

There are many other examples I could give but the value to my team grew out of my selfish desire for self-improvement by improving my own network. This was my reason for using the ESN and the reason I continued to use it. Self organized communities spring up out of chaos as the selfish needs of many are closely enough aligned that they can work together. It is not necessarily that they are working toward a common goal, they all have their own objective. The product of this effort is the sum of these disorganized goals and objectives.

By contrast, in business, workers are working toward common goals and objectives and they’ve been doing this since people organized in order to turn a profit. Trying to sell the benefit of a social network as improving work through collaboration to an experienced business person is pretty weak. The way I have sold the ESN to colleagues is purely on a selfish basis, use it for yourself and get your own benefit from it, if you don’t engage it’s only really you that will lose out. The more people individually benefit from it the more value the organization will realize in it.

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