It’s not about the technology


Jay Cross argues that online collaboration is not just about the technology.

To the best of my knowledge, this is the first article on online collaboration written explicitly for managers to focus on people and politics instead of buzzwords and technology.

The business press, executive conferences, and other leading voices can’t stop talking about Web 2.0 and collaboration. You’ve read the stories: The web is now Web 2.0, the read/write web. Wikipedia is a user-written encyclopaedia written entirely by volunteers. Facebook and YouTube are growing faster than the web in its meteoric growth phase. Google’s P/E ratio is astronomical.

This is all well and good, but it provides no guidance to the business manager who wants to take advantage of the new technology.

Managers need to know the opportunities and the pitfalls, applications and benefits, tricks of the trade and where to begin.

People working together are vastly more productive than people working in isolation.

Collaboration is about building relationships that foster ideas, intentions, and interests. Coworkers learn from one another. They inspire one another. They build on each another’s ideas. Small groups of them can move mountains. A collaborative enterprise with shared values and common purpose can change the world.

Workers innately know that when people work together they produce greater results and enjoy their work more, too. Until quite recently, collaboration was not easy, especially if distance was involved, people didn’t have access to 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 cheap, too. Workers complain about silos; social networks enable them to walk through silo walls. Companies are losing customers disgusted with unhelpful help desks, phone labyrinths, and not understanding what’s going on. Transparency and self-service are the cure.

In business, collaboration is a means to an end, and that end is prosperity, longevity, and growth. 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.

What’s holding us back? It’s no longer the technology. It’s the people and their organisations. That’s what this article is all about. How are companies working with their people to take advantage of the power of the collaborative web? Why might you want your organisation to embrace web 2.0? To collaborate is to work jointly with others or together, especially in an intellectual endeavour (Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary).

Business has already squeezed the big process improvements out of its industrial systems. For many companies, the benefits of collaboration and networking 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 and learn.

Web 2.0, the ‘collaborative web,’ makes 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 overcomes the danger of mistaking obsolete information for current. Distance no longer keeps workers apart. As we remove obstacles, the time required to do anything shrivels up.

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. As Eugene Kim has noted, “There is no such thing as collaboration without a goal.”

The Web is chock full of explanations of blogs, tags, and other social software. Little has been written about how managers can put these things to work. 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.

Following the suggestions here may improve your odds of success but there’s no guarantee. Successful collaboration requires dedication, continuous small improvements, and cultural support.

Companies are using social software to:

  • Speed up the flow of information through the organisation
  • Improve customer service
  • Streamline workflow and slash bureaucracy
  • Unleash the power of collective intelligence
  • Create a nerve centre 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, social software is simple, unstructured, emergent, inherently transparent, and can scale.

The balance of this article tells what companies did to achieve these benefits and share their advice on being successful while avoiding the pitfalls. Changing the nature of how people relate to one another at work is not easy. People, organisations, and corporate cultures have different views on being open, taking risks, trying new things, realigning responsibilities, learning new technologies, and trusting one another. What works in one organisation may fail in the next.
The safe approach is to begin with a few small- scale experiments, score some successes, and replicate them in other areas of the company. As the technology takes hold, policies are drawn to enforce common standards and safe behaviour.

Once upon a time, there were three bears: Baby Bear, Mama Bear, and Papa Bear. Baby Bear was curious, enthusiastic, and a bit unruly. Mama Bear was practical, cautious, and experimented in the kitchen. Paper Bear spent most of his time hibernating but was a powerhouse once he woke up and smelled the coffee.

The bears mirror the stages of adoption of online collaborative environments. (We use a fairy tale because while the bears’ biographies are drawn from real life, their stories have been simplified, merged, and selectively edited here. The real world is never this simple). You’re about to get a bear’s eye view of collaboration, its business value, and potential pitfalls, at each stage.

Baby bear Mama bear Papa bear
Motivation Curiosity, immediate need Opportunistic application Leverage enterprise assets
Focus Prototyping Applying Exploiting
Level Individual, team Group, department Enterprise
Benefits realised Capture organisation-wide knowledge and keep it alive, save time, self-service information, non-controversial projects Increase innovation, cut bureaucracy, don’t re-invent the wheel, simplify project management Nimble, quick-response organisation, improve service
Sample project Coordinate supplier information across company Google searching inside the firewall Knowledge management that works

Originally the web resembled a brochure; you could read it but not much else. Now the web is morphing into a stage. The audience are becoming the actors. The set is flexible. Most of the acting/collaboration is improvisational. The platform does not determine what takes place on stage. It’s an environment.

Andy McAfee says “Enterprise 2.0 is the use of emergent social software platforms within companies, or between companies and their partners or customers.”

Figuring out the nuts and bolts of the technology is the easy part. If you want to find out more about the technologies underneath social software, check out Ross Dawson’s wonderful diagram of the collaborative web on the next page.

I’m going to use the terms social software, web 2.0, and collaborative online environment interchangeably. It’s all a mix of blogs, wikis, RSS, mash-ups, search engines, tags, widgets, and bots. The medium is not the message.


Baby Bear is intensely curious, driven to try new things just for the heck of it. Most collaboration projects begin at the bottom of the organisation and migrate upward. Typically, a young internet enthusiast who knows the web 2.0 environment joins the company. She sees an opportunity to improve local performance with a blog or wiki. She takes a proposal to her manager. One hopes that the manager asks “What’s the business case?” If they decide the proposal is worthy of consideration, the next step will be to create a prototype to try the idea on for size.

Happily, the costs of setting up a web 2.0 application are trivial. Furthermore, applications are simple to program. You no longer need to be a programmer to produce a prototype for show-and-tell. Many a prototype has been developed in a matter of hours.

Baby bear is the application champion. If he is low in the organisation, he probably begins with a simple, free, online wiki to deal with
a local problem and builds support by pointing people to the wiki. Baby bears come in all sizes. In addition to the local enthusiasts, social software projects have been initiated by:

  • CIO – fulfiling request from others
  • CIO – trial, seeing if it lives up to rumours
  • Line manager with specific problem to solve
  • Staff – exploring process improvements
  • HR – best practices, organisation development
  • Exec – read about it in airplane magazine
  • Exec – major push, organisational challenge.

The U.S. Department of Defence spends the most money on training of any organisation in the world, yet a simple web application started by two company commanders on their own has become the most important source of collaboration and knowledge sharing among officers in Iraq.

Two company commanders who had been classmates at West Point shared quarters. In the evening, they would talk over the day’s events and reflect on what they had learned. Sensing that other officers might want to join the conversation, they started a blog. Rather than go through channels, they didn’t ask for permission. (Anyone can set up a blog for free in less than five minutes.)

The blog spread virally among company commanders, becoming more valuable as more voices chimed in. Soon the blog, Company Command, was a must-read. Unlike material coming from the Pentagon, the conversations in the blog told what had happened only hours before; they were in everyday, conversational English, not bureaucratese; they focused on need-to-know information for survival, not something one might use next year.

In another case, a staffer in a large company thought an in-house Wikipedia would help employees find information and retain a corporate memory. A technology evangelist downloaded free software and implemented a wiki behind the firewall. It soon became the bridge among five divisional silos and the go-to place for finding things out. Volunteers populated the system with handy information from all corners. New hires get up to speed by spending a day exploring the in-house information centre.

Bottom-up collaborative environments all over the corporation tend to improve functions that are already in place. Criteria for selection: pick the low-hanging fruit.

When small projects gain enough attention to appear on the corporate radar, responsibility for selecting and implementing social software is delegated to the IT department, either to take the prototype forward or perhaps because the IT press and CIO community say it’s the thing to do. CIO magazine, once sceptical of the web as an intrusion onto IT’s turf, is now singing its praises, e.g.:

One of the driving forces behind Web 2.0 is the virtual office – teams of far-flung experts collaborating online to create a whole greater than the sum of its contributors

A KM system that’s ‘actually being used’ – this kind of language hints at the scepticism both users and CIOs have had about KM for years.

One final bit of good news: Users say the new, simpler KM tools make it easier to justify the investment to your fellow C-level executives. “It can be very difficult to make a pitch to senior management about why knowledge management is important, because it’s not real to them,” explains Northwestern Mutual’s Austin. Now, she just shows them blog users engaged in explaining their projects to coworkers.

Enterprise 2.0 tools make it easier to share and organise information. Tagging and rating provide a straightforward way to find content and make judgments about what to look at. Blogs and wikis are natural collaboration and communication platforms. Social network tools help staff find the right individual or group of people. Enterprise 2.0 has the potential to provide knowledge and content management in a surprisingly cheap and easy fashion using Web-based tools (ABC An Introduction to Web 2.0, CIO magazine, July 12, 2007).

Sometimes IT becomes involved because it controls everything to do with computers. This can have disastrous consequences if IT takes full control. Implementing online collaboration deals more with people issues than software decisions, but IT people solve IT issues.

A typical selection process may involve setting up a matrix of vendors and features, yet features are unimportant compared to ease of use and other factors. Social software is often lightweight, but inexpensive can translate as unimportant to IT. The upshot is that often the customer view is not taken into account.
Little bear needs IT’s help in enforcing the standards necessary for efficiency. IT should lend its expertise and influence in security, compliance, and building a foundation for growth.

If not an IT decision, a business user with a problem to solve probably initiates the inquiry. Sometimes the goal is meta, for example, increasing innovation. More often the issue is immediately practical, for example  onboarding 1,500 new staff or tracking plans for 75 customers. Criteria for selection: solve a burning business problem.

Sometimes executives mandate experiments with social software because they’ve read about it in the business press or hear success stories from colleagues. Their interest may be faster cycle times, unleashing corporate wisdom, consolidating an acquisition, or other over-arching need. Criteria for
project selection: focus on strategically important areas.

One of the driving forces behind Web 2.0 is the virtual office – teams of far-flung experts collaborating online to create a whole greater than the sum of its contributors.

At this stage, all we have is a prototype. Nonetheless it’s a good idea to test the water before jumping into the pool. At least that will keep you from diving into hot water.

Consultant, online advocate, and champion of NGOs Beth Kanter has lots of experience assessing whether an organisation is ready for online collaboration. Beth thinks you are not ready if:

  • Management is obsessively controlling
  • The organisation will not accept changes in how you work
  • Your employees are not online
  • Everything must be vetted by central authority

On the other hand, you may be prepared if you want to:

  • Make it easy for people to share knowledge
  • Are willing to share ideas in progress and let others join in
  • Want to enable many voices
  • Can deal with messiness

Your mileage may vary, but initial projects have a better chance of thriving if:

  • Participants have a shared need.
  • It’s easy for participants to see what’s in it for them.
  • The information involved is not controversial.
  • A sound business case can be made.
  • Stand-alone implementation is feasible (i.e. not requiring connection with other systems)
  • The project yields a good example to use when getting support for other projects.
  • You can open in New Haven.

New Haven? Sixty years ago, producers staged new plays at the Shubert Theatre in New Haven, Connecticut, before taking them to Broadway. No critics were in the audience, so if a major overhaul was required before the official release, no one was the wiser. Similarly, if your first prototype bombs, it’s nice to be able to sweep it under the carpet and begin anew.

To maintain focus, the owner of a project should prepare a document in response to these questions:

  • What is the goal of the collaboration?
  • What’s the current situation?
  • What do you expect it to be after the project?
  • How will this be accomplished?
  • What is the business benefit? (In business terms).
  • How do you quantify the size of the benefit?
  • Who’s going to take part?
  • What might go wrong?
  • Is this a one-time project or an on-going process?
  • Do we have sponsorship higher up?
  • Who will participate on the team?
  • If it’s a one-timer, when will it be completed? What is the kill date?

Display your answers prominently on the wiki, blog, or whatever tool is involved.

It’s great to begin a long-term collaboration with a face-to-face meeting. Either in person or virtual, social bonding comes before business, for that’s the platform on which the work will be built. Begin with games and getting-to-know-you exercises. Give people time to talk and become familiar with one another.

Social connections remain vital throughout the collaboration. People work best with people they know. Encourage people to share information about themselves. Post photographs of participants. Pinpoint their locations on a map. It’s important that collaborators are working under the same set of assumptions. Discuss each of these areas and ask for individual commitment to them.

  • Respect the team, and do what is best to accomplish the objective. Be selfless, not selfish.
  • Members will be active. If a member spots something to improve the collaboration, she volunteers to do it.
  • Members freely share ideas and suggestions. They do not hoard information or keep secrets.
  • Members treat each other with respect. The team is committed to continuous improvement.
  • Members care for one another emotionally, helping one another over rough spots and fears.
  • Use whatever tools are appropriate to advance the project: phone calls, on-line meetings.
  • Members trust one another. They ‘make this marriage work.’

Be prepared for push-back. Workers who see collaboration as hindering their work rather than supporting it will be reluctant to join the effort. organisations that are accustomed to a single viewpoint (usually top management’s) can become rattled as other voices begin to speak. It’s useful to recruit a band of early supporters to help sell the value of the project.

You cannot learn to swim without getting in the water. You will not appreciate collaborative technology without writing entries in a blog, taking part in a wiki, and subscribing to an RSS feed.

If you haven’t experienced these things, don’t go into denial. Yes, you really need to do them. No, logic is insufficient for grasping what is going on. It needn’t take more than an hour or two, spread out over a week or two to experience these things. Find a private place to practice. Trust us, it’s painless. And you’ll be rewarded with not only your online collaboration license but also a big ah-ha of understanding.

To earn your automobile license, you have to demonstrate that you can drive the vehicle. Likewise, you don’t really qualify for a collaboration driver license until you’ve taken part in a successful collaboration.

Hints on what works with social software

  • Keep it simple
  • Keep it flexible
  • Do it yourself (blog/wiki) or you won’t understand it
  • Be innovative, ever alert to productivity improvements
  • Be open to new ways of doing things
  • Release early and release often. Just do it
  • Promotion is important. Remind people where to look
  • Focus on the function rather than on the tools
  • Provide step-by-step how-to guides
  • Provide the opportunity to celebrate small successes
  • Give people time to practice using the software – it is easy to forget how to do things, especially when you don’t use the software regularly.

Mama Bear is practical. She has little choice: raising a cub while holding down a full-time job is no picnic. Baby Bear was happy to conduct experiments. Mama Bear is hungry for major change. She is chasing after value. Baby Bear was a little scared; Mama is a fearless huntress. Baby Bear tried a few prototypes. Mama contemplates a network of networks that’s grows like a virus.

Metcalf’s Law posits that value of a network grows exponentially with the addition of connections. Left unfettered, network nodes reproduce like rabbits on espresso. Think, for example, of the hyper growth of the internet, the web, MySpace, YouTube, and FaceBook. Once social networks take hold, expect them to grow like topsy, too. Moreover, the denser the network, the faster its cycle time. More connections make it quicker to get from one node to another.

Imagine how this can happen in an organisation. The first nodes appear as the company experiments with a few small projects such as co-ordinating online project groups or making it easier to find information with a ‘Wikipedia inside.’ New hires are accustomed to going wherever they wish in a network; imagine that they begin communicating between silos.

HR realises that the company-pedia can accelerate onboarding new employees. Customer service improves as everyone gains access to corporate resources such as who does what and how to find them. Replacing multiple versions with a single source of information cuts bureaucracy and chops email volume back. The growth of corporate connections feeds on itself.

Baby Bear was looking for simple applications that showed the potential of online collaboration. Mama Bear is out for the biggest bang for the buck. She will have to explain her choices to the bears with more seniority. It’s sensitive.

Here’s a list of organisational dysfunctions and opportunities for improvement that others have solved using enterprise 2.0. Mama Bear will use the list to set her mind to work; she will share it with the other bears to get their insight. Which of these things will return the most value to the corporation?

Inefficiency and bureaucracy

  • Deluged by internal email
  • Can’t find the right person when you need to
  • People don’t know who knows what
  • Can’t find the right information when you need it
  • Project coordination is tedious and things fall through the cracks
  • Re-invent the same documents and processes over and over again
  • Departments squabble more often than they collaborate
  • Don’t learn from the people who join us from competitors
  • Execs can’t get a read of progress on projects
  • Documentation is dated, versions confuse Not learning
  • Not prepared for the onslaught of digital natives we’re recruiting
  • Training can’t keep pace with the business
  • Training administration, creation, and delivery cost too much
  • Managers hoard information
  • Not learning fast enough to keep up with the needs of our business

Unenthusiastic, sluggish staff

  • Recruiting is harder than ever
  • Some do the minimum to get by
  • People are not innovators and don’t keep up
  • Our know-how is walking out the door due to retirement and turnover
  • People are glum because of the economy, an industry slump, etc
  • Turnover is too high
  • When good people leave, we never see or hear from them again
  • No time for experimentation or prototyping Underdeveloped organisation
  • Difficult to collaborate inside the corporate firewall
  • Difficult to collaborate outside the corporate firewall
  • People prefer to work solo than on teams
  • Takes too long for new hires to become productive
  • Analysis paralysis
  • ‘Wait and see’ attitude = missed opportunities
  • Culture clash, as if we are two organisations with different priorities

Suboptimal execution

  • Not everyone is on the same page
  • Our people don’t know our history, values, culture
  • Set in our ways, reluctant to change
  • Not moving fast enough to stay ahead of competitors
  • Functional silos thwart process improvement
  • Still acting like two separate organisations long after the merger
  • Hard to find out where we are as an organisation
  • Teams don’t talk about the trends and forces that drive our business
  • Don’t reflect on the lessons of our successes and failures
  • Don’t take advantage of our collective intelligence

Substandard revenue

  • Sales are declining, customers are postponing decisions
  • Sales and marketing departments are on different planets
  • Sales force cannot express benefits of new products
  • Sellers unaware of industry conditions and competition
  • Friction in relationships with distributors
  • Partners are not well informed
  • Relationships with customers are arms-length Deficient service
  • Response time to customers is sub-par
  • After-sales enquiries are bogging down our call centres
  • 800 numbers and phone trees are driving customers away
  • Service is inconvenient for customers, not 24/7
  • We don’t learn from our customers
  • Not building customer loyalty
  • Customer and prospects are confused, frustrated

As the organisation’s use of collaborative software crosses the chasm from speciality item to important business process, focus shifts to keeping collaboration vibrant, disseminating lessons learned, and informally benchmarking performance.

Companies that have made the transition suggest these practices for maintaining momentum after initial enthusiasm wears thin:

  • Dismantle roadblocks to collaboration
  • Make the goal and ground rules clear at the outset
  • Structure the initial framework to fit the task
  • Make the online environment attracting and inviting
  • Pre-load templates, background info, defaults
  • Provide emotional support for newcomers
  • Delegate responsibility for keeping the ball rolling to the team
  • Rely on self-regulation
  • Don’t micro-manage
  • Market the service: publicity, seed with enthusiasts, contests
  • Incentives to get things ramped up
  • Report results at least quarterly
  • Conclude project teams with written evaluation
  • Participants suggest “How we can make this better”
  • Don’t skimp on investment. This is all cheap compared to the alternative.
  • Use bots to send periodic reminders about what’s going on
  • Encourage (or enforce!) tagging, making things searchable and thus easier to use

Many workers are drowning in information and info-clutter. Their lives are not their own because they feel they must deal with every incoming email or announcement.

Every day it’s as if an evil genie dumps boatloads of information, price increases, questions, recall notices, changes to plans, trade regulations, competitive threats, and email into our offices to greet us in the morning.

Most of what we receive is not relevant to our needs; it was the product of a thoughtless cc: or mass mailing. As with spam, the sender incurs no cost but the recipient pays dearly in time and distraction.

One way out of this quagmire is going after the information you need rather than taking all the information that is pushed on you. My first blog post on the first day of 2007 said “The tide will turn, saving humankind from drowning in diversions. At the point of being overwhelmed by repeated shotgun blasts of
infobits, people will turn the gun around and hunt down what they want.”

We’ll be able to select what mail, email, television programmes, phone calls, and reports we want in our lives. We’re accustomed to taking whatever is delivered; in the future, we’ll take what we choose. Media, software, training, and telephones will give us the ability to filter what gets past our personal firewalls.

I’m not predicting that pull will replace push everywhere we get information, just that the balance will shift more toward the pull end of the spectrum than the push.

As social networks become more visible in the organisation, they are certain to attract scrutiny by senior managers who never received their Online Collaboration Driver License. Giving every worker the ability to write things into documents that can be seen by all looks like a formula for chaos. And won’t some bad actors muck about, spraying the files with digital graffiti. Time and time again, the answer has turned out to be ‘no.’

Jimmy Wales, the founder of Wikipedia, has addressed the issue of vandalism countless times. He draws an analogy to opening a new restaurant. This is America, so the restaurant is going to serve steak. Some steak is tough, so he will provide patrons with steak knives. People can stab one another with knives, so he will seat his guests in cages.

Whoa! Time out! You’ve got to trust the people to behave in a civilised manner or give up on the restaurant idea entirely.

And so it goes with open collaboration in the corporate world. Employees don’t turn into monsters just because they are online. Everything submitted carries the name of its author. What better way to lose your job than by acting foolishly in front of all to see.

Nonetheless, because this is a new medium and because you’ve got corporate attorneys assuming the worst, it’s wise to set expectations and post guidelines. Here’s one organisation’s policy for participating in the in-house wiki:

Assume good faith. Assume that most people who work on the project are trying to help it, not hurt it.

Civility. Being rude, insensitive or petty makes people upset and hinders collaboration. Try to discourage others from being uncivil, and be careful to avoid offending people unintentionally.

Common sense. Don’t do anything in the collaborative environment that you wouldn’t do face to face.

Editing policy. Improve pages wherever you can, and don’t worry about leaving them imperfect. (It’s all beta.)

No personal attacks. Do not make personal attacks. Comment on content, not on the contributor. Personal attacks damage the community and deter users. Nobody likes abuse.

Ownership of articles. You agreed to allow others to modify your work. So let them.

Papa Bear, sometimes known as executive management, has slept through Baby’s and Mama’s online collaborative campaigns. Sleep is good, he thinks to himself. Having been around long enough to be sporting an occasional grey hair, Papa’s nose tells him something important is going on.

Papa Bear’s primary concern is milking online collaboration and Enterprise 2.0 for all they are worth. He knows it’s important for workers, clients, and partners to connect and collaborate. Papa Bear wants to be certain he’s leaving no honey, oops money, on the table.

The rest of the business world was hardly standing still while Papa Bear hibernated, for this is the age of networks. Collaborative software will connect prospects and sales people, customers and service, partners and product information, and supply chain with operations.

The future world of business is evolving into plug-and-play, outsourcing functions that are not core. Internet technology provides a common language for connecting business functions and processing routine transactions. “I’ll have my computers talk with your computers.”

Papa Bear knows that without an online collaboration framework in-house, the company could be cut off from its customers and business partners. Also, it’s unlikely many of the people being hired right out of college would buy into the old lone worker with pencil and paper routine.

Papa Bear expects collaboration and network infrastructure to follow the trajectory of IT. At first, computing was relegated to the low- hanging fruit: routine tasks like accounting that were simple to automate with the same logic humans had already applied. In time, IT expanded to become enterprise software, an octopus hooked into sales, inventory, accounting, financial forecasting, HR, marketing, business intelligence, and vendor relations. Collaboration – relationships – give an organisation the agility to adapt to change and the speed to create value ahead of others.

Whenever a bottom-up phenomenon in business evolves into a strategically vital proposition, executive management steps in to insure the firm isn’t treading on thin ice and to track to make sure the return their investment is optimal, neither too risky nor too conservative.

For three hundred years, bears (and people) have revered efficiency, productivity, the accumulation of wealth, and things they could see and touch. This view of the world became second nature, so obvious that we didn’t question it. Until now. We are in transition from the industrial age to the network era. When it’s difficult for people to make connections, knowledge and power are scarce, and a few ‘haves’ control the ‘have-nots’. We see this top-down structure in feudalism, kingdoms, colonies, armies, and industrial organisations.

When it becomes easy for people to make connections, knowledge and power are distributed, and everyone has a say. The internet lives to make connections, millions of them daily. Connections beget connections, making the whole ever more value, and perhaps ending up a ‘singularity’ where things happen so fast that we no longer recognise what’s going on.

No organisation inhabits these extremes. Even the most command-and-control firm uses email and has internet access; the most networked still harbour unconnected nooks and crannies. Most knowledge organisations today find themselves in this in-between state. They have one foot in the command-and-control model. New hires, at this point twenty-somethings, are bringing the ways they have been doing projects at home with them.

New recruits are refusing to work with organisations that don’t permit them to post a personal profile, use instant messenger, and connect to friends when they encounter a question. Elliott Masie tells of his disappointment with a new hire who had the continual distraction of six friends always a click away on her desktop. How could she concentrate? Then he realised that instead of having one new person working for The Masie Centre, he had seven!

We’re not all Motorolas or Ciscos, ready to adopt new technology at the drop of a hat. Most companies are somewhere between being stuck in the past and embracing the future.

I think of organisations with the industrial-age beliefs as ice, because they are rigid. In addition to their orientation to control, ice organisations think business is a zero-sum game; for me to win, you must lose. They have a black-and-white view of the world; things are rigid; the fundamentals still apply. Secrecy is competition advantage; hoarding information is the norm.

Water companies are less sure of themselves or what the future will bring; Reality is the unpredictable result of complex adaptive forces. Nothing’s perfect; stuff happens. Cooperation is a win-win game. Relationships are all-important, and the more open you are, the easier it is to form them.

Where is your organisation? Ice or water? Your answers to a few questions will probably make it clear:

  • Can employees access the entire internet from their desktops?
  • Are People in our company not learning and growing fast enough to keep up with the needs of our business?
  • Does corporate policy forbid blogging outside our firewall.
  • Do our sales people share sales techniques and call reports online?
  • Following a major success or failure, do we take time to reflect on what we’ve learned?
  • Do people know how their work relates to our mission and vision?
  • Do employees in one department know what’s happening in other parts of the company?
  • Is it simple to set up an online meeting here?
  • Does my team frequently talk about the trends and forces that drive our business?
  • Are relationships between departments cooperative and effective?
  • Do we distribute information through podcasts?
  • Do we believe in transparency and openness whenever possible?

You don’t need an answer key to figure out where you are.

If your company is on the water side, you are a candidate for the transformation Andy McAfee describes.

In the interest of getting a lot of suggestions in front of you, I have focused on what has worked. One could write a longer paper on what has not gone well. Implementing collaboration online systems is not a day at the beach. Doing it right takes vision, persistence, and courage. Don’t give up; the rewards are worth the effort.

In your father’s time, workers prospered by knowing how to do their jobs and doing them. In our time, workers get along by connecting with others and staying in sync with ever- changing conditions. Increasingly, what they need to know is not in their heads; it’s a shared understanding held by lots of people. Having exceeded the limits of what any of us can understand on our own, we turn to our collective intelligence to survive.

Organisations at the top of the food chain are shucking off industrial-age thinking as best they can, but it is difficult. Since your great- great- great- great- great- great- great- greatgrandfather’s day, we’ve revered efficiency, productivity, the accumulation of wealth, and things we could see and touch. The game is changing. With one foot in the industrial age and the other in the evolving network age, our organisations are being ripped up the middle. The world is too volatile to wait for it to pass over.

Never before in history has progress raced along at such a rate that children lap their parents. If you’d like to brainstorm how to inject collaborative technology into your organisation, please call me or any thirteen-year old. Collaborate with them.