Cutting through the hype: what “collaboration” really means
The word “collaboration” is so heavily over-used and over-hyped it’s becoming meaningless. People refer to all social software within a company as “collaboration,” and this causes confusion. Vendors get away with saying whatever they want because they’re not saying anything at all and companies end up failing in their “collaboration” initiatives.
Language is important and with this post I offer up a simple definition of the word “collaboration” — a definition that helps narrow the scope and domain of collaboration and clarify what it really is. Let’s begin with the story of how I’ve become known as “the language police” around the office when it comes to these topics.
Lessons in bad collaboration
During my years managing the intranet at a global nonprofit organization I encountered the strangest problem: even with the launch of new social intranet software and other collaborative tools, some people still suffered from and complained about poor collaboration. Crazy, right?!
This quandary forced me to contemplate the true nature of collaboration and explore its many dimensions. The ensuing cerebral journey led me to crafting a simple, useful definition for “collaboration” and alighting upon an important conclusion: collaboration is a deeply human activity, and no tool on its own can solve the problem of poor collaboration.
This conclusion may seem obvious to many savvy readers, but I once believed in the “if you build it, they will come” mentality (perhaps it’s time you watch Field of Dreams again). It took a decent amount of failure and organizational development theory for me to discover how organizational culture and managerial practices can either nurture or hinder good collaboration.
A useful definition for “collaboration”
In response to my lessons in bad collaboration I wanted to craft a definition of the term that could inspire a more holistic and useful perspective on the topic, as well as simplify the concept. I eventually landed upon this definition:
A simple definition, to cut through the hype
That’s it — just nine words to define “collaboration.” It’s a very simple definition. But such simplicity is desperately needed in a time when “collaboration” has become an overly-hyped term, where “social business” vendors are trying to sell new ways of working to confused companies, where business experts constantly extol the imperative for executives to build more collaborative and innovative organizations, and where overly-complex definitions serve only to obscure the truth.
A simple definition, once dissected, can shed a much more brilliant light on the true nature of a term than the most lofty and complex definition. So let’s explore this simple definition.
This simple definition includes three parts:
- Two or more people (team)
- Working together (processes)
- Towards shared goals (purpose)
This definition doesn’t once mention technology or software, but it does provide a solid framework for understanding exactly what collaboration is and isn’t. For starters, collaboration takes place in teams. A big group of people using social software together doesn’t translate directly into collaboration. It may be conversation; it may be cooperation; it may be knowledge sharing; it may improve employee engagement; but it is not collaboration.
Next, collaboration is about people working together and completing shared processes. This is where technology fits in, but not all of these processes are technological.
Finally… purpose. This is where a lot of the misunderstanding around collaboration stems. If people are working together but have no shared goals, they are “cooperating,” not “collaborating.” Cooperation is usually much more lightweight than collaboration and often has less focused goals.
Social intranet software is excellent for increasing cooperation and collaboration, but these two activities are not synonymous. As you can see from the simple definition, technology is just one piece of the collaboration puzzle and there is a limited scope of what “collaboration” actually is.
What isn’t collaboration?
Here we’re getting to the pith of the problem. People have come to refer to anything that has to do with social software within a company as “collaboration.” While a social intranet does offer tools for improved collaboration, not every interaction falls into that definition.
Microblogging is only sometimes collaboration: If you launch a microblogging tool such as Yammer to the whole company and tell people to just start posting status updates, that’s not collaboration. There is no team or shared purpose to lend the focus that is core to collaboration. Company-wide microblogging is “conversation.” It can facilitate serendipitous discovery, which is important. It can give people more of a voice, facilitate connections, and lead to collaboration. But simply posting status updates to anyone who is paying attention and engaging in conversations with whoever sees the status update is not collaboration.
When is microblogging actually collaboration? When members of a specific team are using microblogging to share updates and information about their joint work, that is collaboration. In such cases they may develop special hashtags or protocols (process) around their microblogging to get specific value out of it. Imagine a marketing team working towards a deadline and posting status updates about tasks completed or questions that arise. This is a specific group of people (the marketing team) working together (communicating about the project) towards shared goals (deadline for a project).
Social networking is not collaboration: Social networking basically means that employees have personal profile pages and can find and connect with other people. This is important, especially for large companies with many offices. But connecting and having an online discussion with a colleague in the New York office who sells the same product as you is not collaboration. It’s networking. It can lead to conversation, cooperation, and perhaps collaboration, but is not, in and of itself, collaboration.
Idea-sharing may not be collaboration: Many companies want to increase innovation and use social software for idea-sharing. Sometimes this is collaboration, but often it isn’t. If you just have a general “Ideas” forum, that is not collaboration — there is no specific group of people, there are no processes for working together, and there is no clear shared purpose. Even if you are collecting ideas around a specific problem (e.g. “How do we cut costs by 15% over the next year?”) that clear purpose doesn’t equate to collaboration. If someone suggests a good idea and you create a team to look into implementing that idea, that team’s effort will be collaboration. But general idea generation and idea-sharing are not.
When is idea-sharing collaboration? If you have a specific problem you need to solve (purpose), you involve a specific set of people in generating ideas (team), and you have a method for handling ideas that are generated (processes), then you have an example of legitimate collaboration on your hands.
Comments on news posts are not collaboration: If you have enabled comments on news posts on your intranet, kudos. That’s an excellent feature and can go a long way towards increasing dialogue across your vertical hierarchy and departmental silos and improving employee engagement. But it’s not collaboration.
When you think “collaboration”, think “teams”
The definition of collaboration presented in this post narrows down the scope of what collaboration actually is. Most often collaboration happens within fairly small teams— either time-limited project teams, cross-functional management teams, or functional teams.
We often think of collaboration as this big thing that the whole organization has to get better at, but collaboration is really something that happens on a smaller scale, within teams with clear and often narrow foci.
To improve collaboration you’ve got to help all your teams get better at collaboration, help all your managers improve their facilitation of collaboration, and help employees learn to operate in a collaborative mode. Improving collaboration is a specific domain and requires the use of social software tools in targeted ways.
Don’t believe the hype
Many people think of “social business” and immediately think of company-wide social software. They imagine launching mibcroblogging to every employee in their organization and calling that “collaboration.” Some intranet managers no longer mention the words “social intranet” or “social networking” and instead replace them with the term “collaboration.” In the public discourse many people have replaced the term “Enterprise 2.0″ with “collaboration.”
This bait-and-switch approach has helped some people sell social intranets to their executives (which is good) and helped vendors and consultants capitalize on a growing trend, but has also created a big muddy mess of confusion.
“Collaboration” is a targeted, team-based activity. Social intranets and other social software can help to drastically improve collaboration, but you can’t lump all the possible features and activities into that one term. And collaboration is about people’s interaction with each other as much as about the tools we use.
When someone says you’ve got to get better at collaboration, ask, “Who, exactly, needs to get better at collaboration?” and, “How do they need to get better at collaboration?” and, “On what work do they need to improve their collaboration?” We have many useful words at our disposal and social intranets can improve not just collaboration, but communication, cooperation, coordination, idea-sharing, knowledge sharing and more.
Let’s work together to be clearer about what collaboration is, what the business value of better collaboration is, and what the full array of changes are that can lead to better collaboration.
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