Last week, we held our company’s first user conference. It was a terrific gathering of social knowledge network experts sharing experiences. Frankly, we learned as much as any of the attendees. One topic that I found profound was around the constraints (and lack of constraints) organizations place on collaboration. That is, to what extent does a company allow and even foster social collaboration among employees – and to what extent does it resist? And why?
As one customer tweeted, “Do you trust employees to talk to customers but not enough to collaborate via social tools?”
This question gets to the heart of an organization’s culture. Does the culture foster transparency and openness, or very clear hierarchies and levels of authority? And what are the ramifications of either structure?
We’ve discovered that social collaboration can have (at least) five major benefits:
- Increased understanding of projects throughout the organization. When employees are siloed, they know only what they are working on. Socializing their work helps ensure more employees are aware of the bigger picture.
- Easier knowledge transfer. When someone leaves an organization, knowledge typically leaves with them. Making their knowledge available to others in a public way minimizes the impact of their departure.
- Stronger teams. Teams that communicate well do better than those that don’t. If you don’t believe this, watch a development organization that has institutionalized code review, in which one developer consistently reviews the code of another. Both developers improve through the process, thereby improving the team.
- A better product. The more that employees socialize their work through collaboration, the better the opportunity for enhancements and the better they are able to mitigate potential risks. Personally, I never send out something I’ve written for work without having a colleague review it. Including this article.
- Improved culture. When people on a team support each other through collaboration, there is less fear of failure because every project is a group project. If you’ve ever been in a team culture, you know what I’m talking about. It’s liberating and empowering at the same time.
How Organizational Structure Influences Social Collaboration
Clearly, not all companies are structured the same way, and collaboration will look different depending on the organization. In regulated industries, organizational structure ensures consistency and that rules are followed, checked, and rechecked.
Other companies have a looser structure. One company attending our conference was a gaming company. They do have organizational hierarchy, but employees there use our social knowledge network software cross-functionally. Someone in marketing could join the finance group if they wanted to learn more about the company’s finances. Game developers could join the marketing group if they wanted to learn more about how their games were being marketed. The collaboration that ensues from this fosters new perspectives, ideas, and ultimately solutions.
And taken to an extreme, Zappos rolled out a new management structure called Holacracy in which teams self-organized. There are no job titles and no management structure. Nuts? Maybe, but you have to assume a lack of an organizational hierarchy fosters collaboration and communication. In an environment without dictated structure, self-structure would be inevitable.
While few companies are interested in a completely flat and self-organized structure like Zappos, even hierarchical organizations would benefit from more social collaboration and openness.
I encourage all companies to push the level of internal social collaboration by identifying the people and technologies that can foster it. Some organizations see it as a risk. Those that do it recognize the rewards.