Collaborate or die

The Wall Street Journal, Business Week, Forbes, Stephen Colbert, the Manchester Guardian, Learning Circuits, and other leading voices can’t stop talking about Web 2.0. You’ve read the stories: The web is now the read/write web. Wikipedia is an encyclopaedia of 9.1 million articles in 253 languages, written entirely by volunteers. Facebook, YouTube, and Flickr are growing faster than the web in its meteoric growth phase. There are 70 million blogs online, and 120,000 new blogs are created every day (that’s about 1.4 new blogs per second). These phenomena are global; only 35% of all blogs are in English.

This is all well and good, but it provides no guidance to the manager who wants to take advantage of the new technologies. Managers need to know the opportunities and the pitfalls, applications and benefits, tricks of the trade and lessons of experience. That’s the sort of thing I intend to start (but not finish) here.

The Web is chock full of explanations of blogs, tags, and other social software.1 I interviewed scores of people to capture their thoughts on the human side of implementing and sustaining collaborative networks. As you would expect, people have different notions of what works. I’ve tried to capture these multiple perspectives in the checklists and vignettes that follow.

Collaboration rules.

When people work together instead of individually, they produce greater results and derive more pleasure from their work. Until quite recently, collaboration was not easy, especially when distance was involved or people couldn’t access the same information or a worker couldn’t figure out who was the right person to contact. Those barriers are fading fast. Software and networks that support collaboration are in place and inexpensive. Everyone complains about departmental silos; social networks bore through silo walls.

I asked Harvard Business School’s Andrew McAfee, who coined the term Enterprise 2.0, why he thinks social software will transform the business world. He told me that today’s collaborative technologies can knit together an enterprise and facilitate knowledge work in ways that were simply not possible previously. They have the potential to usher in a new era by making both the practices of knowledge work and its outputs more visible.

Many Happy Returns

Business has already squeezed the big process improvements out of its physical systems, but for many companies, collaboration and networking processes are virgin territory. The upside potential is staggering: people innovating, sharing, supporting one another, all naturally and without barriers. The traditional approach has been to automate routine tasks in order to reduce cost; the new vision is to empower people to take advantage of their innate desire to share, learn together and innovate.

Web 2.0, the “collaborative web,” renders overstuffed file cabinets and hard drives overflowing with email obsolete. Members of a group can share information and make improvements to one copy that’s virtually available to everyone. Workers learn to remix rather than re-invent, and having everyone read from the same page reduces the odds of mistaking obsolete information for current. Distance no longer keeps workers apart. As we remove obstacles, the time required to do anything shrivels up.

Why bother?

Collaboration that does not increase revenue, improve relationships with customers, cut costs, grow employees, expand innovation, communicate values, streamline the work process, or help execute strategy should not be funded.

Companies are using social software to:

Speed up the flow of information through the organization
Improve customer service
Streamline workflow and slash bureaucracy
Unleash the power of collective intelligence
Create nerve centers for corporate news and market intelligence
Make all corporate know-how accessible 24/7
Recruit the best candidates for new positions and make them productive quickly
Replace training classes with informal, hands-on learning
Open the process of innovation to all employees
Help workers build strong, supportive relationships
Enable managers to assess the status and direction of projects
Empower all employees to contribute ideas and feel part of the team
Develop more productive relationships with customers, prospects, recruits, partners, supply chain, and other employees

Compared to old-style groupware such as Lotus Notes, today’s social software is simple, unstructured, emergent, inherently transparent, and it scales.