In his book, ‘Collaborating in a Social Era’, Oscar Berg explores how to create collaborative working environments that are suitable to the 21st Century. Gloria Lombardi reviews.
The meaning of collaboration has being pondered by many. Every year, some beautiful books are emerging through that thinking. ‘Collaborating in a Social Era‘ by Oscar Berg is a wonderful addition to the collected wisdom. It is a beautiful reflection on the relationship between social technology and collaborative communication. The result is a clear reminder of the new working practices that organisations are choosing to apply, or not, today. Yet, they are entirely changing how employees interact with the company they work for.
That “tiny work” that matter
Many authors summon some of their best thinking and unleash it on a framework. It might be an elegant theory of how dialogue works. Or the best way to become a more diverse organisation. Berg offers ‘The Collaborative Pyramid’. The model sets out an ambitious plan to explore the building blocks of collaboration. It includes eight layers that build on each other from the bottom upwards. It covers activities as diverse as making oneself visible, discovering people and forming a team.
One of the most relevant observations is around what he calls “tiny work.” This concept is strictly closed to ‘Working Out Loud‘, originally mentioned by Bryce Williams in 2010. Many activities in the lower five levels happen “below the surface.” Usually, they are not visible, or recognised or valued by management. For example, the communications that let people know each other and build relationships. Or community building activities that help to build trust and alignment to a shared purpose. That “tiny work,” however, is the key to collaboration. The author unpacks the challenge:
“Due to the low visibility of knowledge work, a lot of information, knowledge, and talent are put to waste. To avoid having value-creating activities mistaken for waste, we need to develop a better understanding of what activities create value and why. In many organisations, social activities among employees are still treated as unwanted productivity drains, even though they are essential for collaboration and employee engagement.”
And therein lies Berg’s timely point on social technology and its promise to enable the “tiny work” to get its worth back.
The power of social technology
The rise of social media, as we know, has inspired the design of tools that enhance the collective intelligence of groups. This interplay, Berg notes, offers daily benefits to organisations. For example, it bridges structural holes to ensure that information flows. It creates virtual proximity and connects an isolated workforce. It enables teams to self-organise and deal with challenges when they arise. And it eliminates the transaction costs that incur when processes are bureaucratic.
“By applying the thinking and principles behind social technology when we design organisations, processes, and ways of working, we can avoid a lot of the negative things that happen when an organisation grows.”
The author goes on to illustrate the fascinating interdependence between social software and communication. He mentions the history of society and the relationships among its individuals:
“Let’s put it into perspective. Since the dawn of humanity we have invented many physical tools that extend our physical capabilities. More recently we invented computing to extend our mental capabilities. Now, with social technology, we can design tools that extend our capabilities to communicate and socialise with each other.”
But, he also likes to caution that while “tools do matter,” it is critical to consider “for what and how we use them.” Ultimately, that is what makes them matter. The technology has to increase people’s capabilities, “otherwise has no reason to exist.”
A people-centric thinking
The above reflections bring Berg to a dynamic contemplation of digital transformation. Social technology usage continues to expand. That is a sign that companies are moving from “technology-centric to people-centric thinking”:
“Social technology will fundamentally have transformed the way we work, playing a central part in the digital transformation of enterprises. When all technology is being designed to fit with human nature and leverage human behaviour and the desire and need to socialise with other people, we no longer need to call it social technology.”
This change reveals a great deal about how people communicate in the 21st Century. Suddenly, even the things that we would have normally considered unimportant take a different meaning:
“When people make jokes about how some people share what they had for breakfast, they might not reflect on how fantastic it is that this is possible. Nowadays, people can share anything they like at almost no effort and cost, immediately and with global reach. They can start a conversation with anyone and almost any number of people. They can communicate directly with people regardless of where they are, or what position and status they have.”
Indeed, even a couple of decades ago, these interactions would have seemed shockingly strange. Perhaps, today the only thing remotely surprising is that it took so long.
Is it worth reading?
If there is something I have been seeing through all the people interviews and company case studies I write is that collaboration is what differentiates today’s agile and networked organisations. For communicators and change agents there is much here that fits their own agenda of digital workplace transformation. Let’s hope the book encourages more companies to make this way of working more common inside their business. This would act as a springboard for capitalising on new opportunities and delivering competitive advantage.