On Collaboration


Last week I spent some time looking at the Social Enterprise through the lens of The Big Shift. Responses, in terms of comments, suggestions, retweets, Likes and +1s were heartening, and I am grateful. Thank you.

Today I’m going to continue with that perspective, this time drilling down into the subject of collaboration. A classic gymword. [A gymword describes something that many well-intentioned people aspire to do, but one that very few actually achieve in practice].

John Hagel, John Seely Brown and Lang Davison spend quite some time on this subject, which I will try and summarise here. [If you’re already au fait with their thinking then please skip the next section].


Collaboration in the context of the Big Shift

As stated last week, the Big Shift is driven by advances in digital infrastructure and the evolution of public policy. As a result, barriers to entry have fallen away sharply, competition has intensified, the pace of change has accelerated. This has meant that one of the cornerstones of “firm theory” in the past, that of the experience curve, has been dislodged, weakened, brought into question. A scale player no longer has an advantage just because of the past ability to operate at scale: advantages now accrue based on what the firm can do, not on what the firm has done. The authors develop this point into an argument that we need to move away from experience curves to collaboration curves. Experience curves were about the past; they containerised historical experience and explicitness and sought to extract value by repeating that experience in military fashion; and, in consequence, marginal utility diminished over time while marginal costs increased, and a classic diminishing-returns model ensued. Collaboration curves, on the other hand, are about the future; they seek to containerise tacit knowledge, the ability to learn,  to adapt, to evolve; value is created by making the company better at learning. Now I can hear some of you saying “Okay so someone’s discovered Peter Senge and thrown in a bit of Ken Ohmae, big deal. What’s so new about this?”. I think there is something new in this, and the newness comes from finding a way to integrate the learning from the work of people like Howard Rheingold and W Brian Arthur (and more recently, Clay Shirky) on virtual and electronic communities, on learning, on increasing-returns models. Most importantly, Hagel, Seely Brown and Davison spend time looking at how to scale out collaboration by inspecting and extrapolating models based on decades of empirical data. Which then leads on to an understanding of best practice for organisations built around flow, and an exposition of creation spaces where the learning can take place and be disseminated. Creation spaces have three prerequisites: people, the interactions between those people, and the environment where those interactions can be captured, enhanced, disseminated, refined, extrapolated.

The underlying themes are common to most aspects of the Big Shift. A move from stocks to flows. Experience curves were about stocks; collaboration curves are about flows. Documents and files are about stocks, feeds and streams are about flows. There’s also a move from push to pull, but with a focus on scalability as well. The shift from canned and militarised experience to active and continuing learning has its effect in many other ways; knowing how becomes more important than knowing what. There is also a deeper, implicit shift from processes with high degrees of integration, standardisation and repeatability, to patterns that are less military, less repeatable, less vertically integrated, more loosely coupled.


How the Social Enterprise enables this Big Shift-based collaboration

The Social Enterprise, even in its simplest form, is designed to respond to the Big Shift, as shown below.

  • Built around flows, not stocks
  • Underpinned by foundations of trust
  • Designed to facilitate learning and memory
  • Making discovery easier
  • Subscriber-based
  • Filtered by the network
  • Making use of collective intelligence
  • Simplifying pattern recognition
  • Triggering beyond the tacit: the role of serendipity
  • Extending beyond the enterprise

[Admit it. You were about to say that’s the longest list of buzzwords you’ve seen without the word “leverage” in it.]

Actually things are a lot more serious than that. The list above is not really about buzzwords. If we behave like they’re buzzwords, we have a fate worse than death awaiting us. We will continue to live in a world where e-mail and document attachments dominate the space that would otherwise be taken up by true collaboration. We need to understand what the terms mean, why they’re important, how to embed them in our day-to-day operations. So let’s look at each phrase in turn and try and figure out what it means in a work environment.

Built around flows, not stocks: One way of understanding the distinction between stocks and flows is by looking at the fates of Kodak and Polaroid. Kodak pretty much defined film, understood everything about film, hired the best people who knew about film. They had all the patents, the tools used by prior generations to protect and extend the value of past experience. They had the scale. They had the skills and the customers. They understood how to be on the right part of the experience curve. They even knew how to predict the future by inventing it: they held many patents in digital photography. Enough about Kodak. Let’s look at Polaroid. Market leader, defined and dominated the instant photography space. Scale, skills, customers. The whole nine yards.

Two companies. Two market leaders, dominating their experience curves. Vulnerable to diminishing returns, exacerbated by the complacency that comes with dominance. Unable to learn quickly enough, unable to adapt quickly enough. Now remembered for a slew of patents that are probably in the pockets of trolls. Because there are still some who believe in stocks, not flows.

Let’s look at a third company. Instagram. A company that appears to be about making the digital photographs that Kodak helped invent look like the instant photographs that Polaroid helped invent. A company valued not on the stocks of its knowledge and experience and patents, but on the flows implicit in the social and mobile nature of their customer base. Valued on the relationships it has with its customers, and on the relationships enabled between them.

Flows are part of networks, not hierarchies. Places where network effects can be obtained, where increasing-returns models can be seen to apply. The core of the Social Enterprise is in the network, the connectivity, the connections. Connections that extend beyond the enterprise, into the supply chain, through the distribution networks, all the way to the customers and the products. Networks across which conversations flow, cutting across the silos of the organisation, straddling the boundaries, allowing the tacit knowledge at the edge to be exposed. Here are some of the characteristics of flows:

  • Flows are not transactions. They can and do include transactions, but they represent far more than that. Transactions are just one type of object that can be embedded within the flows.
  • Flows are conversational. Start and end points are imprecise, sometimes absent. There is no simple linearity to flows.
  • Flows transcend “channels”, a concept born of hierarchies and control. A conversation may start in one medium, stall, restart in a second and different medium. Bilateral conversations may morph into multilateral ones and vice versa.
  • A flow represents a continuum from past to present to future; they involve transactions (the past), activity streams (the present) and intention signals (the future). But these are all just objects embedded within the flow.
  • These embedded objects are valuable in themselves, but gain their prominence from network effects: the power of inspection; recommendations and votes; the application of cognitive surpluses; the opportunity to “save” and “replay” activities in detail, and to have “freeze-frames”.

Underpinned by foundations of trust: Collaboration curves have increasing-returns characteristics partly as a result of network effects. The more people belong to a network, the more valuable it becomes. When this is applied to collaboration, both within as well as beyond the enterprise, networks alone are not enough. Customers have, in the main, lost faith with large institutions: government, healthcare, finance, education, big business… exceptions are rare. The Social Enterprise addresses this in two ways: openness and transparency within the enabling environment (as evinced in the Cloud Principles here) and customer-controlled management of entitlements.

Theorists have spent time articulating the differences between systems of engagement and systems of record, and the risks of these two classes of system coming together. If collaboration is restricted to systems of engagement then all you have is conversation, not collaboration. For value to be created, artefacts from systems of record need to be made available within the flow of conversation, while keeping in place the privacy and confidentiality structures inherited from the systems of record. The Social Enterprise is structured in such a way as to preserve the entitlement models as the artefacts migrate into the flows.

Collaboration involves sharing. Sharing involves vulnerability. Making oneself vulnerable is hard to do unless there is an atmosphere of trust, a secure environment, where the participants are known and where access is transparent and consistent.


Designed to facilitate learning and memory: People learn by doing. Sometimes they learn faster by discovering what doesn’t work, by “making mistakes”. We live in a privileged generation. We have had the power to make mistakes for aeons; although some will say that modern blame cultures and nanny states have reduced that ability, it is still possible for us to make mistakes. We have had the power to learn from our mistakes for a very long time, even if we haven’t always exercised that power. We’ve had the power to share that learning for centuries, ever since we’ve learnt to communicate.

But when it comes to making that sharing persistent, archived, searchable and retrievable, we’re in new territory. When it comes to making that sharing available to people who can comment on it, critique it, amend it, improve it, we are in pioneering territory.

In the same way as trust is needed to overcome feelings of vulnerability, the availability of persistent archived retrievable communications plays a very important part in making collaboration happen.

It replaces institutional memory.

Work is often done in teams, even though incentive and reward systems continue to deny that at every opportunity. It is puerile to talk about collaboration while having reward systems that militate against collaboration. When people work in teams, individual sacrifices lubricate that process; this is often referred to as “taking a bullet for the team”. The incentive to “take a bullet” was high at a time when job tenure was high and mobility was low: institutional memory existed throughout the team; when someone did the bullet-taking, everyone else remembered when the need arose. Today, in environments of higher mobility and lower tenure, this is less true. There may be no one left to remember you took a bullet. So it’s important to have a mechanism that replaces the carbon-based memory with silicon-based alternatives.
Making discovery easier: The networked non-hierarchical nature of the social enterprise, with its accent on flows and on learning, and with its foundations of trust, attracts talented people, in what the Big Shift calls the Power of Pull. You can read more about it in the eponymous book the authors wrote, following their research into the shift. But it’s not enough to attract the right resources. You need to be able to find them. Which means the Social Enterprise has to do three things: (a) make it easy to find what appear to be the right resources (b) have some way of being able to differentiate those resources in terms of skill set and ability and (c) do all this quickly and effectively.

Social Enterprise tools do this in a number of ways. Firstly, good search tools are available. Secondly, when a resource is proposed for a particular situation (it could be an answer to a question, a file that’s been uploaded, a name added) the network has the opportunity to vote on that proposed resource. When there are multiple resources in play, this helps differentiate between the resources. And finally, the more evolved social enterprise tends to have tools that allow performance-related feedback.

Subscriber-based: E-mail has been the bane of collaboration, an unfit-for-purpose tool that has often been used to accentuate and enhance division and discord rather than collaboration. Yet for most people it is the standard tool of collaboration. This may have been so to begin with: a time when e-mails were short, when formality was conspicuous in its absence, when mail lists did not exist, when the cc and bc buttons didn’t exist, when there were no attachments. The first problem with e-mail is that it’s publisher-driven, the power is in the hands of the sender. As a result, enterprises often have to deal with two quite different types of spam: the type that comes from the outside; and the type that originates within the firm. Collaboration requires trust. Sending someone an e-mail and copying their boss in is not a good way to engender trust. Sending someone an e-mail, copying their boss in, and not telling them they’re copied in, is an even poorer way to engender trust. Moving people off addressee lists and adding others at will, opaquely, is also no way to engender trust. Yet these practices (using cc and bc and editing recipients in order to fragment conversations) are common in enterprises. Mail attachments are also notoriously dangerous, given their predilection to have versioning problems. “That’s not what my copy says.” “Ah, I sent a new document out ten minutes ago”… such conversations should never be needed. The social enterprise, based around networked conversations persisted in a single place with only one version of “attachments” available to all, helps get around all this. And since you only see conversations related to people you choose to follow, the spam levels are easier to manage.
Filtered by the network: I’d stated earlier that collaboration curves exhibit network effects as more and more participants join. This can appear to cause a new problem: since everyone’s a publisher, the risk of information overload appears high. But this is actually a fallacy in a subscriber-driven world. You choose whom to follow, and that constrains the flow that gets to you. If you miss something, your own network will ensure that it gets repeated, RTed, Liked, +1ed. When multiple options are presented, your network will help select the best option. When you’re under time pressure for an answer, the human-powered scale of the network tends to resolve complex issues faster than most machines. Carbon is underrated. It’s about a lot more than just footprints.
Making use of collective intelligence: Increasing complexity in the world we live, greater propensity to change, faster changes. These are now taken for granted, and they describe a new environment, with new challenges. These challenges are so disparate, so varied, that often no one person has the necessary skills and ability to meet the challenge. The ability to parcel large volumes of work into individual-sized pieces is relatively new; the ability to allow humans to self-allocate those pieces is newer still; we now have abilities to act collectively in ways we’ve never really had before. Soon, problem-solving in the enterprise will be about knowledge-work triage; which people are the best at classifying or categorising incoming issues; how the right resources are attracted to solving the problem; how the institutions learns from that process and embeds the learning for the future.
Simplifying pattern recognition : There was a time when end-to-end control was common in the delivery of products and services. Any colour you like as long as it was black. Any phone you like as long as it was black and bakelite. Any computer you like as long as it was grey and Microsoft. This is no longer true. The bring-your-own mindset is now everywhere; people use different devices, different connections, different signing in procedures; they shift time and place and use a slew of payment methods. As a result, the historical model of there being a small number of highly standardised and repeatable processes no longer holds true; companies spend their time handling exceptions. The Social Enterprise is built around being able to use cognitive surplus to deal with this issue; the whole case-handling approach of modern customer service is more about patterns than it is about processes.
Triggering beyond the tacit: the role of serendipity: The Social Enterprise, by its very nature, allows tacit knowledge to be exposed, to come to the fore. But that alone is not enough. Because the network is non-hierarchical, because everyone and everything is a node on the network, people operating in adjacent spaces tend to have a sideways view into what is going on with their peers. And this allows some sort of sixth sense to be developed, the ability to view routine things from new perspectives. And that in turns triggers a serendipitous learning, one that comes from the conjunction, and occasional collision, of disparate disciplines.
Extending beyond the enterprise: Phrases like cost centre and profit centre may mean a lot to accountants, but we can’t afford to get lost in them. The last time I looked, revenue was based on someone outside the company paying for something that was made inside the company. This has never changed. So when social enterprises are built, it’s important that the network is inclusive of partners, supply chains and customers. As the saying goes, there are always more smart people outside the company than inside the company. It is reasonable to phase rollout of networked connectivity, but value is only really obtained when the customer is able to communicate with the company.


These are just some of my thoughts when considering collaboration in the context of the social enterprise and the Big Shift. They represent work-in-progress, views that I expect will be refined by your comments, your criticisms, your recommendations and suggestions. All of which I look forward to receiving.

22 thoughts on “On Collaboration”

  1. JP, thanks for taking the time on this post, It’s important.

    Three themes emerge based on recent work I’m involved in for Lifetime Health Diary. They provide collaboration tools for chronic patients who are ‘in the community’ and have a diverse care team who all need to know what’s happening for the patient:

    ONE – team collaboration needs to be re-oriented around the project or for healthcare, the patient. One-way data aggregation is sufficient there is often no need for 2-way synchronisation which simplifies the technology.
    TWO – email’s ubiquity gives utility to data aggregation from a range of collaborators. But RSS shouldn’t be underestimated either, it’s a low-tech, tried and tested service.
    THREE – pattern recognition is a huge area for exploration – the ability to repurpose data and deliver summaries in graphical form enables comprehension by less-technical readers.

    If any of your readers are in healthcare, we’re looking for pilot projects in community healthcare.

  2. Wow. So well said, sir. It’s about opening up the organization in ways which allow anyone to find something meaningful they care enough about to get involved (read: engaged). It may seem a corny adaptation of a line from “Braveheart,” but one person who truly cares about the work is likely more effective than ten just doing their jobs.

    Collaboration isn’t realized through the cobbling together of legacy process, rather through the revival of culture. Engender trust. Empower others as equals. Do something that matters together.

  3. Great post. Its just what we are doing. Our company is literally a network of people. We are building it together. Very inspiring to read that someone else outside our group thinks the same.
    Agree with Brian too.
    Power to the people.

  4. Great article JP. I picked out a coue of things that I have encountered in this space. 1- vulnerability is often a barrier to changing people’s behaviour with regards to sharing and engaging. It is a problem that people often use as they feel uncomfortable about this way of working, but as you highlighted being them context and making it part of the flow will show them value and thus make them more willing to participate.
    2-Feeds & filters. One thing that has been a big issue with so called information overload and some of the patterns to resolve this would be the use of personalisation techniques. Ever since these have existed I have always thought what have a I missed. When enterprises use this technique they start to pigeon hole people and content and thus restrict what one can see and therefore act or collaborate on. The feed with self selection helps this situation but I feel an appropriate mix of suggestions/recommendations really bring this to life and can help drive the flow of context to a user. just some of my thoughts.

  5. Great summary. Worthy the animated insights of St Ignatius as found in the spiritual: Imagine how much further Facebook would need to evolve to animate the vision. Perhaps hubris to even try. More success to just improve certain flows. Yet men will try =).

  6. Yes JP – In the machine the payoff is a sterile transaction in the alive it is a deeper relationship

  7. Ah, serendipity. I hear this phrase quite a bit now, for example Aleks and her serendipity engine.

    But within the enterprise, even the social enterprise, serendipity is difficult because everyone is wrapped in their “comfort quilt” of received group ideas. This creates a natural impedance that needs to be met for each mismatch that different ideas attempt to cross.

    So actual serendipity is disruptive (that’s why its associated with accidents) whereas most employees in organisations are busy patching their comfort quilts. You actually promote this view by using the term “peer”. My peers are the guys with similar patterns on their comfort quilts. We use Mac and iPhone ownership or appropriate corpspeak to tell each other that we are, or wish to be, peers. But if the next greatest idea in computing came from someone in finance, I wouldn’t understand it in a month of Sundays.

  8. Very much enjoying your work on the social enterprise. While the barriers to collaboration definitely include technical and structural elements (like email and silo’d cost centers) the more profound impediments are social and psychological. As you point out, vulnerability—let’s call it what it is, fear—blocks the threshold to collaboration. Shepherding people across that threshold is the work of leaders; not pyramid perchers, but in vivo exemplars of the power of flows. They do this by having the courage to ping the right node at the right moment about the right stuff—convention and DE’s “comfort quilts” be damned. The social enterprise enables those pings technologically, structurally, socially and psychologically. And, as you point out, a few tweaks in the reward systems would be great, too. Of course, that would take real courage on HR’s part, which is a whole other conversation.

  9. JP this is another great post which will open many deep discussions. It highlights the tensions and battles we all face on our own and with those we meet on a daily basis to comprehend what immense changes are taking place in society.

    You wrote: “..knowing how becomes more important than knowing what.”. For a moment I thought you were going to also bring “why” into the equation!

    Sinek’s TedxPugetSound talk on How great leaders inspire action leads through the how, the what and the why…

    Until we cover off the existential “why” we are going to be continuing to have those battles and tensions.

  10. Nicely argued explication of how big organizations have to move to flow and why. Credentializing for repeatability is not of the value it once was though those in power positions today often hold those positions because of this. And they are often white men.

    But I can’t believe you didn’t include tummeling in here JP ;-) ?

    Key to much of this is *how* one makes patterned connections between lots of people. Deeply honed *felt* empathy is critical and as @DaveScouller points out, this demands vulnerability and expressiveness on a macro and 1 on 1 level. It also demands trust and an alliance of the self with the larger group. This means that you can’t feel as though you will be annihilated or suffer or lose out by not just looking out for yourself and dominating or manipulating a situation.

    All of these things are why I believe women and people of colour and anyone with a more liminal life experience (ie. who’s had to translate between worlds a lot already ie. Obama) has an advantage in being able to tummel (catalyze engagement and create conditions to enable flow and connection to occur between people). In fact a great deal of what John and many other good writers like him now are exploring was discussed by second wave feminism (this is the kind of thinking that drove Audre Lorde to write “You can’t dismantle the masters house with the masters tools).

    Now it’s a different vocabulary and audience we’re talking about and we’re very much interested in tools as a help to us in making AND in aiding the social flow that you are beautifully showing as a key element to large organizational thriving in a *consciously* and physically networked culture.

    “value is only really obtained when the customer is able to communicate with the company.”

    Yes and this necessitates that the company and the customer actually understand each other and underneath that *care* to understand each other. As you know, Kevin, Deb and I have found this is done with people first and hopefully better tools to assist us. But that value in people has not been recognized or rewarded enough until now that business thinkers like you are sounding the call. Essentially (generally male) bosses used to outsource all kinds of things to lower status, paid and valued secretaries/assistants (generally female) in the old hierarchy including computer skills and eventually the networked awareness that went with that. These (generally female) people often brought groups together across silos to “cut through red tape” and make connections (tummeling) but in the vocabulary we now have they were/are increasing flow and conditions for flow. This is now a “leadership” quality. WIll a shift in pay, status/power (or is that really a hierarchical/stock notion?) and increasing diversity in people and personality types follow?

    Underneath the filtering you describe and collective intelligence accessing is an understanding and acknowledgment of ones own limitations. This is the opposite of Microsoft’s conventional cultural no-no on saying “I dont’ know” , again back to vulnerability.

    I use it more than anything else in my performing and shows (my lab) and teach people to be comfortable with it in my workshops. There is no escaping the personal journey if we are going to work *with* the network and each other.

    (more on this http;//with.heathergold.com)

  11. Great article. Collaborative processes exist in every organisation. The question is how will they be impacted by enterprise and public social networks? We are already starting to see interesting use cases emerge around the combination of enterprise social networks with business applications such as BPM, Case Management and structured and unstructured data analytics to deliver enhanced process performance.

  12. Great post PJ, definitely fresh air for this whole exploration, thanks.

    The things I would add to your excellent list from my experience with social collaboration at BlackRock are

    * leadership
    * personal perspective

    Leadership, and the deeper DNA of a company set in motion by leadership, sets the tone for how people will even consider using the technology for filtering, subscribing, recognizing and so forth. It is amazing how subtle and powerful the effect of leadership advocacy (or the lack of it) is on collaboration. I am talking about the psychological background the leaders create for collaboration. This is a pure issue of “getting it,” but of course it has many practical implications for priorities, processes, and policies.

    And that is why my second item is one’s personal perspective. Some people are individuated enough to actively collaborate if the leadership and culture supports it and be their own truly social node if it doesn’t. These folks do get it and it doesn’t necessarily have to do with their familiarity with social tech. It is more about having something to say and saying it with integrity and creative intent.

    This type of person tends to trigger the collaborative gene in others, and you can often watch people popping around the network as the result of their contribution, at least momentarily. Tapping and nurturing this type of perspective seems a necessary part of building a social enterprise, and I would say much more efficient in that everything follows from a social perspective. I’ve watched many people cross that invisible threshold and they do remarkable things.

    Look forward to future posts.

  13. It’s been a long time since I’ve read anything recently that has added to my knowledge. This was a refreshing addition, especially since trust has been a topic of significance on my radar for some time. You provide some great new clues for further investigation. Thanks.

    And healing energies being beamed your way.

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