E L S U A ~ A KM Blog by Luis Suarez

From the blog

The Soft Skills of Collaboration and The Social Enterprise

Gran Canaria - Pozo de las Nieves in the WinterOver at the BrainYard, my good friend, Rachel Happe, put together, just recently, a rather interesting and insightful blog post under the heading “Got Culture? Use It To Drive A Successful Social Business” where she comes to confirm what a whole bunch of us have been saying all along for a while now; that for an Enterprise to succeed in living social culture is going to play a key role at the same time that online communities will continue to be the major drivers of social software adoption, both inside and outside of the firewall. However, it won’t be easy. And it won’t take place overnight either. There will always be a good bunch of roadblocks, inhibitors and whatever other issues, like reluctance to change or fear to think and act differently, that would need to be addressed and all of those would be, pretty much, around augmenting your already existing corporate culture and values to address those concerns, as that social transformation continues to happen. The key question would be whether your business is well prepared to invest, heavily enough, in shaping up its own culture to re-adjust and become a truly Social Enterprise.

In that wonderful article Rachel offers some great help and very adequate suggestions on how to get the ball rolling. She eventually comes to talk about the stuff that most folks haven’t considered just yet in any open and transparent collaborative and knowledge sharing environment. The soft skills. Those skills that are hardly taught anymore when you are hired into a company and that, in most cases, are always treated, and considered, as a given. In short, once you joined the company collaboration is a natural task / activity and, by default, you are pretty good at it. Just like when they handed over your laptop, your mobile phone, your email address and that’s it! Off to work!

Well, it doesn’t work that way. Collaboration has always been a buzzword and a tough challenge to meet up by competing knowledge workers who have been brought up all along with mantra’s like “Knowledge is power” (So why should you share it, right? Sharing your knowledge will relinquish your power, don’t you think?). Nothing to do with social computing tools alone, really. It’s how most of us have been brought up in the corporate world for decades and why, despite all of that time, we still have to come to terms with a truly collaborative and an open knowledge sharing culture where Knowledge SHARED *is* power. That’s when things do really get interesting!

There is no doubt that effective collaboration that is happening amongst individuals, teams, networks and communities, as part of that social transformation of culture, process and people, is a key success factor to become a Social Enterprise. It’s also true that most knowledge workers out there “aren’t all naturally good at collaboration“, as Dan Keldsen would say, even though you may have enough elements to facilitate and enable that collaboration; in fact, most knowledge workers have never been trained, nor educated, on becoming powerful collaborators, specially, when being confronted with a good number of different collaboration personas and contexts . They have just been told that collaboration, specially in today’s virtual, distributed corporate world, is just the norm. It’s how we work, how we get stuff done; in short, how we become smarter at what we do. But is it really?

I am not sure what you folks would think about this, but, for a good few years, I have been missing, all along, plenty of helpful and relevant education resources, driven by HR, that would help knowledge workers understand collaboration for what it is and help facilitate their on boarding of collaborative and knowledge sharing tools in order to make the most out of it. Specially, since not all of us are true, natural collaborators. And, once again, here we have got social networking tools coming to the rescue and we still haven’t got that critical component of educating your own knowledge workforce about how, when, with whom, for what purpose and why collaboration needs to happen, and what would be the options available out there.

So Rachel offers three different approaches that would probably give you a good start to begin thinking about how you can make your own corporate culture much more open, transparent, engaged and nimble to embrace collaboration and social technologies and funny enough without making use of any of that! Again, touching base on the soft skills. Here you have got them listed, so that you can get an idea:

  1. “Use evocative images to spur a detailed discussion of cultural norms and expectations
  2. Use specific examples of online behaviours and statements to discover what’s culturally unacceptable, uncomfortable, neutral, and positive
  3. Express the same context in different ways, using different tones and wording to determine tone vs. content comfort”

Corporate culture has always influenced collaboration. For better or for worse. And the same would pretty much apply to social software tools as well. I am sure that, by now, you folks would know about businesses whose cultures are not very keen on collaboration and knowledge sharing, and other companies where they thrive on collaboration, even with or without making use of social computing tools. The interesting thing is that, once again, social tools will provide us with a unique opportunity to decide whether we would want to influence culture to lead in the right direction, or keep making the very same mistake over and over again. The good thing is that it’s our choice. We get to decide how influential corporate culture is going to be for every business out there that wants to become a social enterprise. We get to decide how critical and paramount collaboration and sharing amongst groups is going to be from now onwards, because originally, and that was to be expected, social networking tools do facilitate, or even make it easier, for collaboration to take place.

Take IBM (My current employer), for instance. Traditionally, collaboration is a core part of our values. It’s in our genes, our DNA. It’s an integral part of who we are. Of course, we do have silos, as well. Who hasn’t? Some of them are actually valuable altogether, although probably the vast majority shouldn’t be there in the first place. Still it’s hard to imagine an IBM that doesn’t breathe collaboration and knowledge sharing over the course of decades (You may have heard about how the IBM Forums just recently marked their 40th year anniversary in the company). Well, our social transformation over the last few years has enabled us to take collaboration into a new level, one where we are breaking down those silos, at a rampant pace, although sometimes you still have the perception it doesn’t happen fast enough, when it is!, by encouraging fellow colleagues to continue to make use of social tools, both internal and external, to foster a much more open and collaborative work environment where there are hardly any hierarchies, structures, top-down mandates, etc. etc. Just a peer to peer collaborative effort where we are all learning day in day out how to make the best out of it.

And it is with that learning experience mentality put in place that I thought I would go ahead and close off this blog post sharing a short list of the commonest traits I have been exposed to from other fellow colleagues that could surely help any corporate culture become more collaborative and therefore address the needs to augment those soft skills. Starting with yours truly, by the way!, since you are constantly exposed to them as one faces the reality that in today’s business world we can no longer do our jobs alone. We always depend on other people, on their skills, their experiences, their know-how, their willingness to help out when you need it and so forth.

Mind you, we are talking about powerful characteristics here that have kicked in a rather complex multicultural environment across the board. But I am sure those would apply as well to other companies. IBM has got a presence in over 170 countries, with 400k employees, distributed in over 2000 offices, with 50% of its population with less than 5 years at IBM, with 73% of managers with remote employees reporting to them, and with over 40% of the entire workforce working mobile. Probably as complex as you can get, don’t you think?, and perhaps the perfect ground for virtual collaboration to flourish all over the place. So what are those common traits that powerful collaborators have been permeating across throughout the organisation, when using collaborative, knowledge sharing and social networking tools? Let’s see:

  • Be a good listener: Indeed, most of the potential conflicts that can happen in a multicultural collaborative environment are happening because knowledge workers just simply don’t listen well enough. Sometimes it’s much better to listen, focus and pay attention to what’s been said than to utter words to just get your voice heard.
  • Be innovative: Always be looking on the bright side of injecting innovation into everything you do. It’s those new, unexpected ways of doing things different that are so refreshing and empowering when collaborating with fellow colleagues.
  • Be creative: Creative work is critical for every powerful collaborator out there. Creativity is a craft we all have, some folks develop it more than others, but it’s still an integral part of who we are, as human beings, so if we exercise our own creativity every day there is a great chance it will leave a mark over time difficult to forget. It will help spark more innovative ways for smart work to take place eventually.
  • Be curious: This is one of my favourite characteristics in powerful collaborators when working in a complex, multicultural environment. Being healthily curious about those around you who you are collaborating with would make you much more focused, and keen on working together effectively. It’ll also help you understand how some things do work in some cultures and why they may not work in others. By you having an understanding of how others think you would be in a better position to collaborate more effectively. And vice versa, of course.
  • Be confident: Absolutely! Every knowledge worker out there has been hired by their company in the first place, because they have got both the skills and experience to carry out their jobs and, secondly, because they are all hard working professionals. So, without hesitation, show that confidence. They need it, just as much as you do.
  • Be polite: This is perhaps one of the most underestimated, yet most powerful and empowering, characteristics that keeps getting neglected, time and time again, in a corporate environment, and perhaps elsewhere, too! There is nothing out there that beats a heartfelt Thanks! for helping out those in need, for finding the right experts, for achieving together a common goal, etc. etc. Being polite can take you very far, whether when asking for help or even when giving it out. Try it!
  • Be helpful: If I were to pick up what I think is the most significant and mind-blowing characteristic from the ones shared over here today for any collaborator out there, being helpful is probably as good as it gets. Always being willing to help others, even if you yourself are busy, too!, can help you build social trust amazingly fast and with very profound marks that everyone will remember when wanting to collaborate with you. You do it for them today, they do it for you tomorrow. In the open and transparent world of social networks, that’s how it works.
  • Be authentic: Not much to say about this one, right? Don’t you think? When collaborating with others and using social tools, why pretend to be who you are not? Why bother playing a role that you, yourself, don’t even feel comfortable with in the first place? Authenticity is a key trait from the open Social Web, pretending to be someone or something else, would only harm your online reputation over time. Just be you. It’s enough.
  • Be passionate: Of course, I couldn’t close this list off with another one of my favourites. If you have managed to take some time to observe and watch those powerful collaborators around you, you would see how, for most of them, passion, or being passionate about a particular topic, runs through their veins. It’s what drives them to work; it’s what gets them motivated to share their knowledge, collaborate, learn and inspire others. It’s that passion that drives them in the long run to want to build long lasting personal business relationships with those folks who they share a common affinity with. Don’t neglect your passion; don’t let it go unnoticed; don’t feel bad, or embarrassed, for showing it, even if others make fun of it. You know what? They just wish they all were as passionate for what you do as you are… Seriously. Let it shine! Let it carry you into becoming a powerful collaborator yourself.

And, finally, the last one of those traits that surely adds further up to those soft skills that help knowledge workers becoming much more efficient and effective at what they do and how they collaborate with others, and also one of my favourites: be yourself. Allow others to trust you for who you are and for what you are good at. Honesty, flexibility, understanding, openness and transparency, amongst several others, can pay big dividends over time. Being yourself, showing that hard working professional you are will only reflect back into others always wanting to work with you together. Because, after all, who doesn’t want to mix and mingle with passionate top performers, right?

Now, I am sure you may have yourself a good bunch of additional traits, characteristics, etc. etc. you may have experienced or learned about from other powerful collaborators out there, or even yourself. Care to share and add further up into the conversation with an additional comment or two and let us know what would make open collaboration stick within your organisation to become a Social Enterprise?

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  1. Hi Luis –
    Thank you for taking my column and extending it so well. I think you have this right in that listening and respecting what you hear are at the heart of making new initiatives work for people and that is what ultimately drives acceptance and adoption.

    1. Hi Rachel! You are most welcome! I thoroughly enjoyed your article, since I think it touches on some of the basics of handling those soft skills I mentioned that which I fear are no longer taught in a corporate environment. I still remember when I first entered IBM over 14 years ago, I had two weeks of on boarding training where a few days where dedicated to those soft skills (Listening, showing respect, empathy, taking responsibility, helping others, etc. etc.) as a way to help you get your job done better.

      That’s what triggered my blog post, the fact that we have abandoned such soft skills learning activities thinking that everyone is a master at them from birth. Not really. We need to bring those back, if we would want the Social Enterprise to stick around beyond just a process and a technology focus and transition into that people centric approach where emotions are what dominates those relationships and not processes or technologies.

      Thanks for putting together that inspiring spark that triggered my follow up blog entry! Loved it! 🙂

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