April 28, 2008

Collaborating for Fun or Work or Both?

In his post, The Muddle in the Collaboration Middle, Tom Davenport sets out what he views as the two viable uses for collaboration and collaborative technologies in the workplace:

* Fun -- collaboration for purely social purposes

* Work -- collaboration for narrowly-defined business purposes

He goes on to say that businesses fail when they try to use social media for any purposes that lie somewhere in the "muddled middle" between work and fun. He continues,
Where organizations get in trouble is when they venture into the muddled middle between these two options. They throw out some collaborative tools—either new-style social media like wikis and social networks, or old-style tools like Notes or Sharepoint or ERoom—and say, “go forth and be collaborative.” They don’t insist on a collaborative objective or business benefit, but they still somehow expect business value. They seem to assume that just because a technology is available, it will lead to collaboration, and that the collaboration will yield an ROI. I’ve seen countless instances where this hasn’t worked, and very few where it has.
While I'd be the last person to argue against his warning about relying solely on tools without sufficient thought for the business objectives, there may be a nuance here that we ought to consider: using social media for fun at work may be a critical precondition to using these tools successfully for just work. In my post on Creating a Culture of Collaboration, some of the necessary prerequisites of a truly collaborative culture listed there are: building trust, and creating space and time for informal connections among colleagues. These are exactly the sorts of things that social media can help with. It may be that through the implementation of the right tools, an organization can focus and strengthen its bent towards collaboration by making collaboration easier. Once that culture of collaboration is deeply rooted within an organization, collaboration for strictly business purposes will be a natural outgrowth of the existing social interactions.

So have we been unfair in our expectations of social media? If we put the work cart before the fun/social network horse, should we be surprised when there is disappointing user adoption? Perhaps it's time that we reordered things: first build the trust and social networks, then recruit those networks to engage in specific business projects. That's when we'll see the true power of collaborating for fun AND work together.

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