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Where do you begin when your organization decides to deploy enterprise collaboration tools? What are the key aspects of implementing social and collaborative technologies that potentially can help improve business efficiency? The Collaborative Organization: A Strategic Guide to Solving Your Internal Business Challenges Using Emerging Social and Collaborative Tools, by Jacob Morgan, aims to answer these questions and more surrounding how organizations can take advantage of collaboration to become more agile and make better use of the knowledge and intelligence within the enterprise. Our featured excerpt from the book’s second chapter addresses the potential value of using collaborative technology and the importance of identifying specific business drivers for successful enterprise collaboration initiatives. In short, it offers a starting point for your research into the topic.
Chapter 2: The First Step to Recovery Is Admitting You Have a Problem
Have you ever thought about what collaboration actually means? Perhaps this sounds like a silly question, but I’m often surprised by the responses I get. Quite simply, collaboration is defined as working with someone (or multiple people) to create something or achieve a goal. That’s the definition, but what does collaboration actually allow employees to do?
In 1977, T. J. Allen wrote Managing the Flow of Technology, and one of the things that he was able to show was that when people work more than 30 meters apart, the likelihood for collaboration and communication falls off dramatically (see Figure 2.1). In fact, if employees are more than 30 meters apart they might as well be across town!
So the most important thing collaboration enables employees to do is form bonds and connections with one another, in effect building relationships. These relationships and the engaged employees are what lead to ideas and discoveries within organizations. The more employees can share, communicate, collaborate, and engage with one another, the greater the flow of ideas is. These ideas can be new revenue-generating opportunities, cost-cutting strategies, recommendations for productivity enhancement, improvements in product development, and almost anything else.
To understand this better, we need to look at strong and weak ties. Strong ties exist with people whom you know well and with whom you engage frequently, such as friends. Weak ties exist with people whom you don’t know well and with whom you don’t engage frequently; one might call them acquaintances.
In 1973, the sociologist Mark Granovetter published a paper titled “The Strength of Weak Ties” in which he asserts the value of weak ties as bridges that are valuable for the dissemination of information. In fact, Granovetter states, “all bridges are weak ties.” Strong ties exist in limited numbers because they require effort to maintain; weak ties require far less effort, which means there can be many of these bridges.
Two people with strong ties to each other also typically know many of the same people, and so there is a strong overlap. Thus, if Tim and Erica have a strong tie and Tim needs to find or get access to information he can’t find by asking people he knows, it’s likely that Erica will not be able to help him since their friends overlap. But if Tim has a weak tie with Peter, Tim now has a bridge to Peter’s network (whose members are most likely strangers to Tim) and gains access to a new group of people who are likely to be able to help.
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Emergent collaboration solutions allow the creation of strong ties, but more important, they allow for the creation of weak ties, or bridges, within organizations. These bridges allow employees to get access to information and people within a larger network instead of simply relying on the people they know. LinkedIn, Facebook, Twitter, and blogs are great examples of consumer-grade applications that are extremely effective at allowing people to build weak ties. On a trip to Dubai a few years ago, I was able to sit down with a senior-level manager at Nestlé because of a weak tie I had with him through LinkedIn. The first large client Chess Media Group worked with came as a result of a weak tie formed through my blog.
Examples of weak ties are easily seen in people’s personal lives. How many times have you met acquaintances you have later been able to call on for favors? Perhaps you asked them for introductions in companies, invitations to exclusive events, or discount offers for products. We form weak ties regularly at conferences, by meeting friends of friends, by going to parties, or pretty much by doing anything social where there are people outside our network.
Internally, these weak ties are easy to build through rich profiles that allow employees to discover co-workers by posting status updates or sharing information, by blogging internally, by submitting ideas publicly, or simply by asking and/or answering questions via an emergent collaboration platform.
As Andrew McAfee clearly wrote in one of his articles, which can be accessed at http://andrewmcafee.org/2007/10/the_ties_that_find/:
Excerpted from The Collaborative Organization by Jacob Morgan. ©2012, McGraw-Hill Professional; reprinted with permission of the publisher. For more information on this title and other similar books, please visit the McGraw Hill Professional website. You can also find this book on Amazon.
Download the entire second chapter of The Collaborative Organization.
Strong ties are unlikely to be bridges between networks, while weak ties are good bridges. Bridges help solve problems, gather information, and import unfamiliar ideas. They help get work done quicker and better. The ideal network for a knowledge worker probably consists of a core of strong ties and a large periphery of weak ones. Because weak ties by definition don’t require a lot of effort to maintain, there’s no reason not to form a lot of them (as long as they don’t come at the expense of strong ties).
The key is that weak ties are important to build bridges to connect your organization, and emergent collaboration is the best way to do it.
The success of any enterprise collaboration initiative doesn’t begin with technology or with the desire to find the coolest new shiny object; in fact, that’s probably the shortest route to failure. Enterprise collaboration begins with a specific business driver or problem that the organization is looking to solve. Not every organization is going to invest in emergent collaboration for the same reasons, and that is as it should be. Specific and unique business problems occur behind the walls of each organization around the world. However, based on the research Chess Media Group has conducted, we can identify some of the common business drivers of these emergent collaboration initiatives within organizations regardless of company size, verticality, or geographic location.
Figure 2.2 breaks down all the Enterprise 2.0 business drivers for organizations.
Chess Media Group has a full report (which can be found on the Chess Media Group website under “resources”) that discusses these findings in more detail, but in the figure one can see that the top five business drivers for organizations are (survey participants were able to select more than one response):
• Connecting colleagues across teams and geographies
• Increasing productivity
• Fostering employee engagement
• Fostering innovation
• Capturing and retaining institutional knowledge
As competitive pressures increase and organizations continue to grow and expand while dealing with macroeconomic factors (e.g., a sluggish economy), it becomes increasingly apparent why this route toward a more collaborative organization becomes a focal point for many organizations. These emergent collaborative tools serve as the connective fibers that keep employees connected to one another. Employees today are working from multiple physical locations, on multiple devices, and often with other employees they have never met. It’s also not uncommon for organizations to have “offices” with only one or two people in those locations. Organizations need a way to connect all those employees to allow them to collaborate and share information. The reality is that an organization is no longer limited to a physical structure or proximity; an organization is now limited only by its ability to connect employees and information together.
By far, the No. 1 business driver for most organizations is being able to connect colleagues across teams and geographies, and this should come as no surprise. Companies of all shapes and sizes have employees based in multiple physical locations and working remotely; this is now commonplace. The ability to keep employees connected is not something that legacy systems and email platforms can do effectively or perhaps at all.
Almost all the organizations surveyed stated that their business drivers fell into one of the categories listed in Figure 2.2. However, if your business drivers are not listed there, that’s not a problem. The important thing is not to match your business drivers with the figure but to identify what those drivers are. It’s crucial to understand your business drivers so that you understand why this should be an area of investment, which will in turn lead to how these tools should be deployed and how the strategies are developed.
Jacob Morgan is the principal and co-founder of Chess Media Group, a management consultancy and strategic advisory firm that helps organizations understand how to use social and collaborative tools to solve business problems. Morgan has worked with organizations such as the U.S. Department of State and Adobe Systems, and he writes the blog Social Business Advisor.