The Future of Collaboration Lies in Human Resources AND Management’s Hands

A few weeks ago I put together the attached article for CMSWire where I tried to reflect on what I feel is the number #1 challenge for today’s corporations in terms of embracing a much more open, transparent, knowledge sharing culture through the emergence of social technologies behind the firewall. Indeed, Human Resources is right in the eye of the hurricane in terms of trying to figure out whether it stands, that is, whether it would want to continue sustaining a rather sick, corrupted and disturbing system of mismanaging resources commanded by senior management or whether it would finally want to transform itself into what it should have been in the first place: (facilitating) Human Relationships.

Here we are, 2014 and still wondering what the future of collaboration is — as if we didn’t know already.

Despite all efforts to trump it or get rid of it altogether in favour of other noble concepts like cooperation, the hard truth is that collaboration has always been here. And it will continue to be here for many years to come. It’s a human trait. It’s our capability of getting work done together. Effectively.

So why is it that even today we are still questioning its inherent value within the business world? Is it because of technology? Or certain business processes? Maybe it’s the people after all? In reality, it’s none of these. It’s because of Human Resources and its inability to get it right by empowering knowledge workers to excel at what they already do: collaborate sharing their knowledge more openly and transparently.

We human beings cannot deny helping others when in need. It’s in our genes. It’s part of our DNA, always has been. Yet, in a business environment, knowledge workers typically keep hoarding and protecting their own knowledge as an opportunity to not relinquish their own power (i.e., that very same knowledge), thinking that the less knowledge they share, the more indispensable they become.

But it’s not really all that. It’s because all along, knowledge workers have been encouraged to compete with one another versus helping, caring or collaborating with one another. It’s easier to manage individuals than to facilitate communities and/or networks working together towards a common set of objectives. And that changes the entire game, because when both technology and business processes are no longer a barrier, there is still a bigger hurdle: incentives.

An End to Unhealthy Competition

That, to me, is the biggest challenge of the future of collaboration. And HR is at the forefront of determining whether collaboration will keep flourishing with the emergence of social technologies or whether it will bury it for good. I am not saying that to be an effective collaborator you need to be incentivized. I am saying that for collaboration to be effective within the workplace HR needs to fast forward into the 21st century and understand that the only effect of recognizing the performance of the individual versus the group is to evoke unhealthy competition.

We have had that for decades. And it’s probably the main reason why we are still questioning collaboration today and its inherent value. Yet we all understand we can’t get work done anymore by ourselves. We will always need the help and support of others, and this is where political games, managing up, bullying or even extortion (to a certain degree), amongst several other issues, keep playing a key role in terms of how and why we do not collaborate as effectively as we could and should. And because it’s happening inside the firewall, the vast majority of knowledge workers don’t notice. Or care. HR is at a critical crossroads in terms of figuring out how it’s going to transform itself to recognize people for doing their work collaboratively. And while that takes place there is an even greater pressure out there that’s going to help accelerate that shift: your customers.

A Challenge, An Opportunity

With the emergence of social networking tools the good old concept of the firewall is becoming thinner and more porous than ever, because more and more customers are demanding (and rightly so!) to participate actively on the collaboration AND co-creation process with other knowledge workers. And all of that corporate kabuki around internal politics, the constant stabbing between teams, the always awkward hoarding of one’s knowledge are now becoming — at long last — a thing of the past.

Why? Because it’s all exposed beyond the limits of the firewall not only to their clients and business partners, but, more importantly, to their potential competitors. And eventually knowledge workers understand that in order for them to be more successful to meet and address their customers’ needs, open knowledge sharing and collaboration is a must. No longer a nice-thing-to-have but an imperative to getting work done.

It’s that massive tidal wave of co-creation with your customers and business partners in the external world that’s demolishing HR’s stronghold position in terms of how they evoke bad behaviours that, if anything, keep slowing businesses down. It’s no longer the IT department, or sales, or marketing, but HR that needs to be at the forefront of the Social Business transformation journey. HR needs to understand that collaboration is at the epicenter of this journey and this requires a new method and business principles, perhaps a new business ethos, of how evaluation of overall performance and business outcomes would be delivered and recognized by those networks of true hard working professionals.

An interesting emerging (or worrying) trend — for HR especially — is that if it fails to inspire a work ethos of “How can I help you today?” (versus the good old standby “What do you want?”), knowledge workers will start looking for opportunities to move on to greener pastures, the ones where they can focus on providing business value to their customers rather than fighting an obsolete, corrupted system, sponsored by HR, that fosters unhealthy competition that takes focus away from what our goals and mission should be in the first place: delighting our clients with not just better products, but better conversations, too!

It’s a fascinating challenge for HR to embrace. While everyone else keeps watching out for how social technologies and business processes can help collaboration flourish and move forward from its current impasse, I will focus on what I feel is the future of collaboration itself: the tremendous transformation that Human Resources needs to go through to become, once and for all, Human Relationships, because that’s where collaboration begins …

The people.

As usual, the comments have been absolutely a delightful and rather thought-provoking read and worth while going through them (if you haven’t done so just yet). One of them in particular, caught my attention to highlight an issue that perhaps has gone by unnoticed for far too long. The comment was shared by Mike Kennedy and it reads as follows: 

It’s not HR that’s the problem – they’re implementers, like IT. It’s the LOBs that consolidate power and make it hard to collaborate and share knowledge. Irrespective of function, the culture needs to change first or collaboration will never work regardless of process and technology. Its always been and forever will be about the people.

Right there, Mike, perhaps without not knowing, nor realising about it, may have highlighted what’s the main issue why HR still behaves as HR = Human Resources (20th century) vs. Human Relationships (21st century) and why they seem to be perceived as always coming late to the party around the Social Business Transformation Journey. I thought though it’s perhaps a good time to bring up something that has been in my mind for over the course of the last 2 to 3 years in terms of thinking further along why the adaptation to Social Business has been perceived relatively slow at times, or either inefficient or ineffective

It’s a culture issue. Yes, I know what you are all thinking about… it’s always a culture issue, isn’t it? It’s the perfect scapegoat altogether. Blame it always on the culture, since it’s the most difficult one to quantify, embrace and live through. But hang on for a minute, what would happen if that culture issue would be just championed by a single group? A group that has always been rather comforting in terms of supporting, sponsoring and “getting out of the way” when  helping knowledge (Web) workers adjust to the new reality of social collaboration? The whole game changes, doesn’t it?

Mike’s comments reminded me of a recent interview I did for the smart folks organising the Enterprise 2.0 Summit in Paris where I reflected on the following question posted across: “What are the biggest challenges the projects are facing at the moment?” This was my answer: 

“While I know that this may sound as a cliché, throughout my over 15 years of experience with social networking for business, I have always believed it’s all down to a single aspect: corporate culture. And in this case from one particular group: Management / Leadership. They are starting to become, if not already, the main obstacle towards the realisation of the full social business transformation, because the traditional hierarchy and status quo of how things get done at work *do* certainly understand and comprehend what social networks can do for business, yet, they neglect not only supporting and sponsoring the effort, but also their active involvement in the process, mainly because they think the moment they do, they would lose their power, i.e. overall control of the information to make business decisions. Management needs to understand that this is no longer about command and control, managing your employee workforce to make the decisions for them, but it’s about how you lead them, as a servant leader, to make proper business decisions with the information freely available through networks by providing proper counselling and support vs. becoming the main obstacle. The rather high rates of actively disengaged employees would certainly confirm that challenge as the most critical one for the successful adoption of the social business philosophy and mantras.”

That’s why, as we move forward into 2014, I am starting to strongly believe it may well be a good time to begin upping the game in terms of the so-called involvement and true leadership from (senior) management in helping facilitate the adaptation to Social Business and social networking tools for that matter, both inside and outside of the firewall. I am sure time and time again most of you folks working in both Adoption & Enablement of Social Business keep being confronted with the one of the main show stoppers from practitioners telling you that they totally get it, but their (senior) management don’t and therefore need to be educated to get them on board. Otherwise the whole effort stagnates or ends up on a complete stop.

Really? In 2014? Still? I mean, 20 years after the first instances of both blogs and wikis becoming available on the Web and we still need to justify the inability for (senior) management to get on board leading by example on their own social business transformation (even as a personal journey), arguing that they just don’t get it and therefore need to be coached, mentored and educated on the topic? I am sorry, but things don’t work out like that anymore. Their time is running out and pretty quick, if not already!

You see?, as a (senior) manager / executive, who is leading whatever the business and has been doing that for a while, We are going to start questioning your skills and ability to both manage and lead your firm if you are not leading by example on helping your business transform into becoming a successful social / open business. Oh, and please, don’t use the excuse of ghost writing. It lacks authenticity, uniqueness, engagement and honesty.

We don’t want to talk to your hand. We want you to finally understand and embrace the power of open, transparent, engaging conversations through social networking tools, where knowledge flows, both inside and outside of the firewall, with your employees, your customers and business partners (Oh, and don’t forget about your competitors!), and where you get to sense and feel the pulse of your organisation and the ecosystem around it in terms of what’s happening, and what is not! happening, so you can act together accordingly helping solve plenty of the potential business problems you may well have, like a bleeding and rather discouraging percentage (13%) of actively engaged employees, which on its own would probably be a good enough reason to start considering whether social networking tools could help improve the way they collaborate and share their knowledge out in the open. With, or without you.

There is a great chance that both social and open business would eventually help you and your company address those poignant business issues and pain points, like re-engaging your knowledge workforce or retaining your talent, as they continue to flock massively away on to greener pastures, and, eventually, get back on track. Remember that this is not about you. It’s never been about you. This is mostly about the kind of (business) world (and society) you would want to leave behind when you are long gone not just for your children, but for your children’s children. Your legacy.

But at the same time, it’s also probably a good opportunity now for you to stop thinking that HR should continue to be at your service vs. that one of serving the employees you have hired as hard working professionals in the first place. You know, the ones you took the trouble to court and entice over months and months of multiple interviews offering whatever perks to then be hired and join the company because they were, at one point, incredibly passionate, knowledgeable and truly committed to the mission of wanting to change the world for a better place. Through your business.

Something went wrong along the way though and I am starting to believe that it’s got to do more with your ability to put HR to your service vs. the service of the knowledge (Web) workers currently employed by your firm and, that, eventually, is the current business problem (senior) management would need to start addressing AND fixing pretty soon, because at the current pace we are going we may have run out of time already. Remember, only 13% of your total employee workforce is actively engaged at work. That’s a piece of data that you probably shouldn’t ignore for much longer anymore. 

Please, please, don’t get us to question your management and leadership skills by neglecting nor embracing social networking for business. Instead, join us, show us the way, lead by example, walk the talk, start challenging the status quo that got you there in the first place and look behind to those who are continuing to follow you through thick and thin and help them understand how if they would want to see the future of collaboration shine through, both inside and outside of the firewall, thanks to social networks, you would need to become the new leading shining stars. With them. For them.

After all, the future of work (not just collaboration) is the future of Leadership. And it’s up to all of us to define it, live through it and make the most out of it

Work is a human task. Leadership is the work of mobilising others to action. Leadership is how we help people to realise their human potential. Much of our network and collaboration technology is just an infrastructure for the work and leadership required. The network can magnify the culture of the organisation, but we need the right leadership models for managers to realise the potential of a network era of work”.

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7 Comments »

  • Ian Randall says:

    I am not sure why you focus on HR as key blocker of knowledge sharing & collaboration via social channels. IT must take some share of the blame with their bastion approach to security as should all other functional departments and management are so focused on their KPI’a that they have dropped the Baal as we’ll.

    In a few short years most of the baby boomers will have retired and with them the vast majority of organisational knowledge will walkout the door. It is already too late to capture all that experience, but perhaps social media channels will become even more valuable, as it gives organisations a means if engaging with these retirees after they leave.
    Blaming HR seems pointless to me, as they are only one silo in a forest of silos. Every organisation maintains multiple versions of the truth about people, assets, incidents, tasks etc.
    But a single brain contains more data than all the computers in the world and exploiting humans unique capabilities and the full potential of collaboration, has never been demonstrated to senior management. Once you can do that all the barriers to collaboration will be removed.
    So the real problem is not HR but us IT Vendors. We need to fix us first.

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    • Luis Suarez says:

      Hi Ian, thanks a lot for dropping by and for the great feedback comments. Very interesting and noteworthy your commentary about the share of the blame for IT, including vendors.

      I can tell you that in my 17 years of having worked for the largest IT vendor in the world I don’t think that IT, nor the CIO for that matter, is the culprit as to why collaboration is not flourishing as it could. Perhaps 10 to 15 years ago where they were the main gatekeeper of the whole IT infrastructure it may well have been the case, but in 2014 I can certainly vouch that they are everything, but a hurdle. Why? Because it’s those very same employees who were once trapped behind the firewall who can now break free and make use of whatever the social technology at their disposal to collaborate with their peers, customers and business partners. And all in all without having to even use the IT infrastructure “pushed” by that vendor.

      More and more we are seeing how people are starting to flock to the Social Web to collaborate with their customers and participate of the co-creation process. The firewall is becoming thinner than ever and IT, if anything, does no longer control the game, I am afraid. In fact, plenty of the concerns from most business align with the fact that knowledge workers are collaborating and using these social tools more often and regularly outside the firewall than inside, highlighting the item that IT is no longer an issue.

      And if you ask people why they don’t collaborate internally, it’s not necessarily because of having poor IT capabilities or anything. It’s mostly because they have been incentivised to do so, but instead to compete with one another hoarding and protecting their knowledge. That’s where HR comes in, because they are the ones who have got those incentives in place following direct orders from the executive team(s) to ensure that instead of a large, powerful and engaged network they divide the workforce across so it’s easier to “manage”. The good old divide and conquer motto.

      And HR is right at the centre of the whole equation, because they are catering more the needs of the executive team than those of the employees they ought to serve. And, naturally, baby boomers start their journey into retirement and all of that knowledge is gone. But gone inside of the firewall, because the largest growing demographic on the Social Web is people above 65, highlighting how porous networks are and how restrictive the firewall can well be.

      It’s up to us to help figure out how we promote network driven activities vs. siloed private interactions. And somehow HR, more than IT, has got that ability for change. IT won’t even have a choice anymore, since the shift has already happened with elements like BYOD, for instance.

      I don’t think it’s a matter of needing to fix us first, but help enable the rest of the workforce to do their jobs more appropriate and effectively.

      Thanks again for the feedback. Much appreciated.

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  • Hi Luis

    Good post! But I have one doubt. The participation rate in companies with internal social networks is just 10%. What´s going on with these people who have the right IT for sharing? It´s possible that people contribution is low by nature in companies and in others life situations?

    Best!!

    BC

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    • Luis Suarez says:

      Hi Benito, many thanks for dropping by and for the great feedback. I think that most organisations are eventually waking up to the realisation that just because you may have the technology in place there is no guarantee that people will use it. The “build it and they will come” is finally going through that wake-up phase where it just doesn’t work. Confirming as well that the adoption and adaptation to social technologies hasn’t got much to do with technology but with behaviours and mindset.

      So if you, as an organisation, are not making it easier for knowledge workers to change their behaviours and you, instead, foster and boost a culture of internal competition, corporate politics, bullying, fear and a strong sense of ridicule, amongst several other key elements, there is a great chance that most people would not embrace that new way of work.

      It’s been demonstrated time and time again how human beings are natural collaborators with an inner urge to help out those in need by sharing their knowledge and information, but when both HR and (senior) management keep advocating for a destructive corporate culture environment, it’s pretty tough to build a constructive and creative culture where interactions and conversations thrive. And that’s why it would explain, most probably, why the level of adoption of social technologies is so low.

      We need to shake off that corporate culture of unhealthy competition and, instead, encourage one of helping, caring and sharing with one another, but for that to happen both management & HR need to be come true champions of the transformation and not just mere obstacles, which is what they are at the moment, in 2014.

      Thanks again for the feedback!

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  • A passionate and thought-provoking post, Luis!
    I think an important consideration is how the organisation manages politics. Politics is an inevitable part of every organisation. Although its often characterised as a negative, it can be a powerful force for change and creatively if the tensions arising from the different goals, roles and agendas are guided towards a common outcome. This is a challenge for strong management and leadership. If done successfully though it can open the way for a much greater level of collaboration.

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    • Luis Suarez says:

      Hi Tim, thanks a million for dropping by and for that wonderful feedback! Goodness! I think you are off to something with those comments around “corporate” politics. Yes, every single organisation has them and although the experiences may well have been rather negative (I have never heard of “corporate politics” as a positive trait, which I think is rather telling on its own!), they can be turned around into a huge opportunity and I couldn’t have agreed more with that statement.

      That strong management and leadership that you mentioned above could do a very good job at sponsoring that kind of politics under the auspices of both openness and transparency as main corporate traits for such politics and I suspect that we would all be benefiting so much more about it. The challenge is that, in most cases, it’s that same management that promotes an obscure practice of those politics to retain and cling to that status and power when, in reality, advocating for that openness and transparency would help them become even more influential into inspiring the much needed change in corporate organisations.

      One can only hope that the next generation of strong management and leadership wake up to that reality of Open Business and practice it plenty more in their politics. Something tells me vast majority of today’s issues would be fixed on their own :)

      Thanks again for that wonderful commentary and for sharing it along! Splendid addition into the conversation!

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