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December 11, 2013
Redefining collaboration
By: Mark McDonald

We all face a complex future requiring greater degrees of innovation and coordination. We need better collaboration. This is one of the promises of digital technologies such as analytics, mobility and particularly social media. However while the world has grown complex, the concept of collaboration remains stubbornly simple.

Sharing is the dominant definition of collaboration in practice today. People who talk about collaboration in those terms, demo software that shows people ‘sharing’ information, point to likes and re-tweets as examples. Collaboration software concentrates on how to publish, read and recognize shared information.

Sharing defines an earlier age of collaboration. It assumes that information diffusion was the major barrier to collaboration. With all the people on social media, the size of the Internet, and the size of databases, sharing in its current operational definition is the least of our problems.

Too often sharing is one way. For example it’s about me putting my information out there for others to find and use. That is not collaboration; rather it is publishing at best or self-expression at worst. Sharing is an insufficient definition of collaboration in the digital world. The back and forth exchange of information is a weaker form of collaboration at best.

The challenges we face individually, as organizations and as societies require more than sharing. They require real collaboration. Working together or co-laboring may start with sharing information, but it goes well beyond the publisher-reader relationship. Anyone can share, but it’s a question if anyone changes based on what they read.

Significant examples of social movements, flash mobs, etc. represent real examples, garner attention and represent a start. But the type of collaboration required for business success is deeper, more structural and more sustainable to make progress against individual, group, organizational and societal issues. That type of heavy sustained and significant collaboration should be what we mean by working together.

Talking and sharing is a start. Too many false starts create cynicism rather than solutions. We should continue to talk about the power of communication, but not confuse talking with acting. Confusing the two only dulls the importance of hard work and power of our ability to work together.

Social media provides an example of the importance of going beyond sharing

Social media implementations provide evidence of the difference between sharing and collaboration. Researching more than 400 companies for book The Social Organization, co-author Anthony Bradley uncovered a less than 10% success rate with social media. Success defined as a community achieving a meaningful business purpose. He coined the term “provide and pray” to the other 90+% of social media efforts – efforts largely based on the assumption that good things happen when people share. Clearly creating results requires more than putting knowledge capital messages into electronic bottles and throwing them into a digital sea.

A while back, I wrote a post about the difference between Knowledge Management and Social Media separating the two based on their views of information. Knowledge management looks at information as a stock, something to be inventoried, collected and amassed. Social Media should look at information as a flow between people and leading to action. Without that view, social media becomes another form of knowledge management when it can be more.

Offering a new description for working together

Sharing is a start, but working together requires more – hence the need to raise the bar on what we consider collaboration. That starts with recognizing that collaboration has little to do with technical systems and much to do with social systems. People collaborate and while technology may reduce the friction, barriers or distance to working together, technical solutions alone will only go so far.

Organizations looking to achieve the benefits of collaboration need to create social and business situations where people work together around:

  • Context – people work together for a reason, in an environment of shared beliefs, shared history and a common understanding of the situation. Traditional collaboration as sharing tools help build context, but there is more to collaboration than context.

  • Outcomes – people work together toward their own goals. These outcomes give context specificity and purpose. Achieving an outcome requires more than general software features and functions. They require their own social, technical and organizational structures to reach an outcome.

  • Motivation – answering the why question from a personal rather than organizational perspective. People do things for many different reasons each requiring its own type of tool and support.

  • Timeframe – guides investment in working together bringing just enough structure to shift the focus of collaboration from sharing to working together. Context, outcome, motivation and time describe the context for working together that includes sharing but extends beyond information and into action.

Share? Yes, but Collaborate? Absolutely

This post is an example of the limitations of collaboration defined as sharing. It’s a semi one-way form of communication. Semi one-way in the sense that we will talk via comments, but that is less than a dialogue. The point here is to do more than raise the point about redefining what we mean by collaboration. This post seeks to recognize that the definitions we use today are not the ones we need for the future.

The call to action, the real work, associated with redefining collaboration is up to us. Those interested in collaboration, social media and the like have to be the change (agents?). We need to use a different definition, place greater focus on the ability to act and clean up the collaborative solution space. Here are three ideas for doing this. Yes they are sharing and therefore limited in their impact, but perhaps they can be a catalyst for change.

  1. Stop focusing on knowledge capture, publishing and presentation as characterizations for collaborative software. These are characteristics of publishing and communications solutions, yes peer-to-peer, but not the essence of collaboration.

    Continuing to think of sharing as collaboration only undermines the personal and business relevance of a critical requirement for success in a changing world. None of us is as powerful as a few of us or all of us working together. Limiting what that means to share, self-expression and publications devalues the significance of collaboration.

  2. Start recognizing that you cannot buy collaboration. It does not come in a download or a policy to ‘be more collaborative.’ Working together, co-laboring, is fundamentally about people and every aspect about people. From the individual motivation to organizational management to the social recognition of working together, each plays a role in the type of collaboration we need. Collaboration is what people do, the change they make start placing the emphasis on purpose, outcome and result rather than tools, techniques and technology.

    Buying collaboration either in software or corporate change programs belittles everyone in the organization. In that model, the individual is an object not a person. Social media proved that people organize themselves, but just having a page of social media does not create collaboration.

  3. Change the classification of what collaboration means and therefore the criteria for collaboration solutions. Emphasize the ability of people and individuals to mobilize themselves, their resources and their actions. Solutions that ‘manage’ knowledge without supporting action are good, but creating results is better.

The need for collaboration demands a deeper definition

Working together requires information. Going from information to action is at the center of any good knowledge management process. Too often, however, operationalizing collaboration concentrates on what could be measured. In this case its sharing and knowledge management.

Collaboration requires more than sharing; it demands a focus on the hard social, technical, organizational and management work to bring people together to achieve new outcomes. It is time to re-emphasize those aspects of collaboration.

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