Designing for collaboration?

Average Reading Time: about 10 minutes.

Collaboration is key to modern work. How do we design working environments to be collaborative?

Deep thinkers like Erik Spiekermann have great ideas on how to redesign offices to be the perfect collaborative working environment.

How do you replicate that with technology?

This Briefing highlights the significant, but often nebulous, bottom-line business benefits that ‘social business’ software can deliver. It starts with some collaboration challenges, then outlines key functions of collaboration software, before covering examples of business benefits you should expect from ‘social business’ software. It finishes with a run-through of typical risks and objections that collaboration technologies face.

1. New, New Work

As well as business-as-usual, there are three important trends in business that require smart responses from social business software:

1.1 The Matrix

Hierarchies being augmented by matrixes of co-workers and stakeholders.
Requirement to keep these ‘collections’ of people informed and engaged.

1.2 Ad-hoc projects and teams

People come together (and then disband) to deliver specific projects.
Need internal records and ‘memory’ of these projects.

1.3 Multi-site teams/partners

People often working with colleagues, suppliers and partners distributed in different offices and timezones.
Work is produced together, but often ‘handed over’ as timezones and attention pass.

2. Collaboration ‘functions’

We think enterprise software checklists and million-pound chairs are a bad idea…but we do think there are five core features any social business software should have.

2.1 Activity Streams

Consumer version: most like a Twitter or Facebook ‘feed’.
Newsfeeds of activity, comments from people you actively pay attention to, or through connections from others you know.
Characterised by flow, transient information, passive.
Not ‘need to know’, but ‘nice to know’.
High level benefits: discovery, sense of ‘what’s going on’, passive observation of others.


  • Yammer [2]
  • Chatter (Salesforce) [3]
  • Jive (feature) [4]
  • SocialText (feature) [5]

2.2 Collaborative content

  • Ad-hoc shared project management areas
  • Effective group group-based document development
  • Ad-hoc publication
  • Document discovery
  • Document re-use


  • Confluence [6]
  • Jive [2]
  • ThoughtFarmer [7]
  • SocialText [5]

2.3 Expertise discovery

Discovering colleagues who have expertise/experience that can help you/your project.
Exposes previously undiscovered formal or informal connections.


  • Jive (feature/side effect) [2]
  • SharePoint [8]

2.4 Unified ‘Single Search’

Google for the workplace.
All documents and content, new and old, findable through keyword search in one place.
Smart algorithms surface content (and people), and connections.


  • Google Search Appliance, Autonomy… [9]
  • SharePoint [8] (heavily customised)

2.5 Open Innovation

Collaborative development of ideas and project initiatives, often through submission and colleague mediated/voting/shared development of ideas and initiatives, ‘idea storm’ internal innovation competitions and reward initiatives


  • Jive (feature, weak) [4]
  • Kindling [9]
  • Confluence (customised) [6]

3.Key business benefits

Six ‘bottom-line’ business benefits that collaboration focused social business software should deliver.

3.1 Organisational Memory

Organisational Memory = employee expertise and experiences gained over time, cumulative knowledge gained from projects, retrieval of this knowledge in the future.

Mistakes repeated = higher costs.

Very difficult to implicitly capture – formal ‘KM’ does poor job (people don’t make effort, classic KM tools get in the way).

74% report faster access to knowledge using ‘social software’ [1].

3.2 Connecting to experience and expertise

‘Joy’s Law’ – the smartest people work for somebody else.

Most projects, especially early stage could benefit from expertise/experience of others.

Challenge is to find those expert/experienced colleagues, and let them find you.

Need to connect in context of project/activity and at the right time to add value.

50% report increased speed of expertise access with new social tech [1].

3.3 Pre-process work is the highest value work

Some of the highest value work by highest value employees is where new ideas and work is created.
This is ‘pre-process’ – the business has had no opportunity to react and ’embed’ the methods/knowledge/outcomes from this sort of activity.
It’s where employees apply the most creativity, use (and connect) their experiences and expertise.
Most benefit from amplifying the value of this work by capturing it (without much overhead), providing visibility of the activity (for others to connect and contribute).

More info: Wikis vs Sharepoint

3.4 Transparency

Businesses are often nebulous – achievement, activity, expertise is ‘controlled’ through reporting lines.

Activity streams, unified search, etc. opens up people, activity and their expertise – execs can see with their own eyes what’s happening in the business.

Think of this as ‘work narration’, and the useful exposure of inter-connections between workers and their activity.

3.5 Better RoI with external resources/partners

Suppliers and Partners often a source of expertise within their area – RoI opportunity to fresh thinking and exposure to experience gained from other businesses.

How to ‘sweat the asset’ of suppliers and partners knowledge by ‘extracting and storing’ that knowledge into the business.

Getting knowledge from outside the company means .

50% report increased speed of accessing external expertise when working with suppliers using social business tech [1].

3.6 Faster knowledge work

If employees can get started on projects faster, there’s a direct financial benefit.

Social business software can support faster ‘to market’ project delivery.

More info: Blogs as knowledge enablement

4. Some key factors for success

Technology is, of course, just half the story. Some quick notes on success factors.

4.1 Prototype

Prototypes allow experimentation. Prototypes seem to be the dominant ‘take away’ from every case study.

4.2 Internal champions

Co-opt internal champions and emergent employee behaviour.

A good article on this by Dion Hinchcliffe.

4.3 Look for benefits as they emerge

Benefits can be unanticipated (both in outcome and area). Be prepared to re-define early goals.

More info: Why wikis work in organisations.

5. Success Stories:

The top-tier consultancies and vendors are surprisingly wooly about the bottom-line ‘benefits’ when they’re directly attacking the ‘collaboration problem’. Partly, this is because new ‘social business’ software is just a year or two in, partly because of the difficultly companies have tying knowledge worker outcomes to bottom-line business performance.

Most of the bottom-line benefits cited by vendors highlight improvements and enrichment of sales processes (better information sharing, faster expertise location), sales being the one area of a modern enterprise that can really tie in outcomes to business performance.

So we’ll presume that in the main, if work is being done, it adds business value. If value can be added to that work, then value is added to the business.

With that in mind, here are a few high-level examples of social business technology successes.

5.1 Alcatel

Fairly ‘soft’ benefits, but some interesting numbers.

5.2 T-Mobile

Participo was directly involved here.

Open innovation pilot realised £200k benefit directly attributable to ideas that hadn’t already emerged after a ‘thorough’ business rationalisation.
Faster Exec briefings because info already published
Multiple anecdotes of expertise connection
Inspired some teams to record ‘exit interviews’ with departing contractors to informally capture their expertise

5.3 BASF

These include faster and easier access to experts, increases in the value of existing knowledge.

6. Objections

Not everyone’s on the bandwagon. Some understandable (and often reasonable) objections…

6.1 The ‘9x as good problem’

A new technology needs to be 10x better than what it’s purported to replace, aka the “why don’t I just use email?” response.

More info: The 9x-as-good problem .

6.2 Haven’t got time to do this as well

No fast or easy fix for this objection. Don’t force or replace technologies…augment, and persuade..

Also don’t expect 100% participation. One engaged project member will amplify benefit the whole team will benefit from.

6.3 IT is a ‘fashion industry’

“Social business software is a fad”, IT decisions are “vendor led”, “business benefit not proven repeatedly”.

Good objections. Hopefully they’re dealt with in this Briefing.

Apart from the accusation that IT is a fashion-led industry. That’s true.

7. Risks

7.1 Vendors calling the shots

Aka ‘don’t ask a coal company for energy solutions‘.

Vendors lead technology decisions at the moment, both because they’re providing expertise, and defining requirements based, not unsurprisingly on their software’s capability.

This leads to million-pound chairs.

Get in front of this by defining a collaboration-first social business strategy, not a features-first deployment.

7.2 Over jealous Governance

Will C-level execs freak out – applying governance too early, ‘kill’ prototypes and more deadly, people’s sense of freedom and experimentation?

7.3 Creation of silos

With new systems, there’s a risk that knowledge and expertise capture shifts into a new silo.

New tech solutions need to expose their data, and where possible integrate with existing systems.

At the very least, make sure there’s an integrated search capability on the roadmap, so that old and new knowledge are easily discoverable.

7.4 Can the org handle the lack of control?

Well can they? Successful systems often take a life of their own, with emergent norms, ‘open data’ and previously controlled information getting exposed.

This is what success looks like. Is the organisation ready for it?

7.5 HR/legal concerns.

Cf. above. Is there a need to define some HR policies that placate the org without stifling the freedoms of the new technology?

7.6 It’s too late

Have IT ‘lost control’ (and benefit) because employees have already taken matters into own hands?

It’s not just the obvious symptoms such as bringing their own devices to work (iPad instead of laptop, anybody?) but subtler activities – using web based collaboration sites for lightweight collaboration, easier file sharing with Dropbox, etc. instead of officially mandated tech.

It might be ‘against the rules’, but employees ‘route around’ inconvenience to Get Stuff Done.

This, perhaps counter-intuitively, is a great place to get started – these are your future advocates and pilots of collaborative tech. Meet their needs, and you’ll meet the needs of all employees.


[1]: McKinsey Survey: ‘How social technologies are extending the organization’

[2]: Yammer – Corporate Twitter/Activity stream, recently purchased by Microsoft.

[3]: Chatter – Salesforce’s Enterprise Twitter app, competitor to Yammer.

[4]: Jive – Enterprise collaboration suite that’s successfully co-opted consumer tech for enterprise collaboration.

[5]: SocialText – one of the original ‘social software’ suites. Some smart thinking.

[6]: Confluence – an old favourite. Wiki suite with well-developed collaboration features.

[7]: ThoughtFarmer – taking a different path with their ‘social intranet’.

[8]: SharePoint – Microsoft’s collaboration platform designed to integrate and amplify the Office suite. Dominant to the point where one could regard SharePoint as an Enterprise ‘OS’.

[9]: Google Search Appliance Autonomy – It doesn’t really matter whether it’s Google, Autonomy, open source, hand-rolled. Just as long as there is a good, pervasive and deeply integrated search at the heart of Enterprise collaboration tech.