Making Internal Social Collaboration Work

This is an excellent interview with Don Tapscott, Adjunct Professor of Management at the University of Toronto - specialising in the role of technology in business and society. He discusses collaborative decision-making and why effective knowledge management within businesses requires replacing e-mail with more social collaboration spaces:

"E-mail is sort of like Mark Twain talking about the weather - everybody?s talking about it, and nobody?s doing anything about it. We have to get rid of e-mail...You need to have a new collaborative suite where, rather than receiving 50 e-mails about a project, you go there and you see what?s new. All the documents that are pertinent to that project are available. You can create a new subgroup to talk about something. You can have a challenge or an ideation or a digital brainstorm to advance the interests of that project. You can co-create a document on a wiki. You can microblog the results of this to other people in the corporation who need to be alerted.?

The fact is that such social collaboration capabilities already exist, but many companies persist with using outdated, inefficient and ineffective methods of collaboration. Often they remain so deeply immersed in their existing processes that they fail to realise that better options even exist.

One amusing story that he brings up relates to several unsuccessful attempts at meeting senior executives to discuss a collaboration platform. As it turns out the executives were spending 10 hours a day in meetings - over 80% of which was informational! If ever there were meetings that could be described as a waste of valuable time, then these would most definitely be it.

As he points out, the problems associated with implementing collaboration platforms almost always returns to human psychological factors: people set in old ways that are resistant or hostile to change...that view such changes as threats. In my experience, part of the problem lies in the fact that most people involved in knowledge management have traditionally come from backgrounds solely immersed in IT, which means that such complex psychological factors are often rarely addressed.

One other issue that he raises which I find quite interesting is his suggestion that social collaboration platforms are more of a meritocracy when compared to face to face meetings, where personalities can dominate. It's certainly true that there are all sorts of other social dynamics at play in face to face group meetings that can affect outcomes. Comparing the quality of decision making/collaboration on a digital social platform, as opposed to face to face meetings would definitely make for an interesting piece of research.

In my experience, one of the real challenges that knowledge managers face is dealing with the generational gap in technology use. Having been raised in a social media dominated environment, Gen Y is quick to adopt such social collaboration features. On the other hand, trying to convince Gen X and above to do the same is usually a more difficult task that requires a great deal of care, convincing and persistence.

This becomes an even bigger issue when we take into account demographical data showing that despite the average age of senior executives dropping in recent years, the average age of directors has been increasing. In 2010 the average age of the 3,302 directors who sat on the FTSE 350s boards was 58. The youngest director was 31 and the oldest 87. The average age of a chief executive was 53, while the chairman's was 64 (with some 91% of all board directors being male).

In addition to age, the striking gender gap in board rooms can also affect the adoption of social collaboration, given that women are overall significantly more likely to engage with social media than men.

At the risk of sounding as though a workplace full of teenage girls would be the perfect environment for implementing social collaboration, there is little question that age and gender do play important roles. As such, it would be very wise to take these into account when considering the adoption of such collaboration tools.

Ultimately, without getting the full support of people in senior management positions, social collaboration platforms are unlikely to succeed. As Tapscott rightfully stresses though, the horse has already bolted from the stable, so companies had better adapt or suffer the consequences of failing to do so.

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