Online collaboration in the workplace – thoughts and concerns

I had a mixed day yesterday at the Online Information conference, which is excellently led by Steve Dale. The good bits were the sessions I attended and the chance to meet up with good friends, old and new. The less good bit was the panel I was chairing, which was a little challenging to say the least!

Having said that, one of the participants was truly excellent – Andrew Walsh from the University of Huddersfield, who spoke about their efforts to use competitive gaming ideas to encourage greater use of the library with a project called Lemon Tree.

Now, I’m not all that convinced about the use of ‘gamification’ to drive engagement, but there’s no doubt that it really works for many people. I do rather fear for those that get left behind though.

Anyway, one of the more interesting sessions at the conference was on ‘enterprise 2.0’ or the use of social technology in the workplace to improve collaboration and knowledge sharing. Now, I love this stuff, and honestly believe that making social tools available to people to help them do their jobs can have a positive impact on effectiveness and efficiency.

I do have concerns though, particularly based on what a couple of the speakers were talking about (I ought to point out now that I am definitely not referring to Jemima Gibbons whose talk on open leadership was great). I worry that the wrong emphasis is being made when people discuss this issue, in terms of focusing in on organisational objectives and needs and ignoring what is surely central to making this work – the users themselves.

Much is made of the fact that due to the consumerisation of technology, workers are more likely to expect that social tools are available to them at work. I’d agree with this, but I think it is more likely that they expect and desire to use tools of their own choosing and not some corporately imposed knowledge management solution.

In other words, I suspect in this area employees would want to use the tools they like using, for their own purposes. There’s nothing wrong with this – I’m not suggesting that people just want to waste time, or spend their working day expanding their LinkedIn network – but I do think it more important that organisations allow staff access to the tools they want to do their jobs, and then find a way of  managing it all – as opposed to procuring a big system to do ‘social’ and assuming people will want to use it.

Another thing that was mentioned was the idea that making social tools available to employees makes them more creative. Does it? I’d have thought it more likely that these tools merely enhance what an employee was like in the first place. After all, a lot of those early adopters who started using social tools will have been creative, innovative types in the first place. The dullards wouldn’t have considered it in the first place, I wouldn’t have thought.

So the key for me with the implementation and adoption  of social technology in the workplace is getting people to be bothered to use it. Organisations shouldn’t, in my view, waste their time trying to get everyone on board, but instead focus on the innovative types who care enough about their work to want to share and pool knowledge and intelligence. After all, one great example of cross sector collaboration is the Communities of Practice in local government (and beyond) in the UK, but even with the hundred-odd thousand users on that platform, it’s still a tiny fraction of the overall potential audience.

The fundamental problem with knowledge sharing at work, whether using social technology or not, is convincing people it is in their interests to do it. After all, the stuff one knows is what makes us useful and in a world of rising unemployment, it would take a brave soul to give that away.

I realise I have raised a lot of problems here and not provided many answers. I’ll chew it over and maybe come up with some more positive stuff in a later post. I’d be interested in your views though, of course.

Edit: and as if by magic, Headshift’s James Dellow has blogged today on Does Viral Adoption of Enterprise Social Business Software work?

5 thoughts on “Online collaboration in the workplace – thoughts and concerns”

  1. Very nice post. I have been thinking similar things – especially about the ability of people to choose their own tools. I believe this is the expectation that the iPhone et al has set. Not that we can have nice shiny devices, but that we can easily install an app and try it out, see if it works for us in our circumstances.

    I see this as being a backlash against the trend of corporate to become a machine rather than a tool. A machine is something that we serve in order to keep it running, while tools are things that we select, adapt and use to help us do our work. The locking down of the work PC or network makes it more like a machine and less like a tool.

  2. Dave – The funny thing is, I had read your article before you edited it to mention mine and I had intended to return to make a comment. I was actually going to say, I think its great that someone with an interest in government is looking at ideas badged by some as ‘Enterprise 2.0’. While I recognise that government and the non-profit sector have special qualities, I also don’t think there is a one size fits all approach for a particular industry or sector. The ‘Enterprise 2.0’ discussion for public services is also one that I feel hasn’t been given enough airtime to date.

  3. Hi Dave, I agree with you adoption should be pretty much organic, and I can definitely see a not-so-great chapter looming where the big, fat expensive #fail of imposed enterprise collaboration platforms becomes this season’s equivalent of the intranet skeletons that are already littered across the corporate landscape like Dali-esque relics that no-one wants to use, not big or clever.

    That said, when it comes to collaborative technology there are huge issues to balance around enterprise development – how democratic, naturally spontaneous adoption blends with a useful, collective sense of critical mass that can make the most of the productivity and benefits on offer. And that’s my point really, that enterprise adoption isn’t so much a technical issue as a cultural one.

    Without some intuitive sense of ‘the way we do things around here’ there’s not that much to buy into and very little collective identity that gives any social organisation shape and form. The evolution of enterprise technology can itself be a collective one, because as we know people tend to go where the others are and fragmentation only has a very limited value. What’s missing is that ‘management’ is so very often a process not a dialogue. The clunk of the technology, I think, only reflects a too heavy-handed nature of the management styles that create them. I’d start there.

  4. Hi Dave (and James, via you). Very timely stuff.

    Some of us (me included) have been preaching the gospel of viral growth of things like Yammer for a while now – or more rightly, the gospel of “for God’s sake don’t make it obligatory”. Nagging in the back of the mind, however, have always been two thoughts: how can you be sure to keep hod of all those who signed up in viral solidarity, and what do you do to get to those who never did, and possibly never will?

    I think there is scope for a decent session about all of this ay #ukgovcamp, but it’s great to see that the thoughts are already being pushed out there.

    FWIW, I think the key word is “collaborative”, and Anne uses that very word. Everyone on a network needs to feel that they are contributing, sharing, being listened to, being shared, and all the things that, in any world, not just an on-line one, we’d regard as “collaboration”. Fail to tackle that and you will get wastage. People may not resign from the network, but they are very likely to simply stop following threads etc. That’s a double whammy for the network, because it becomes not only the zealous talking amongst themselves, but also kidding themselves that the network has critical mass within the organisation, without taking into account the increasing number of members who are simply nodding off.

    I’ve no recipe for “how” just yet, though.

  5. Mr Briggs Sir,

    This post is a timely reality check for a number of posts i’ve been reading across the web recently.

    I’ve been thinking a lot about the approaches people have taken, the technology people talk about and the people involved in achieving success.

    My current thinking which is still evolving is actually leading towards moving away from people and technology and moving more towards leadership and empowerment. This HBR article on empowerment is a really good example in my view of one of the underlying issues you raise

    I also think that large enterprise solutions are no longer appropriate in any sense of the word within a local authority, given the direction of travel we are heading in…It requires more agile solutions and lots of them, more choice, more open standards to allow people to be productive.

    In terms of collaboration, your point about “fear to let go” is a key one and one which i think is more than a cultural one but actually impacts on how we define roles and responsibilities within HR. For example we don’t employ people on their ability to collaborate, we employ people on their ability to do a specific job or task…Whilst most people recognise that collaboration can benefit individuals, teams and services it isn’t explicitly designed into roles and we are not developing and empowering people to seek out those opportunities.

    One of the best learnings we had from our blue kiwi pilot a few years ago was that, whilst people valued the capability to share and collaborate – there were issues raised that a corporate solution would never solve any problems as it would miss the mark across the board and most people preferred existing networks they were already part of…so how could we integrate with them.

    I’m interested to read your future posts on this topic and i’m also going to write some thoughts on this myself. 🙂


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