Collaboration is about behaviour, not software

work_environment_mainThe social software market is undoubtedly booming, with it said to be worth several billion dollars already.  Whilst there are many facets of the social business field, in the enterprise sense, collaboration remains the kernel around which everything else hangs.  Software vendors push themselves as the answer to the collaboration conundrum facing organisations.

Press releases like this one from Clarizen are commonplace.  They talk about putting social collaboration to work, helping organisations achieve operational excellence.

They go on to suggest that their software is shaping the future of work by virtue of connecting the unstructured conversations in the workplace with structured work.

“A new generation of collaborative platforms is starting to emerge, where social features are built directly into the business tools employees are already familiar with… When implemented correctly, these new tools enable people to create, find and share information, connect with colleagues, customers and business partners and participate in communities more effectively than ever before…This type of collaborative work, where social is part of a core business process, is what I call ‘purposeful collaboration’… Bottom line: purposeful collaboration will drive the greatest business value.”

Which is all very nice, except research suggests that 80% of so of all enterprise social software projects fail to deliver the kind of value organisations hope for when they embark on them.

No doubt these organisations find that installing a piece of software doesn’t magically turn their enterprise into a collaborative hothouse with employees suddenly collaborating together now they have a tool to help them do so.

If only it was that simple.  The reality is often very different however.  The reality is often that most organisations are not collaborative at the moment.  Employee behaviour has been ingrained through years of reinforcement, that salary and promotion are intrinsically linked to individual performance.

Changing behaviours at work requires changing the environment that surrounds people when they’re at work.

You need an environment that gives people the right cues on a daily basis.  There are a number of levers you can employ to help you.  Here are a few of the more effective ones.

Organisational levers

These are things like your org chart.  Now I know you might be thinking that these are abstract artifacts from a bygone age, but how we are organised has a big impact on how we behave.  How many offices for instance locate employees according to department, whilst at the same time expecting cross-departmental collaboration?  Even if that demarcation is only virtual, in/out group psychology will still ensure people feel they belong more to ‘their’ team than the others.

Workplace design

This is a whole topic on its own, and a huge amount of research has gone into building workspaces that encourage the kind of behaviours at the core of social business.  Whether it’s the shape of the desks or the location of the coffee machine, it will have an impact on how your employees behave.

Getting the rewards right

As with workplace design, this is another area that has received a whole lot of attention over the past decade or so.  How are people motivated, and what are you offering them in order to secure the kind of behaviours you want?  What kind of behaviours are rewarded in your organisation?  Are you hoping for collaboration but rewarding individual performance for instance?


Closely linked to rewards is measurement.  Most organisations now have key performance indicators against which performance is measured.  Are these metrics the kind that will support the behaviours you wish to see in your organisation?

These are some of the key levers at your disposal when looking to create the kind of behaviours, and as such the kind of organisation you want.


16 thoughts on “Collaboration is about behaviour, not software

    • Interesting. Do you think policies work? Most workplaces I've been in have had policies for various things, but I doubt any employee could recite them. Social media policies are a good example.

  1. To me, policies are good as fall backs in case of issues and can set the tone for how collaboration might work, but too many constraints quash collaboration.

    I would disagree that "[a]mbiguity is the greatest enemy of collaboration". Ambiguity is a given in life. Collaboration happens where and when it makes sense, as long as we don't prevent it. That prevention can come from the way we implement technologies or structure incentives, but it can also be caused by an abundance of policy. A certain amount of undefined leeway is crucial to good collaboration, and that requires trust, not rules.


  2. "Which is all very nice, except research suggests that 80% of so of all enterprise social software projects fail to deliver the kind of value organisations hope for when they embark on them."
    I would like to read more about this research, could you please point to some of them?


  3. Really interesting Adi and certainly the ESN software impact has it's limits, at least for now.. but would disagree applies to all software. As an OD practitioner for 20 years I now use collaboration software called MeetingSphere, which is a set of simple collaboration tools for better engagement, meetings, events etc. Think software to do the stuff we used to do on flip charts in the days when we worked in the same building, even same country. So whilst I totally agree with the environmental factors, some 'collaboration software' can help these be developed in new and impressive ways.

    • Hi Sarah. For sure, I'm not suggesting that software is useless, far from it 🙂 Much of the software is really useful and has excellent functionality. I'm more grumbling about the perception that buying software will in itself be enough to change how employees behave. It takes a lot more than software to make a social business. (will check out MeetingSphere though – sounds interesting)

  4. Great piece Adi, I think you're absolutely spot on with your comments. Technology is merely the platform to engage, it's not the answer. Colleagues need incentives and a clear understanding of the benefits. It's a culture thing.

    • I'd say it's got to go even further than that Andy. You mention incentives, but how many organizations structure pay/bonuses so that they are for social/collaborative behaviour rather than just individual? How many even measure collaborative behaviour? How many orgs have collaborative decision making or social performance appraisals? All of these things contribute to how we behave, and in many orgs, those things are actively anti-social.

      • A fair point Adi but I don't think that the benefits have to be linked to financial rewards necessarily – more for colleagues to understand the gains to building their personal profile, on-line presence and sharing with and from others. I'm very fortunate to work within an organisation that openly embraces and encourages this and where we do discuss and monitor this as part of our One2One conversations between colleagues and their leaders.

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