Enterprise social collaboration is a myth. Think smaller.

 Andrew Pope

Andrew Pope

It’s in the name: Enterprise social networks. Tools for the workplace that facilitate enterprise-wide collaboration. A place for everyone to connect to anyone.

Guest blog post by Andrew Pope, partner, innovation and collaboration consultant at Innosis.

Except we don’t. I’ve yet to see anything of significant business value from an enterprise-wide open network. A promised land of free thinking and non-hierarchical relationships just doesn’t happen as we’re led to believe. Organic collaboration and knowledge sharing across the whole organisation in large organisations simply has too many barriers.

But here’s the flipside: Enterprise Social Networks (ESNs) are actually highly effective business tools. The collaboration and creation that can be achieved on them is becoming more and more important in increasingly complex operational environments. It’s just that we lose track of what collaboration really is, and how we mortal human beings naturally collaborate in person.

In this article, I’ll explore some of the increasingly common barriers to productive collaboration on ESNs and discuss what does work – getting size, time and focus right to facilitate collaboration.

What powers collaborative teams

Whilst there is conjecture on the optimum size of a high performing collaborative team, the range is generally accepted to be between four and twenty. Over twenty people and we lose the human elements essential for good teamwork: empathy, togetherness, trust and, very importantly, the ability to have a conversation.

Think about how you might feel offering your opinion to a conversation between a few people that you know well. Now think about offering the same opinion to an audience of thousands, and not knowing who is listening. It’s a different world, and therefore we need to have different expectations.

We work well in small groups. Google’s project Aristotle identified what makes a high performing team. And it’s not strong leadership or a good agenda. It’s being human, having empathy for each other and feeling that you are actually being listened to. This is very hard to engineer in large groups in a room, let alone on a digital network – so why the expectation that is a very natural outcome of an enterprise tool rollout?

Groups are the secret sauce of collaboration

We’re not building walls, we’re just creating a purpose around our social networks. Groups allow us to build small collaborative entities that do generate effective conversations.

Groups emerge in response to a tangible need, and therefore already have a purpose – the key to good collaboration. I always say that collaboration is not the point of collaboration tools: it’s whatever purpose we give them; the objectives of our work.

Whether communities or initiatives, we have a specific purpose in mind for groups: it could be around innovation, future planning, corporate initiatives, challenges and disciplines. Groups are even ideal places to run some business processes – flattening workflow into a conversation.

Diageo has used Groups to a huge financial benefit. Using Yammer, they created a group specifically to deal with surplus stock held globally – moving this issue from a paper-based process to an instant conversation helped to reduce surplus stock held by 25%.

Whilst not an organically formed collaborative group, it shows how if we re-think our enterprise social networks as business tools, we can extract huge value.

Time-limit crowd-sourced activities

Sometimes we do need to reach more people. Although less likely to generate strong collaboration, we can still use the power of the crowd to help solve business problems. Collaboration is not a free for all, it’s a focused effort to create something new or to achieve a shared goal. So let’s focus that effort by running an event – a campaign, a jam, a hackathon – whatever you want to call it, that is on a specific topic and has a fixed duration. 

We still want conversations though. ESNs are all about the conversation; building a thread. Simply then, we need to turn our campaign topics into clear and simple questions. If, for example, we’re after ideas for an innovation campaign, we can identify some key trends that are of interest. Then, we ask a series of questions on these trends: What have you seen that we could do better? What do you think this trend will lead to in two years? During the period of the campaign, we can listen, respond and shape the conversation. Keep the energy and focus going, until we’ve reached the end-point.

But the conversation doesn’t end there. Ideas and conversations generated during the campaign are then fertile material to create groups to further develop these ideas – after all, an idea is only the start!

It’s not that enterprise social networks can’t achieve collaboration, I just think that the term ‘enterprise’ is a misnomer that shapes our expectations accordingly, setting us up for disappointment. Think smaller, find purpose and ask lots of questions, that way we start to get the answers we need.