Overcoming Roadblocks to Online Collaboration: A Hangout Recap

What an excellent G+ Hangout on Friday 29th March! Jenn from Solvable and I were joined by strategist of all things social Angela Dunn and the Social Media Research Foundation’s Marc Smith. We had a great discussion on overcoming roadblocks to using social technology for collaboration.

We talked about:

  • the return on investing in connected networks: cross-pollination of ideas, collaborative innovation, increased employee engagement.

  • the problem of middle manager information hoarding and ways to involve them in collaborative information sharing.

  • the benefits of social and organizational network analysis in discovering your best employees and figuring out where your gatekeepers sit.

Why Connected Networks?

Angela spoke about the importance of collaborative networks, using social technologies if appropriate, to innovation and creativity. Using examples from her hosted Twitter chats, #ideachat and #innoidea (bi-monthly with #innochat ), we talked about the ways in which social networks enable organizations to leverage their employees’ or members’ external networks and encourage the development of new ideas.

Different social networks are better for different aspects of collaboration and information sharing. For example, we all like Google+ communities for longer-trend sharing. You can come back to a community and find good information over a longer period of time than Twitter, which moves in real time. As a result, socially networked individuals can access knowledge from multiple fields to incorporate into their own.

It is the ability to curate information from personal networks and disseminate into discussions in other networks (or seed discussions) that is a crucial skill of the 21st century expert generalist.

To find out more grab a transcript from #innoidea. I’d also recommend a read through Harold Jarche’s ideas on collaboration and cooperation.

Roadblocks: Information Gatekeepers

In traditional organizational hierarchies, middle-managers often keep their positions of power by acting as information gatekeepers - keeping a divide between those below and those above. Part of the challenge in using social technology to encourage collaboration in any organization is getting the buy-in of these middle managers. After all, social technology (in theory) allows those at the top to talk directly to those at the bottom (and vice-versa) and therefore can put in jeopardy the position of those who have built a career on being a gatekeeper.

The organizational change piece of any attempt to encourage collaboration - let alone implement social technologies - may be a difficult and long process. Coaching and mentoring to help those unlearn years of outdated management techniques (Jon Husband has a great piece on this here) are required to change mental models and mindsets.

However, Angela had some great simple ideas to help start the unlearning/re-learning process:

    1. Stroke the ego. While this might seem counterproductive, talking to gatekeepers about the importance of sharing their (important) knowledge might encourage them to try sharing more often. This does not necessarily require any technology, but can include in-person events, mentoring opportunities etc.
    2. Show social in action outside of the workplace. Bring in an outside person who has experience in sharing and collaborating. Have them show the gatekeeper the power of sharing in terms of influence and career development.
    3. Partner in the workplace. Partner the gatekeeper with someone who can help them learn skills for sharing with social technology (blogging, wiki-creation, or activity stream posting) internally on team collaboration and the effects of using it (time saved compared to old ways of working, ROI, or other metrics). This is where Jane Hart and others think the future of some learning and development roles lie.

    Finding the Gatekeepers and Hidden Stars: Social Network Analysis

    Marc Smith at the Social Media Research Foundation explained the benefits of social network analysis (SNA) or organizational network analysis (ONA) in uncovering roadblocks and showing communication and collaboration patterns in an organization.

    He pointed us to the fascinating PhD dissertation by Ryerson’s Sean Wise. He used SNA to show that in a Canadian travel company, the offices where employees connected socially through email, raised higher revenues than offices where employees were less connected.

    SNA can show where roadblocks occur or, as with the Canadian travel company, show that socially connected employees drive revenue. This may seem counter-intuitive to the CEO who believes that Facebook is a workplace distraction, as Dan Pontefract recently recalled.

    This all seemed very relevant to an MIT Sloan article I read last week, “Building a Well-Networked Organization”. SNA can help uncover your hidden talent - the quiet influencers who are actually crucial to your organization’s health. (NB: the article is pay-walled).

    Wrapping Up

    We all acknowledged that for most organizations, the path to social collaboration is slow.  Marc noted that the financial system does not always reward organizations who care for their employees and members any more than those who don’t.

    A collaborative organization’s success depends upon the core foundations of our G+ community: culture + trust + technology + distributed leadership + accountability + shared purpose + metrics

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