On the failed promise of social collaboration: reply to Boyd

On the failed promise of social collaborationStowe Boyd recently blogged about what he calls the failed promise of social collaboration, where social collaboration tools in fact reduce productivity and do not enhance it.

However, what he considers social collaboration is a concept that seems utterly alien to me and contrary to all the design principles I have applied when designing social collaboration. Yet, perhaps his take is what social collaboration means in most companies? This is an intriguing subject, so in this post, I will delve deeper into what social collaboration is all about, or should be all about.

Coordinating work versus getting work done

According to Boyd, social collaboration tools are focused on coordinating work, not on getting work done either individually or in groups.

I can see how this might be a common misunderstanding on what social collaboration tools can be used for: in multiple training sessions and benchmarking events I’ve come across lots of people who look at our social collaboration applications and ask how we have got people to talk on this medium and how they too would like to increase the amount of discussion. Usually the people who wonder these things are not interested in moving work to the social collaboration platform, only spontaneous discussion.

One of Michael Idinopulos’s blog posts from December 2007 has served me as a useful guideline for many years. It’s called In-the-Flow and Above-the-Flow. According to Idinopulos, In-the-Flow wikis “enable people do their day-to-day work in the wiki itself” whereas Above-the-Flow wikis “invite users to step out of the daily flow of work and reflect, codify, and share something about what they do.” Social collaboration solutions designed with an in-the-flow mindset are automatically focused on getting work done, contrary to how Boyd sees social collaboration being used. An example of this is mentioned on his blog in a comment by Larry Hawes: document co-authoring and editing, which is a feature often supported in social collaboration tools today.

Large scale versus small scale

Boyd sees a shift in the scale of solutions. Whereas the current social collaboration solutions focus on large social scale and lots of participants, upcoming tools focus on the individual and small work groups. There is room for both, but I am concerned about the dismissal of large scale, as that dismissal may destroy some of the unique value social collaboration tools are able to generate.

This unique value comes in two forms: serendipity and wisdom of the crowd.

Serendipity is uniquely supported by large-scale social collaboration tools, where exposure to various discussions and subjects enables people to participate and generate additional value on challenges where they are not routinely consulted. This aspect of social collaboration relies on a large number of people (but by no means all people) seeing various content and the contributing where they have relevant expertise. It is especially useful for innovation, improvement, and problem-solving.

Wisdom of the crowd can be utilized in various forms, such as prediction markets and sentiment indicators to uncover general directions more reliably than through individual analysis.

By moving from large-scale solutions to small-scale solutions, these benefits are at the risk of being lost. Furthermore, there is nothing in the large-scale solutions that would prevent small-scale working as well. A common design principle I have used is to make applications serve their immediate users first and foremost, but make everything transparent to the entire organization in order to enable serendipity and increase understanding of what is going on elsewhere in the organization.

What kind of productivity are we trying to increase with social collaboration?

A fundamental question when it comes to determining whether social collaboration tools manage to improve productivity or not is what kind of productivity are we discussing? If we are discussing simple production line work, sure, social collaboration tools may not have a lot to offer, except maybe for process improvement, especially in multi-site environments.

However, in most cases of social collaboration, the work in question is some kind of creative work. Things like engineering, product development, research, or data analysis, to name a few. In this kind of work, productivity is not measured with a stopwatch. Instead, it is measured by a combination of the quality of the solution (which will either increase revenue or reduce costs during the lifecycle of the solution) and the time spent to create it. Social collaboration can sometimes improve the quality and at other times reduce the time it takes to arrive at a solution. Either way, it is an improvement in productivity.


Photo by Gabriela Pinto @ 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 Finland, but work globally.