Making online collaboration work

In a conversation with the managing director (I will call him ‘Tom’) at a client a few weeks ago I felt I was in a time warp. I remember those conversations around: don’t want to give them PC’s because they’ll spend all day on their pc’s, don’t want them to have internet access because they’ll spend all day surfing. Tom was talking about why he didn’t want his staff accessing facebook etc. while in the office. And he was clear: it’s a distraction, keeps them from getting their job done.

A few days later we took time out to have a conversation.

Tom recruits a significant number of graduates each year. All of these people (with some small number of exceptions) are regular users of social networks such as Bebo & Facebook. They generally IM throughout the day. Many of them use twitter. Very few of them buy newspapers (they may read free papers on public transport). They use mobile devices for music, radio, telephone, IM. Many of them have their own blogs.

At senior managemenet level (generally 45-55) things are a little different. They all use mobile phones, most use blackberries to access email when out on the road. Very few use twitter. The majority read a daily newspaper and listen to radio. Very few use IM and almost none have personal blogs.

Social networking and the web is how this younger generation communicate and inform themselves. They have run and organised their lives using technology in a different way. Their attitude to news and information is different – they have an expectation that they can personalise it to themselves – not what is provided in a generic newspaper. They want it to be up to date and available when they want it. Likewise they expect to communicate with each other on an informal and unstructured way – via IM, using presence, etc. All of this works very well for them.

The senior management team is well aware of the technologies and the changes. In fact this group is using all of the technologies – even if moving a little slower. This is explained by (1) coming to it later and (2) being held back because not all their peers are comfortable with it. However through their kids, their work experiences, etc. they are more than familiar with what’s ‘going down’.

I asked Tom what were his criteria in recruitng a graduate. He mentioned: aptitude for the work, ability, ambition, education, likely fit for the organisation, ability to work in teams, social skills, willingness to learn. Not unusual.

My initial comment to Tom was to congratulate him on recruiting some very smart people. These people can helpTom to train and support his senior management team – if Tom encourages and supports this. Tom’s thinking was programmed the other way – the senior management team will train the new recruits. This ‘upladder training’ provides the opportunity to kick start a level of collaboration and team work not previously experienced in Tom’s company. From day 1 there should be a give and take – people sharing ideas and knowledge, learning from each other. But it needs a mindset change.

We then dicussed how Tom sees people learning and innovation in the company. Tom referenced the inhouse training program, the external courses to be attended, professional exams and, most importantly, ‘on the job’ training. I asked him how many of his senior guys participate in web based fora (to answer queries), publish papers on the web, etc. He had no idea and had no expectation that they would do so.

I suggested to Tom that he should survey his staff to determine how active they are on the web – in terms of active participation in relevant groups – including using twitter to follow and interact with other experts across the world. While his initial reaction was one of concern at the thought that his people may be giving out opinions on professional matters on the web he agreed to follow up.

The situation has moved on very quickly in the last two years or so. The idea that Tom would attempt to shut his people off from the rest of the web (or at best limit their access ie censor their activities) is dated and flawed thinking. Tom’s company will succeed or fail on the back of his team. He needs to find every which way possible to encourage and develop team activities and collaboration (hierarchical structures and thinking needs to be managed/ eliminated). And this collaboration cannot be restricted to his own enterprise. He needs his people networking and leveraging thier contacts to drive his enterprise’s capabilities and knowledge.

Tom had already seen the benefit of the web in terms of google search, online advertising, client communications. But that’s only one element of it. He needs to use it to enable and drive collaboration and knowledge management.