The End of the Social Collaboration Experiment: The Technology Is the Problem
Fifteen years ago, the excitement around enterprise collaboration was palpable. When Facebook and Twitter first went mainstream in the mid 2000s, the earliest practitioners of “enterprise 2.0” and the “digital workplace” believed we could deploy microblogging, likes and commenting to fundamentally change the world of work (and kill email along the way). For about a decade, we made a pretty big dent. Companies across the globe deployed internal social networks and collaboration platforms, some wildly successful. Big vendors acquired the innovative startups that were forging a path toward the "consumerization of IT."
But we were only on the right path for a while before realizing we were lost.
Today, more than a decade of evolution in the social media landscape has drastically changed our behaviors online. The COVID-19 pandemic has completely altered the social contract between employers and employees, from working at home to wage changes and expectations accepted by a shrinking, resignation-happy workforce. Employees are simply not as willing to put up with the often-exploitative nature of work as they were previously, and companies are now scrambling to “engage” the people that they failed to respect before. Fifteen years has been an eternity in the enterprise, and yet, our collaboration tools haven’t changed that much from their MySpace-like origins.
Society can’t experience such profound changes and still expect yesterday’s technology to both enable effective collaboration and deeply engage a pandemic-weary workforce. We just spent two years hacking together work habits to keep our companies afloat while simultaneously parenting, trying to stay healthy, and solving a myriad of new problems. We did a pretty good job. And just like many people now refuse to go back into the office full time, they’re less likely than ever to eagerly utilize ineffective digital workplace platforms that don’t meet their new, evolved habits and needs that proved so effective during the pandemic.
The days of hoping that a one-size-fits-all technology platform will improve both collaboration and employee engagement are over. The “single hub” for team productivity, internal communications, affinity groups and knowledge sharing is a myth. From chat to ideation, learning modules, broadcast messages, social networking, pulse-survey bots and even mental wellness integrations, the clutter and confusion from excessive features and the overwhelming information contained within render most broad digital workplace platforms an expensive exercise in futility. Not only are these platforms failing to deliver on their transformative promises today, I’m convinced that their original value proposition 15 years ago was fundamentally flawed even then. There is no technology that will do the engaging for us at work. There is no tool that can enable both productivity and deep meaning in one go.
We have to stop forcing an entire employee base to change the way it works, to change its habits and patterns and the way it communicates, so that we can all use one centralized piece of technology and pretend that its adoption mirrors real human engagement and progress. Two fundamental changes need to happen as we look toward the future of collaboration. The first is tool-centric: IT must move from a command and control approach and instead focus on collaboration as a service. Second, companies must forgo previous expectations about productivity to allow for more intentional learning and teaching, in many cases modeled after other industries. There is no global intranet, social network, productivity hub, learning system or employee experience platform that is going to do the heavy lifting for us. It’s time we stop making the promise that they will.
Related Article: The Myth of the Digital Workplace Hub
A Brief History of How We Got It Wrong
Let’s take a walk back in time to the period between 2008 and 2012. Facebook is wildly popular, Instagram is hopping, dating has gone digital, and virtual access to celebrities and popular culture has never been so easy or so instant. Everyone was suddenly a content creator. Enterprise practitioners thought, if everybody is enjoying “social” at home, then certainly they will adopt “social” at work, right? At that moment, we thought we were solving a mass communication and access-to-everyone problem, and that people would gleefully transfer their work into a tool similar to their digital playthings. We believed that platforms rich with consumer features would convince employees to abandon email and “work out loud” for the benefit of everyone.
In reality, we slapped the wrong solution on a poorly defined problem. Simon Terry, a leading digital workplace practitioner, recently explored this topic in depth, reminding us that, “technology is not the issue. A better product isn’t the answer. Features won’t get you home. A collaboration system is the last thing you need.”
Deploying social media to “connect everybody,” “bring the world together” and “make work fun” wasn’t the right approach because connectivity, togetherness and boredom weren’t high on the list of employee concerns. Further, by asking employees to transfer their emails, texts, meetings, water-cooler conversations and even phone calls into a single platform, we blandly digitized the thousands of rich, unique workflows across an organization, from executive communications to frontline ideation and corporate onboarding. Change management efforts generally included cajoling end-users to adopt a single approved platform with rigid rules on which feature to use when, often at the expense of habits that already worked pretty well. This served few people other than those responsible for managing disparate systems or tasked with tool adoption because that’s what was in their job description.
To justify the immense change efforts, we promised that collaboration tools would provide benefits such as more employee engagement, serendipitous ideation, knowledge curation and network-building. It would be worth the work, and people would enjoy the process like they enjoyed social media. This is where we inadvertently exacerbated a problem. By making the promise that better collaboration and engagement would simply emerge as a byproduct of the mere adoption of a tool, we gave leaders a reason not to invest in the active management of engagement, feedback, knowledge management and intentional social capital creation within an organization. We collectively bought into some magical thinking that just getting everybody to use the same technology would solve our biggest problems, that great outcomes would emerge if only we could convince enough people to climb on board and change their working behavior.
Ultimately, deploying these collaboration platforms absolved leadership of responsibility to do the really hard work of making changes to the fundamental tenants of how their companies were run. This approach assumed that the problem all along had been the absence of a technological panacea to meet the myriad needs of the masses, just as consumer social media seemed to be doing in our personal lives. In reality, no amount of collective sharing, liking, commenting or gamification could effectively replicate the value of productive — albeit disjointed — workflows across teams that had built their own effective processes. And, rule-heavy governance often stripped out the fun, engaging aspects of social technology at work. Consumer social media let us explore and connect about people and topics important to us, but inside our companies, we were expected to use the same tools to merely produce and perform.
Treat Collaboration Like a Supply Chain Problem
If social media isn’t the right paradigm, what is? I now believe that collaboration should be treated more like a supply chain problem, where information is the product in demand, and the logistics of information transfer must be seamless, fast and efficient. Let people use the tools or processes they need to get work done, and IT shouldn’t fret over controlling every aspect of the flow. Asking every employee to use one approved suite of tools is akin to asking everybody at the company to hop onto the same cruise ship, when in reality, the best method of transportation for a person or team might be a plane, a car, a train or even a short walk to get from point A to point B. Collaboration is highly contextual, so the right tool at the time might be a voice call, and another time, a group chat or email. What’s stickier than a killer product? A killer process — likely one developed in the trenches by a team and unbounded by the rules and restrictions of some governing body saying, “don’t do it that way.”
I believe that when a team is allowed to build workflows unique to them and their purpose, not only will their work improve, but so will their engagement at work. The absence of demands to work in ways that don’t make sense will have a profound impact on employees’ connection to their work and their team.
Related Article: Finding the Balance Between Deep Work and Collaboration
How Do We Make Change?
It’s time to back away from a single collaboration app or platform as the “official” solution for improved collaboration and engagement. Instead of controlling how employees connect, we must focus on allowing for faster information flow however people need. First, IT and others must get comfortable with teams working inside bespoke silos using whatever technology (or lack thereof) suits a team best. This may result in a variety of apps and tools being used, much to the chagrin of IT. But the tools are parenthetical. It’s what happening inside them that truly matters.
Instead of investing time and energy in yet another adoption campaign to convince people to use one centralized tool, working teams need to be granted permission to use a custom combination of digital tools — from phone calls to Slack chats to Teams presentations, from emails and texts to Zoom sessions — and a flexible IT department should enable this flow as its core service offering. It’s inconvenient and unconventional, but it’s the best way to allow information to flow optimally. Other stakeholders like Communications and HR must then also come to terms with not having the chance to force their messages into every single channel where teams are going to work, but their struggles to reach everyone and get eyeballs on content are the subject of another article.
Second, as the world of work has so changed, companies must build meaningful engagement between people and across these silos by investing in non-technical, intentional practices carved out not for productivity, but for learning, asking, documenting, teaching and sharing at scale. Let’s start by stripping digital workplace platforms out of our definition of collaboration and look to other industries for their best practices in knowledge sharing. In the world of medicine, preventable deaths are openly discussed through a process called “mortality and morbidity reviews (MMRs),” which "provide a rigorous, systematic, open, collaborative and transparent review process for clinicians to examine areas of improvement." What if our organizations could adopt this model, effectively concluding projects and teaching anyone interested about the learnings? Instead of hoping that a three-sentence post in a collaboration tool might pique the interest of a few readers, what if employees were invited to pause their work to simply … gather, learn and discuss?
Another model to consider: the Broadway Workshop. Would Lin Manuel Miranda’s musical Hamilton be the global (and profitable) success it is today without years of experimentation, co-creating, learning and adapting? As noted by original Hamilton cast member Betsy Struxness, the early workshop phase of Hamilton “was a whirlwind of scrapping this, remembering that, re-doing that one thing (five times), and barely returning to the things that worked. It was stressful … it was exhilarating.” What if corporations allowed for this deep and penalty-free method of trying out new ideas until innovation blossomed? Could everyday employees feel exhilarated with their work? If we step back from “productivity” as the core tenet of collaboration, then I believe we have new and exciting options at our fingertips.
Companies will get the best of their people when they have the freedom to think and create using whatever means necessary — both technology and less restrictive boundaries. I’m convinced the solution is a set of decentralized norms, behaviors and processes custom-built by and for each working team. Collaboration doesn’t need to be centralized and consumerized; it needs to be flexible and a helpmate to any team’s chosen workflows. The enterprise collaboration of the future must be bespoke, self-governed, encouraged by a forward-thinking IT and executive leadership, and facilitated through the ample provision of time for learning, documenting, sharing and teaching between and across teams. We must invest in the human side of work, which all of us pundits have been saying for years. It is within safe and effective silos, not in some global “everybody” channel, where our people actually want to work, and where we must invest time and energy to help people thrive in ways as unique as their team and goals.
Related Article: One Bright Spot in COVID-19: The Rise of Self-Directed Teams
A Fond Farewell
The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result. I have been advocating for proactive community and change management and reminding companies that technology won’t solve all of our collaboration problems for nearly a decade. After hundreds of digital workplace projects, I’ve finally decided to gracefully step away from collaboration as my primary career. I believe the gap is too wide between what even the best technology adoption can afford and the profound change that needs to happen deep within most organizational cultures. Instead, I’m choosing to embody the pandemic stereotype we’ve all heard about and take my work back to my literal roots, the land. I bought a ranch. I’m learning to farm and manage agricultural resources. I’m partnering with my husband to craft an agro-tourism business that’s yet to be fully defined, but it will be a truly collaborative process between us, our community and the land. I’m keeping my toes in the technology waters by advising, investing and helping small businesses and non-profits grow and thrive. But I’m also keeping my toes in the dirt much more than before.
There are some excellent collaboration and community practitioners out there who have worked tirelessly to get it right. Their companies and clients owe them a debt of gratitude– you know who you are. I am hopeful about innovations from new players in the collaboration world, and I am hopeful that smart companies who care about their teams will focus on individuality and trusting people to do their work. I hope to continue to stay connected with you all in a different context. And for those of you for whom this article and my departure resonates, I’ll leave you with a quote from Alegria, the Cirque du Soleil production that cemented my love of theatre as a teenager: “Once everything has been said and done, who says you can’t start over?”
About the Author
Carrie Basham Marshall is a digital workplace leader now focused on farming and agri-tourism in Northern California. After 15 years building collaboration products (Socialcast) and leading technology implementation projects as the CEO of Talk Social to Me, Carrie advises, invests in, and offers pro-bono consulting for small businesses while building out “The Ranch” as her next career chapter.