‘Social collaboration’ – a phrase of mass confusion

The strange term “social collaboration” is becoming a little too popular and I feel duty-bound as a member of the local “language police” to break down the phrase. I hear the term bandied about by marketers, bloggers, even savvy intranet managers with no concern for what it really means. And it doesn’t really mean anything at all.

“Social collaboration” is redundant, is redundant

Later on in this post I’ll look at what people may actually mean when they say “social collaboration,” but for starters let’s just break down the term from a very basic linguistic perspective.

“Social” means “people interacting with each other.”

“Collaboration” means “two or more people working together towards shared goals.”

So “social collaboration” means what? People interacting while they work together? It’s totally redundant. You can’t collaborate without interacting with other people, so the term “social” is already embedded in the term “collaboration.”

It’s like saying “sweet dessert.” If your dessert isn’t sweet, then it isn’t dessert.

And “social collaboration” implies such a thing as “anti-social collaboration,” which would be a complete contradiction in terms. So what’s going on here and why have so many of us started using a meaningless and confusing buzzword with concerning regularity?

What people may really mean by “social collaboration”

Over the past few years social intranets (often synonymously referred to as “internal social media” or “enterprise social software”) have become very popular (read the definitive explanation of “social intranet”). Social software features from wikis and blogs to microblogging, rich employee profiles for social networking, idea-generation forums and more have sprouted up in companies from Bangalore to Baltimore and are enabling new ways for employees to connect and interact online.

Launching social software within a company makes it easier for people to find and connect with distant colleagues like never before. The social software can enable more open and robust knowledge sharing, streamline team collaboration, and allow for easier conversation and cooperation. It humanizes the digital elements of a workspace and allows for serendipitous discovery and connections. And when every aspect of a social intranet is humming properly it even enables that holy grail of modern business, INNOVATION.

Unfortunately for intranet managers, though, it’s hard to sell “increased serendipitous discovery and connections” to executives. And the benefits and results of internal social media are complex and notoriously difficult to measure. So people struggle to explain this whole crazy phenomenon and have started defaulting to using meaningless buzzwords.

The bottom line is that when people say “social collaboration” they’re really just referring in some vague way to the use of social media within a company.

That’s it. That’s all “social collaboration” usually means.

Confused about how to really explain the nature and impacts of enterprise social software, people have fused together two related buzzwords into a new term that makes no sense at all.

Did you mean to say “microblogging”?

After much observation I’ve come to think that in many instances when people say “social collaboration” they’re actually thinking about company-wide microblogging.

With the rapid rise in popularity of Yammer and similar tools like Sales Force’s Chatter, microblogging has been many people’s first (and perhaps only) experience of social software within a company. Without experiencing the broader array of social features that make up a true social intranet, many people see microblogging is the de facto representation of enterprise social software.

This is particularly unfortunate for two reasons.

First, internal microblogging initiatives often fail. I hear time and again that after an initial period of pickup, use of Yammer and similar tools declines rapidly. Yammer adoption numbers suggest low levels of use in many companies that are signed up. Particularly thoughtful intranet managers don’t just launch microblogging to the whole company, but rather design its use to address a specific business problem. But even many of these efforts fail to build adequate momentum or show real value.

Second, microblogging often does not equate to real collaboration. In a recent post explaining what collaboration really means I dissected the term to show that microblogging only sometimes falls under the definition of “collaboration.” Often it results in something very different.

Ultimately it seems people say “social collaboration” when they don’t know what to say, when they don’t know exactly what the social software-enabled phenomenon is they are trying to describe.

Replace “social collaboration” with “cooperation”

Some people try to delve more deeply into the term and describe “social collaboration” as what happens when social software allows people from across a company to engage in open conversations.

This brings to mind idea-sharing sections of the intranet where any employee can post and comment, as well as company-wide microblogging or normal blogging. But this is not collaboration. People often mistake conversation and cooperation for collaboration. What’s the difference? Goals!

In collaboration, a specific group of people works together towards shared goals.

In cooperation, people work together towards a result that will benefit all of them.

The people involved in cooperation may all have different goals and realize different benefits, but in that instance of cooperation their efforts happen to align. The temporary alignment of efforts is much different than the alignment of goals, which is core to successful collaboration.

Cooperation is a less structured, more flexible, and more unpredictable activity than collaboration. Microblogging often supports more open and easy conversation and cooperation, which is a good thing. But it’s not collaboration.

For example: If a new employees posts a status update with a question about how to submit expense vouchers, and a more tenured employee from a different department posts an answer, that is cooperation, but not collaboration. The new employee’s goal is to properly submit her expenses so she gets reimbursed. The older employee’s goals are to be helpful, to share his knowledge, to gain recognition for what he knows. In this example, they engage in a shared effort (the conversation) but they do not have shared goals or benefits. They do not work together on an ongoing basis and simply are not collaborating. But they are cooperating.

I suspect that what many people call “social collaboration” is much better described simply as conversation and cooperation. So why don’t we just call it that. No new buzzwords necessary.

Harold Jarche wrote an excellent blog post that uses complexity theory to explain the difference between collaboration and cooperation. This post can offer a deeper level of understanding on this difference and I highly recommend you take a gander.

Real-world terms for real people and real business

When it comes to social intranets I’m a bit of a “true believer.” I think every company should be moving towards building a more human, people-centric online workspace. However, I’m also committed to honesty and accuracy.

As a consultant at ThoughtFarmer I have a responsibility to help clients succeed. Coming up with confusing buzzwords doesn’t help that, especially when there are heaps of every-day terms we can use.

These lay terms describe the activities and benefits of social intranet software, microblogging software, etc. in plain English:

  • Communication
  • Collaboration
  • Cooperation
  • Coordination
  • Idea sharing
  • Knowledge sharing
  • Discussions
  • Questions & answers
  • Networking
  • Serendipitous discovery

Social software can help us do all of these activities better, but we don’t need a gazillion new catch phrases to describe how we use social software.

On behalf of the people who like clear and honest communication, on behalf of the intranet managers out there trying to improve their sites every day, on behalf of the CIOs trying to select the best software for their companies I implore you, vendors, marketers, bloggers, consultants and intranet managers alike to avoid using nebulous buzzwords that don’t address real business problems.

You don’t need to “enable dynamic social collaboration.” You probably do need to help employees cooperate more easily online.

You don’t need to “get social.” But maybe you should consider how social software can help your people connect and work together better.

You don’t need to revolutionize the way you work. You do need to explore ways to better listen to your employees and foster a culture of collaboration and cooperation.

Be honest, my friends, and be clear. Language matters and “social collaboration” is a poor use of our language.

  • Would it be fair to say, all collaboration is social. But some collaborations are more social than others?

  • I think that’s a good question Luke. However, I think “social” really isn’t the right word here and we’re only using it because social software is kind of a big deal these days. 

    Sure there is a collaboration scale, where collaboration can be heavily mechanistic and people don’t interact with each other much. But in those situations, where a “collaborative” process is broken down into individual repeatable activities, the activities really stops being collaboration. Why? Goals! 

    In a mechanistic process, each step has its own goal. On an assembly line person 1 may be responsible for getting the hood (bonnet) attached to the car while person 2 is responsible for getting the steering wheel attached. At that point of deconstructed “collaboration,” each person’s work is really focused on a very specific goal that is separate, but linked to other people’s goals. The lack of shared goals makes the process not really collaboration. 

    In the case, say, of collaborative editing, perhaps only one person can edit a document at a time, but all the editors are working on the whole document. 

    Part of the problem is that we’ve called so many things collaboration when they weren’t really that.  

  • I’d accept that.  But to some extent are you suggesting that collaboration is a state of mind?
    If the assembly workers are working towards a shared purpose and not purely to their own goals – are they collaborating now?

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  • Oh man. Maybe that’ll be my next blog post: “Collaboration is a state of mind.” 

    I see two questions: 1) Is what a group of people are doing actually collaboration? and 2) how well are they collaborating? 

    If people are collaborating it means they are working together – not just in proximity, but interacting – and they have shared purpose. 

    If people on an assembly line fit both those criteria then the next question is how well are they collaborating? Good collaboration does have to do with your state of mind: Do you trust the people you are working with? Have you elevated the team’s goals above your own? Etc. But collaboration is a real enough thing that goes beyond just a mental state.

    What do you think Luke? What have you seen that differentiates good collaboration from poor collaboration?

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  • Peter Richards

    Nice post Ephraim and I do agree with you. We have recently rolled out Microsoft Lync (previously known as communicator). We made no mention of Social or Collaboration but the result has been that all users have realised the tool helps them work together more efficiently and economically. Especially those geographically separated. It does not matter what labels you put on these tools and we have found that once they are made available, our people have used them to their benefit.

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  • It’s great to hear your roll-out of MS Lync has been successful Peter. You always seem to take a thoughtful approach to your work and reap the benefits of adoption and real business value. 

    I imagine with the roll out of MS Lync you explained in plain English what people could actually do with it and demonstrated such, rather than using buzzwords. It seems that in the intranet field (and related technology) buzzwords rarely accomplish much other than confusing people. 

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  • Hi Ephraim,
    Thanks for a bold attempt bring clarity to the collaboration topic. I’m not a fan of the term (or ‘social intranet’ for that matter), but I’m sympathetic to the distinction people are trying to make and I think you perhaps over-simplify how people are using ‘social’ at the moment.

    To me ‘social collaboration’ is useful to differentiate from ‘formal’ or ‘structured’ collaboration. At one end of the scale there are things like workflow and tightly defined processes, and at the other end there is the ad-hoc, enterprise-2.0 style of interaction (more on this in one of the many blog posts I have lingering in draft!). 

    I agree that it would be clearer if we stuck to talking about structured, semi-structured and unstructured collaboration (or something similar), but I suspect the social adjective will have more resonance with people outside our field.

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  • Thanks for sharing your thoughts here Sam. 

    I realize that “social collaboration” is a touchy topic and people come at it with very different perspectives and feelings. It’s been great to see the debates triggered by this post. 

    Part of the core of my argument is that “collaboration” is a specific type of activity (team, processes, shared goals) and that we over-use the term. Much of the “unstructured collaboration” out there isn’t collaboration at all, but cooperation, conversation, or some other activity. 

    When many people say “social collaboration” they mean “collaboration using social software,” (see Dion Hinchcliffe’s tweet to that effect: http://bit.ly/NHOeTr) but often those unstructured E2.0-type activities simply are not collaboration. 

    All of us business professionals have been trained to use the word “collaboration” because it’s popular, sounds businessy, and executives like it. But there are so many other words that better describe some of our activities. 

    Not to cause too much trouble, but I’d say that workflows often aren’t collaboration at all. 

    Why? Lack of shared goals. If I submit a travel expense form, for instance, it’s because I want to get reimbursed. That’s my goal. But my manager’s goal is to ensure proper use of the budget, and the Accountant’s goal is to ensure proper coding of expenses. We all have different goals, so this highly structured workflow isn’t collaboration. It is likely a form of cooperation. 

    But “cooperation” isn’t a popular business term because it sounds like you’re asking kids on the playground to “play nice.” But it really is a better term for much of what we today call “collaboration.” 

    By calling everything “collaboration” and then breaking it down into a scale of social/unstructured/structured, we render the term meaningless. Based on this scale, “collaboration” really just means “interaction.” 

    But collaboration is a real thing and good collaboration requires very specific types of practices, which are different from the practices that make good cooperation. 

    Wow… This comment is practically a whole blog post. Thanks for inspiring me to go at it!

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