10 examples of serendipity in social business

One of the main reasons for an enterprise to embrace internal transparency and social collaboration tools is to create an environment where serendipity happens on a regular basis. But what does it really look like when it works? I’ll explain the phenomena in this post with a number of real-life examples I have personally witnessed at work.

What is serendipity?

Serendipity means a fortunate happenstance or a pleasant surprise. It is an event that happens unexpectedly. Perhaps the most famous instance of serendipity is the discovery of penicillin through accidental contamination of laboratory samples.

In the context of social collaboration, serendipity means that you receive unexpected help or information, often from a person you did not know had expertise in the subject.

How to build an environment that creates serendipity?

You can plan to be lucky, there is no reason to leave it all to chance. Transparency is the first requirement for this: unless you publish your ideas and work, no one will ever know about them. Other than that, social collaboration systems can be designed to promote the appearance of content so that people have an opportunity to see it, and activity streams are one of the main tools that can be used to accomplish this.

It is important to note that they goal is not to make all content seen by everyone, that would result in a huge information overload. The goal is to have all content visible for everyone, and it is enough to have a wide variety of people actually see the content, who can then either act on it or who might know someone else who can contribute and will be able to forward the information to them. Furthermore, as some content becomes popular, it will also be displayed more prominently, and thus further extend its reach. If you work in a company with 1000 employees, it is great if 100 of them see the content, that can already help a lot.

Note that while this discussion is centered around internal transparency, there are further benefits in opening up to the outside – to suppliers, customers, or even the general public – although those also come with some additional risks that do not need to be considered on internal transparency.

10 examples of serendipity in social business

Example #1: I was looking into some potential paths for a pricing strategy, and, as I always do, I wrote a blog post on the company intranet discussing various ideas and options. The next day, an electrical engineer posted a comment on the blog suggesting that an application of ultimatum games from game theory could be useful in solving one of my problems. Was he one of the people I had in mind to discuss game theory, or pricing, with? No, but he was still able to contribute.

Example #2: I was planning to start working on a market analysis in a couple of weeks, when I noticed on our intranet that our Sales Manager for Japan was visiting the headquarters this week. We post all programs for extended visits from foreign offices on our intranet in order to improve opportunities for face to face meetings. I was able to arrange a face-to-face meeting with the Sales Manager, and received a lot of material for my analysis that would have been cumbersome to achieve over video conference.

Example #3: Regarding the same market analysis, I noticed on our intranet that we had a training program ongoing for one of our new Sales Managers, and one of our Sales Engineers had just prepared brand new material for that program – material that I could use for the analysis. We post all training programs and related materials on our intranet in order to give anyone at the company access to the material – and if there is enough space, even an opportunity to join in on the training.

Example #4: This one has actually happened lots of times. We have our internal feedback system on a social collaboration platform. There is a process where feedback is categorized and pre-studied by the quality department, but as the material is public immediately after the Save button is clicked, engineers often react and fix any issues before the formal process can react.

Example #5: We have our internal innovation portal on a social collaboration platform. I posted an idea on using some different technology for one of our products, and that triggered a discussion where people from multiple departments participated in, some of them even sharing experiences on how similar attempts had been made twenty years ago, and how they failed with the state that technology was in back then. Would it have been possible to gather all those opinions and all that data as effortlessly via a coordinated effort? Probably not.

Example #6: We have our R&D projects on a social collaboration platform. When analysis is being made, for example on variable-speed drives or different mechanical load handling devices, people from all over the organization comment and give feedback – both technological and customer-related.

Example #7: We have our delivery projects on a social collaboration platform. All change requests and meeting memos are saved there, and this enables them to benefit from improvements throughout the organization. In one case, an R&D engineer solved a problem with a delivery project even though he was not related to the project team in any way. He had just spotted a discussion about the problem and had a solution ready at hand.

Example #8: We store all claims from customers on a social collaboration platform. In one case, a claim from the USA received a response from our service team in Germany, and then another one from India. We had a batch of defective parts in our systems that caused sporadic errors! Because the errors only happened every now and then, this was really difficult to notice, and without global collaboration we would not have had a clue that something was wrong systematically. The error was difficult to ultimately diagnose as well, but because we had convincing data that there was something wrong, we were able to persevere, find the problem, and fix all the affected systems, including ones that had yet to suffer any downtime. Without collaboration, these issues would have been uncovered over a period of several years.

Example #9: We monitor future trends on a social collaboration platform. One that I am personally really excited about is additive manufacturing (3D printing). You would never know who are the people interested in future trends without a social collaboration platform, where we post news about it as we come across them. Having our antennas out is not just the job of R&D, but of anyone who enjoys it!

Example #10: We monitor our competition on a social collaboration platform. You never know who spots a piece of news about your competitor or comes across some of their products. Well, actually, you can know, if you gather competitive intelligence on a social collaboration platform, where people tell about things they have seen. This information definitely does not come only from sales and marketing!

This is just the beginning

I hope the ten examples above have opened your eyes to the potential of social business and related internal transparency. Note that these examples were only from within the enterprise – I have not yet fully experienced such transparency beyond the organization’s borders. However, even just working within, social collaboration can unleash the huge potential of serendipity to improve business results.

If you are dissatisfied that none of these examples could quite compare to the discovery of penicillin, there is one important consideration to keep in mind: Most improvement is incremental. It is not about making huge strides, but about making a thousand small steps all around the organization every day.

Photo: A Little Luck by JD Hancock @ Flickr (CC)

Author: Ville Kilkku

I run my own consultancy business, so if you find the ideas on this blog intriguing, contact me at consulting@kilkku.com or call me at +358 50 588 5043 and we can discuss how I can help you solve your business problems. I am currently based in Tornio, Finland, but work globally. Google+