Is Collaboration a Crock?

Let us face it; we, as humans, are selfish, individualists, and undoubtedly clinging to any privileges associated with power. Goodwill and sharing among peers follow Nielsen’s principle, and most of us wouldn’t even imagine acting differently unless obliged to. The social Web is opening a path to new ways of fostering knowledge flows inside and outside our organizations, but the need for collaborative behaviors to unlock models of work suitable to the new hyperlinked economy taking shape nowadays is only fulfilled (or even reachable) by few.

Communities and trust: a reality check

In this context, the pillars of efficient and creative collaboration, connected communities and trust, might be far more difficult to leverage than heralded by Enterprise 2.0 enthusiasts. Developing and nurturing communities is a hot topic, but which reality does it uncover? Communities are about passion, and passion is first about learning from your peers. No real community is ever thinkable without that. Thousands of Facebook pages are created every day on the mostly false promise to build communities. Coca-Cola’s page has almost fifteen millions fans but is there a reason to call this gathering a “community”? Is there any in-depth interaction or, let’s say it, collaboration, involved?

The internal version doesn’t behave better. At organizational level, most collaborative work is, in fact, teamwork, where cooperation is aligned along tasks in a linear and predictable way. Communities of practice, which develop truly collaborative and adaptive behaviors along time, rely much more on passion, patience and involvement than on 2.0 technologies to grow and operate. They usually perform well online because they already do offline. Beyond that, many “successful” Enterprise 2.0 case studies do not offer any reality check apart from the number of connections recorded and number of “communities” created. Socialwashing is the new rule of thumb.

Besides nurturing a favorable collective environment, true collaboration requires trust. The problem here is that trust is an endangered quality. Brands cannot ignore that customers are less and less confident every year, and that erosion of trust shows up everywhere, social media space included. Trust inside organizations scores even lower. Micro-management, continuous performance-based evaluation measured against predefined work conditions, hierarchical and economical pressure, have impaired trust among employees in many companies. In a vast majority of circumstances, collaboration is a crock.

Adoption is not diffusion

However, there is no doubt a truly collaborative enterprise is the best-suited organizational model to tackle the increasing complexity of our economical environments, to leverage the power of companies’ ecosystems toward sustainable competitive advantages. More than ever, organizations need a shift. Knowledge workers need to continually have new resources at their disposal, while work and learning must now blend in a continuous stream. But since so few are mature enough to embrace this complexity and allow for redefining work as a fluid, collaborative flow, how can we help and coach the others?

Bertrand Duperrin proposes to introduce social routines in employees’ daily workflows. Such a framework facilitates adoption of collaborative practices, but neither does it question the actual relationships existing among members of a company and the underlying lack of trust, not does it address one of the main shortcomings of business processes: socializing them helps dealing with fuzzy operations, an approach somehow similar to Thingamy’s Barely Repeatable Processes, but does not perform well with uncertain outcomes. Processes need predictable outcomes, which are less and less available.

Gil Yehuda just proposed another framework, asserting that collaborative dynamics could (and should) take place aside traditional management models, hierarchy- and incentives-based forces. He has strong points here, but I believe that enabling collaborative mechanisms would deeply modify the organizational structure, and that their coexistence isn’t sustainable the way he exposes it. What we need is not forcing adoption in conservative structures, but facilitating diffusion, by the use and modification of some existing, but latent, mechanisms, to allow emergence of new ones.

Redefining the internal customer

I recently wrote about the way companies can (and have to) build new relationships with their customers and non-customers. These relationships are not transaction-based, but rely on the value companies can create on helping customers solve their daily problems by making better products and services proposals. The social web facilitates this service-dominant logic, allowing getting better insight from people’s interactions (this is what SocialCRM is about). Establishing this kind of relationships is a necessary prequel to collaboration, which ultimate goal is the co-creation of value. I am not talking about communication or funky social media marketing here, but about a shift in economic and marketing fundamentals. Lack of trust, and the inconsistence of so-called “brand communities” is not an issue in this context. Why couldn’t we apply the same framework into enterprise?

“Customers” always had an internal reality. But companies always work on an outdated definition, most internal interactions being oriented toward selling services or pushing decisions from management to teams. Rather than helping their customers getting their job done through continuous interaction, many support functions put them at the end of process-based funnels. For example, the IT department hopelessly formalizes its relationships with internal customers through requirements, despite their inability to address real-world problems in real-time. Redefining the internal customer according to a service-dominant logic would set up the organizational scene for collaboration. Most departments would benefit from it; HR, for instance, would leverage true career development, beyond roles and job descriptions.

At individual level, the same definition of “customer” (those who are impacted by our acting and proposals) and the very same behaviors would enable a new kind of relationships, and foster a shift toward a collaborative mindset. What if managers consider their teams as customers? Facilitating subordinates’ tasks and listening to the way they deal with them… As Olivier Blanchard pointed out to me, this sounds like good leadership practice. Sure, but while we know how to deal with customers, who knows what a leader exactly is?

I believe that applying internally what we are learning to do with external customers provides a real-life solution to help preparing the shift toward a collaborative enterprise, for the vast majority of organizations in which collaboration is a crock. There is no framework here, just a practical call to action. To facilitate the rise of collaboration, let us redefine the internal customer, and deal with him the same way we now have to deal with our brands’ customers.

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6 Responses to Is Collaboration a Crock?

  1. Gil Yehuda says:

    Thanks for mentioning my post. I’ll share with you a post from Rachel Happe in support of your point regarding the “Coca-cola community” — you are rights — it’s not a community at all. It’s a collection of people who share an affinity with the brand, and some of its products.

    Community is more than an affiliation or an audience. As a member of a community, my identity is impacted. I might even wear a pin on my lapel to declare my membership. I commit my free time in support of the community — and I’ll even defend it when attacked. It’s not a transactional relationship at all. And yet, this does not mean that there are no more transactional relationships in the context of good business.

    I don’t think that the goals of the “social movement” is to change all business translations into conversational relationships. Consumers and employees would be overwhelmed. Sometimes we just want faceless, efficient service. When any good idea is taken to far, then it’s “a crock of…” But let’s not attack the good idea, only those who take it too far.

    • Thierry de Baillon says:

      … or even better, no service at all, as Bill Price and David Jaffe put it in their book 🙂
      I totally agree when you say that we do not always want relationships, and that’s a reason why many brands are (and more will become) in fact commodities.

      We can see the same in Enterprise world: commoditization of knowledge work, eg putting aside relationships, translates in offshoring and is the chosen path of many services companies. Is it sustainable? Will commoditized knowledge be actionable enough to allow for competitivity? That’s a great question I have no answer for.

  2. I wouldn’t go so far as to say that collaboration is a crock. However, I do agree with your contention that the word is misused in most organizations. Far too often, I hear and read people using the term “collaboration” to describe “communication”. The latter is the foundation for the former, without a doubt, but they are not one in the same.

    Organizational leaders – remember, anyone can be a leader, not just someone with an important title – must actively communicate and build trusted relationships themselves, so others can follow their examples. Only after those networks of trusted relationships within and outside the organization are in place, can collaboration (which you defined very well above) occur.

    • Thierry de Baillon says:

      Thanks for commenting, Larry. Indeed, networks of trusted relationships are needed for collaboration to occur, and our work is to help organizations in leveraging and enabling these networks. What I wanted to highlight here is what I am seeing in France day after day: companies where trust has almost completely disappeared, and is replaced by reciprocal as well as hierarchical constraints.

      In these environments, is there a way to reintroduce the necessary mindset other than fostering sometimes desperate bottom-up initiatives or trying to educate at C-level? I believe that following a service-dominant logic and thinking in terms of internal customers might offer an alternate way, settling foundations for further steps.

  3. Pingback: Is Collaboration a Crock? …reading « Simbeck-Hampson Consultancy

  4. As you have wisely asserted, true collaboration is based on trust and trust is best achieved by those who act selflessly. Because of that, I expect to see pure collaboration achieved by only the smallest minority of humans (perhaps .2% of the entire population). That may be online or it could manifest in an actual physical community if enough participants were willing to relocate together.

    People have been conditioned to believe in competition all their lives and most will have difficulty giving up that model. IMHO, most people will remain far too selfish to ever be 100% trustworthy in their behavior toward others. That said, I continually encourage collaboration and believe it is what the few will use to create abundance for those in their community.

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