Architected for Collaboration

Last weekend, I had the opportunity to participate in BarCampCanberra 2011. Off the back of many varied discussions from our Social Business Summit series, I thought this would be a good chance to engage with a diverse audience about workforce collaboration. In particular, I wanted to create a link between organisations and how we organise information.

The following are some notes about my thoughts behind this presentation.

When you think about it, we typically organise people like we organise documents – into “folders” we call departments or workgroups, which in turn sit within other divisions or business units. Such an organising system is just like a file system, because it provides a somewhat intuitive method for bringing structure and control to a large number of people. In fact, it isn’t entirely surprising that the two structures mirror each other. After all, both people and the information they create and use exist within the same organisational entity.

Both Dave Gray and Lee Bryant from the Dachis Group have argued against the mechanistic view of organisations. I would like to add to that story the idea that organisations do still in fact need some kind of ‘structure’ for them to exist and operate. This scaffolding, as I prefer to think of it, provides at one end for the corporate existence of the organisation (e.g ownership and governance) and at the other more tangible structures, such as transactional systems (“organisational plumbing”). The organisational ecosystem hangs off this scaffolding, although it is not bound by it.

The upside of this scaffolding is that it gives the organisation strength, the downside is that it encourages the creation of mirrored people and information systems. Luckily, people are naturally social – you can see this for yourself through tools like social network analysis, which in any large or complex organisation will quickly reveal a shadow informal organisation that looks quite different from the approved organisational chart. Unfortunately, information systems that mirror the scaffolding view of the organisation can create serious impediments for collaboration, communication, knowledge management and information seeking. In other words, file systems don’t actually help to get work done because they don’t actually reflect the functioning of the social workplace.

Our challenge is to realign the human-centred information systems (rather than the essential transactional systems) around this social workplace that really drives the organisation forward. Enterprise social software offers three key capabilities that will help us to achieve this:

  1. Profiles;
  2. Activity Streams; and
  3. Social Objects.

But rather that superseding or competing with the structures and functions that transactional information systems support, instead they work in a way that actually enhances them (in a simplistic way, we can think of them as creating “Digital Desire Lines”). Naturally there are some concerns about such social software creating or adding to existing levels of information overload. The reality is that these new approaches need new methods for introducing new tools and techniques into organisations:

  • You can’t provide people with a blank sheet and expect them to bridge the gap between the ‘scaffolding’ and the social workplace on their own.
  • People need to participate in the design of their social workplace.
  • People need to trust their social workplace and adopt a ‘satisfice’ mindset, else they will be overwhelmed (and we address this in part through the points above).

My final point is that not all software is created equal. If we want to create a social workplace, you need tools that are actually architected for collaboration, rather than tools that are architected to fit the file system view of the organisation. As a pointer, some of the tools I’ve come into contact with and worked with over the last few years that support these capabilities include Jive SBS, IBM Lotus Connections, Socialtext, Confluence, Elgg, Drupal Commons, Yammer and Socialcast.

Are you interested in talking about how your can empower the social workplace in your organisation to transform how people communicate and collaborate? Then please get in touch with me or one of my Ripple Effect Group colleagues.

In the next few weeks you will find us in London (this week – 24th March) and Singapore (6th April) as our Social Business Summit 2011 series continues.

I will also be speaking at Intranet2011 in Sydney, later in May.

Photo credit: Gavin Tapp CC-BY-2.0