The Power of Social Collaboration for Work

Oct 26, 2011
18 Min Read

There’s an old saying that if you put a thousand monkeys in a room with a thousand typewriters the laws of probability state that they’ll eventually produce Shakespeare.

But the odds also may be pretty good that if you put 10 people in a meeting room and ask them to collaborate, they won’t come up with anything more creative than finding a way to kill one another in the parking lot.

There’s a reason there are so many jokes about the inability of people to work together to produce something that makes sense. (Remember the old saw about the camel being the result of a committee tasked with designing a horse?)  A lack of vision, leadership, creativity and communication often are blamed for collaborative miscues, but there is also the problem of clashing personalities and workplace cliques that can disrupt the process.

Still, technology has overcome many of the problems of the past and offers new ways to collaborate more easily and transparently.

Social networking, cloud computing, intranets and wikis have taken idea sharing to a new level. Instead of meeting once a week in a room to snipe with colleagues about a project’s progress, you can simply post new updates and ideas to a wiki and don’t have to deal with messy office politics or prima donna personalities. Instead of fruitless hours spent trying to gain new insight from cubicle mates, you post a question on Twitter or LinkedIn and are rewarded with dynamic solutions and new ideas, often within minutes.

But despite the advances that technology has made in collaboration and the sharing of ideas, not all the problems have been eradicated.  For example, while you may like using Google+ to work through a problem with others, a client may not favor such a platform. Or, you may plug in some new expensive software only to learn that it has so many glitches it has doubled your workload.

John Reed, executive director of Robert Half International, says that the move toward online networking and collaboration tools are being driven by a generation of workers who have grown accustomed to the immediate nature of texting, and want the same speed in all their communication efforts.

A recent survey by Robert Half found that 54 percent of chief information officers say that real-time workplace communication tools will overtake traditional email in popularity in the next five years.

“Overall, people are so busy with traveling and working around the clock, that they want a way to exchange information very quickly,” he says. “A lot of people see email as cumbersome because in some cases it may not be user friendly, you’ve got to open it up and then you’ve got to respond. We’ve seen a lot of clients becoming more reliant on instant messaging or video technology.”

A little help from your friends

While email will continue to have its place, especially in the exchange of a lot of information or business documentation, Reed says tools like Yammer and Google+ are becoming more popular.

An SMB Group study recently found that while email and phones were used as collaboration tools by a majority of more than 800 small businesses polled, these employers are showing more interest in growing their collaborative tools. Specifically, 20 percent reported they plan to add document sharing and 16 percent plan to add Facebook in the next year.

While social media sites such as Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn may be more familiar to such businesses – and to you -- there are other tools currently available for collaboration and idea sharing. Among them:

1. Jive: This collaboration software is considered by experts to be very intuitive. You and colleagues can browse, install applications and access it through mobile devices.

2. Giffy: MacIntosh and PC friendly, this works through a browser and lets users collaborate or share diagrams instantly. By allowing users to look at visuals, it is touted as improving clarity and decision-making efficiency.

3. Yammer: Considered as easy to use as Facebook or Twitter, it allows employees in a company to communicate with a private and secure network. Advocates say it reduces the need for meetings, connects remote workers and helps drive innovation. Yammer also lets users create networks with external partners and allows users to share files or have private communications.

4. Moxie: Larger organizations can use “Moxie Software’s Employee Spaces” for its social and collaboration tools, allowing access through mobile devices. For example, employees can post status updates, upload images or connect with co-workers via phone, email and Skype.

5. Quora: This is a collection of questions and answers that are created, edited, and organized by users. It’s similar to Wikipedia in that it relies completely on user-generated content to thrive.

Zack Grossbart, a software engineer consultant at NetIQ, says in his daily work he mostly uses Campfire, a sort of instant messaging for groups. While working on an open source project for Google, he uses Google+ and meets with Google team members once a week through Google+ video chat.

As a software engineer and author of “One Minute Commute,” Grossbart has a unique perspective on the value of technology on communication and collaboration. While he says Google+, Facebook and Twitter have more experience helping “even your grandmother get online,” that doesn’t mean such tools are always the perfect solution for professionals.

“You really need to start out with a clear plan of why you’re using any of these social media services,” he says. “When you join them, you’re going to find a lot of people from your personal life. People you haven’t heard from since high school. Sharing can be good and fun, but you need to be careful if you’re using it for work.”

Grossbart says that such tools can not only be distracting if they’re not used properly, but also “tricky” because “there is story after story of someone who meant to make something private but sent it to work contacts instead.”

One of the most recent slip-ups came from Google engineer Steve Yegge (pictured right), who accidentally published a 5,000-word rant against Amazon, Microsoft and his employer. While he says he didn’t mean to share it with the world, that’s exactly what happened when he mistakenly posted it to his Google+ account. Yegge didn’t lose his job over his diatribe, but did post an apology.

That kind of scenario is exactly why Grossbart says that while he may post “an occasional update about my kids,” he keeps his posts to social media sites “100-percent professional.”

Still, even though social media sites such as Twitter can be distracting with conversations about favorite super heroes and who will win the Super Bowl, Grossbart says they cannot be ignored by professionals.

He tells the story of his desire to have an article published on a leading technology blog, but despite numerous attempts to contact the site’s leaders, he was ignored. He decided to post the article on his own website, and then tweeted the link.

Those with the technology blog saw the tweet “and posted my article to the top of their blog the next day,” Grossbart says.

“The ability to connect with people you don’t know through these tools is amazing. I just sort of threw it out into the ether and they found me,” he says.

Tapping the talent in your network

Before you decide to tap into the collective wisdom of those you know – or may not know – as a way to meet your goals or generate creative ideas, you may want to first consider research by Brian Uzzi.

Uzzi, a professor at Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management, has found that selecting team members carefully is key if you want to tackle a problem successfully and generate the greatest creativity.

In one of his most well-known studies, Uzzi looked at the networks of teams in a Broadway musical and the effect those teams had on the show’s success – or failure.

His research found that it’s often the same small group of people who are well-known to one another who work on shows. But that familiarity didn’t bring great creativity or financial success. At the same time, those teams that had people who didn’t know one another fared the same, he discovered.

The key to success, he learned, were creative teams made up of those who knew one another before, as well as those unknown to one another.  The reason? Uzzi said that teams that have too much overlap in their social networks are less creative because they generally have the same knowledge – and teams composed of all newcomers don’t do a good job of sharing what they know with other people.

The solution, Uzzi said, is having some of both.

“My goal is to have people recognize that success isn’t just based on internal talent and knowledge,” Uzzi explained. “Success is partially derived from relationships with other people, through whom they get access to expertise and capabilities beyond themselves.”

Uzzi further explained that the Broadway study “shows that if you take a talented person, then you can see that his talent becomes amplified or inhibited based on his connections.

“Also, we show that mediocre talent is brought up by the structure of these networks more than the superstar, even though it helps the superstars, too. The key takeaway is that everybody does better,” he noted.

It’s not self service

Dianna Booher is CEO of Booher Consultants and has advised clients such as IBM and PepsiCo about effective communications. She says one of the biggest problems that arises when people reach out via a social network for collaboration or information is that they have shown themselves to be mostly interested in themselves, and not others.

“I see so many people be announcement-focused,” she says. “By that I mean it’s always about the latest thing they’ve done. I don’t think that really adds any value.”

She says you should try and offer thought-provoking ideas to your network instead of using Twitter or Facebook as your personal promotion platform.  Think carefully before posing a query so that you’re seen as thoughtful and worth engaging in a conversation, she says.

“Talking about the fact that it’s snowing outside and then saying, ‘What’s up with that?’ is hardly intriguing,” she says.

She and others offered additional insights for making better use of your networks for collaboration, including:

  • Listening. “Don’t just jump into the middle of a conversation online. That would be like walking up to a group of people that are talking and say, ‘OK, I’m here and this is what I think,’” she says. “Listen for a while before jumping in.” She suggests using “bridge” statements such as “While all these details are intriguing, the central issue is still….,” which can help you neatly insert yourself into the conversation.
  • Using mobile applications. Grossbart says he “strongly recommends” using third-party aggregators such as Tweetdeck or Hootsuite, which will allow you to keep up with your networks on your desktop or your mobile device.
  • Exercising caution with new products. Reed of Robert Half says that those who are tech savvy often like to tinker around with new platforms, and then everyone becomes intrigued when they hear about it. But try to stick with tried-and-true products that have become more mainstream, because new products often burn out as quickly as they burst onto the scene.
  • Staying secure. Horror stories abound of critical company information being leaked through online sources, so make sure you still use company-approved systems when handling sensitive information. If in doubt, ask your company’s IT department for the OK.
  • Avoiding the shiniest toy. Reed says that sometimes new technology for online collaboration isn’t the best solution for you. You may find that email is still the best way to communicate with some colleagues or partners. Grossbart agrees, saying that when he works in small teams, daily instant messaging or phone calls are still critical.

“All of these tools work because everyone believes they work, and they just become self-perpetuating,” Grossbart says. “So it’s a big mistake to ignore them because they give you the ability to connect with people you may not know. But make sure you understand what you’re doing.”

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