Social Collaboration: it’s the people not the technology, stupid!

Social Collaboration: it’s the people not the technology, stupid!

The workers production lineI was recently reflecting on my personal experience as a knowledge management consultant in deploying enterprise and business collaborations solutions over the past several years. I’ve seen various buzz-words and labels come and go, and witnessed the morphing of Enterprise Content, Document and Records Management Systems (ECM’s, EDM’s, ERM’s) into varieties of Enterprise 2.0, social CRM, Social Intranets and – more recently – Enterprise Social Media and Social Business solutions.

But regardless of what labels we give to the technology, the one constant feature is the people, i.e. the staff, the workers, the users. The continuing paradox is that, despite all the evidence of poor adoption rates; the accepted wisdom that “build it and they will come” doesn’t really work, and the oft’ repeated mantra that “it’s not the technology, it’s the people that count”, most collaboration strategies are treated as technology projects and not organisational development (OD) projects.  Putting in a shiny new enterprise collaboration system is unlikely to change behaviours that have been conditioned by corporate culture, and less likely to be successful if it’s not integrated with the business processes – and yes, that includes email! Becoming “social” and sharing knowledge is not something that is solved by technology; it’s something that is solved by addressing behaviours. Sure, technology can be an enabler, but it has to be part of a wider and more holistic change programme.

This was certainly the case when I was asked to deliver a strategy for more effective learning and sharing across local government in 2005, which resulted in the delivery of an award-winning community of practice platform that ultimately supported over 120,000 users and more than 1000 communities by 2011. The technology was only one (fairly small) component of the project. Most of the effort went into winning hearts and minds in local authorities that this was the right thing to do, and encouraging staff to narrate their work and share good practice. It was also underpinned by training, coaching and mentoring on how to manage and facilitate on-line communities – activities that don’t often feature in technology-driven projects.

So, with the benefit of some hindsight and experience, coupled with a more contemporary view of emerging trends, the following sums up what I think are the key factors in the emergent social collaboration ecosystem:

  1. Collaboration is about people and behaviours; technology is an enabler, not a solution.
  2. Engagement with and adoption of social collaboration technologies should be part of a wider organisational change programme. HR should be as much involved as IT.
  3. Seek out, support and encourage your ‘network weavers’ and collaboration advocates as part of your social collaboration strategy. Every organisation has them but, dependent on culture, they may be considered disruptive (but social technology is, by its very nature, disruptive). These are your “Trojan mice” who will stimulate those parts of the organisation that you can’t reach.
  4. Knowledge repositories are places where knowledge goes to die. They may still be relevant to researchers but are places of last resort for knowledge workers. Knowledge workers want instant access to expertise, information and knowledge, and increasingly rely on social networks and search engines to find it.
  5. It’s never been easier to connect with people with same/similar interests, or to find answers from “experts”. Anyone who is not yet fully engaged with the social web is at a distinct disadvantage.
  6. ‘Buy’ is trumping ‘build’, but systems integrators are key. Collaboration technology is increasingly powerful and flexible and can be adapted to all but the most specialised needs. However, integration with legacy systems and business processes still requires specialist knowledge.
  7. There is a growing call for products and services that help us manage the information torrent. All of the leading collaboration technology vendors now provide aggregation, filtering, trending, and personalisation capabilities. Look for features available in web products/services such as Bottlenose,, Prismatic, Twylah etc. in Enterprise solutions.
  8. There’s no such thing as privacy on the web – get over it!
  9. The web has been with us for almost 20 years, social media and social networks for over 10 years. Any workers (managers, supervisors, staff) who still claim to be digital technophobes in 2012 are a lost cause. Focus effort on those who see the benefits of on-line interaction.
  10. The future is mobile and ‘appified’. More and more work is being done on the move; the growth of BYOD and COPE initiatives are weakening the ties and dependencies on the ‘lobotomised’ corporate PC in the corporate workplace. Any enterprise collaboration solution must support agile and mobile working.

If I were a CEO deploying a social collaboration strategy, I would be looking for something far more expansive than a technology solution.  The 80:20 rule would seem to be appropriate; if the technology accounts for 20% of budget, 80% should be devoted to organisational development. I wonder how many more failed collaboration projects it will take before this philosophy takes hold?

What do you think?

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