If you work at a company of more than a few hundred employees, the chances are you spend at least some time each day on knowledge-sharing platforms… or at least you are being told you should. The rise of these platforms has been one of the defining corporate endeavours of the last decade. I say endeavour because despite the big investments in this type of technology, we hear endlessly that they have not achieved the collaborative, knowledge-sharing cultures they set out to.
But why? After all, the platforms themselves are usually intuitive and engaging. They’re rolled out to entire divisions and departments with gusto and in some companies they even manage to get the holy grail that is leadership role-modelling.
One of the answers according to our research here at the Future of Work is signalling. Let me explain.
The investments that companies have made in the systems is only part of what is required. Those systems must be just one element of a wider culture of collaboration. One in which people receive frequent and consistent behavioural cues that knowledge-sharing is expected and well received. These cues, or signals, come from the way in which the work environment is structured, both the physical environment and the processes and practices that surround every day behaviour.
Think about it in your organisation: when you walk into your office (let’s be honest, most of us – 87% in fact – still work primarily in an office) what are the cues you receive about how you should behave? Is it ok to be away from your desk or offline without an explanation for a few minutes, perhaps even an hour, so that you can start a conversation with a colleague and share knowledge the old fashioned way? Or, is any time away viewed with suspicion? Do you have the autonomy to build networks outside of your organisation, or with people in other regions? These are basic, but important questions because without the cultural norms encouraging people to share knowledge in-person, day-to-day, companies are unlikely to see those same people eagerly using knowledge-sharing platforms. Why would we expect an entirely different set of behaviours merely because people are online?
So, what’s the key message for organisations that are looking to enhance knowledge-sharing? Create signals – loud and clear – that encourage people to build on the expertise of others and use their skills to contribute the success of teams beyond their own. This requires an analysis of the many signals sent out by performance management approaches, training and development opportunities, and selection processes – what do each of these organisational tools tell people about how they should behave?
It means providing people with space and time to talk, wander, browse – indulge their curiosity for a few minutes a day and spark the conversations that will get them intrigued enough to search for more information, perhaps on a knowledge-sharing platform. Finally, when it comes to the platforms themselves, ensure they too send out clear signals about their purpose and the format in which people should contribute. The success of social media platforms such as Facebook and Twitter is that they are subtly prescriptive about what you should share and how (Twitter’s 140 characters being the obvious example). And avoid at all costs the fragmentation of employees across platforms. This in itself sends a mixed signal as to where people should be spending their time and contributing their expertise.
Knowledge-sharing platforms are a potentially game-changing tool to harness a culture of collaboration. Just don’t expect them to transform people into new ways of working simply by virtue of moving them online.
~William Henry Davies
During the Talent Innovation Masterclass, Lynda paused her keynote talk for two minutes of silence. It felt like an hour. This would usually be a nightmare scenario for a speaker; the creeping self-consciousness evoked in the audience painfully stretching out the seconds. But this was a period of controlled reflection, as attendees were asked to study a painting during the period of silence. To decontextualise and condense their focus for a moment of pure visual association.
Perhaps in the context of a presentation, enforced silence is at least initially a discomforting experience for the audience. Yet having overcome the quiet by focusing on an image, the audience were able to collect their thoughts and extract greater depth from the material before them. A singular focus allows us to engage with content in a more critical, immersive way. By stopping to think in the workplace, we open up space for creative, expressive thoughts, as opposed to functional duties. Consequently, we are more likely to innovate.
But what relevance does this have for a Masterclass on Talent Innovation? Well, with automation encroaching upon jobs of all skill levels, the Masterclass was an important opportunity for us to think about the uniquely human skills we bring to work that cannot (yet) be computerised. These quintessentially human qualities include creativity, curiosity and innovation and they are the qualities that underscore the success of our organisations. However, as Lynda cautioned in her keynote, many companies are subverting these human qualities by designing jobs that place multiple demands and obligations on people, that leave very little discretionary time, and that place multiple constraints on what people can and cannot do. The result is the squeezing out of the space for creativity – that invaluable human quality.
There is no doubt that we in live in an information-saturated age. Our working lives, living in busy cities, and widespread connectivity offer a wealth of constant data and change. In particular, visual imagery is everywhere we look. It offers the perfect form to capture the millisecond measurement of the modern attention span. Harvard Professor of Humanities Jennifer Roberts has sought to buck this trend. Professor Roberts felt that her role as an educator was to a large extent to help her students “learn to learn.” By that she meant helping them decelerate and pay deep attention to what they are studying.
According to Professor Roberts, outside of a space of learning, students are driven towards immediacy by social and technological pressures. Professor Roberts realised that she had to give her pupils “permission and the structures to slow down”, by explicitly engineering the pace and tempo of their learning experiences.
In one particular class, she asked her students to choose a single painting for a research project. Once chosen, their first task was to study the picture for three hours: a painfully long time to consider a still object. The students were asked to note down their evolving observations and any questions or speculations that arose. The time span was explicitly designed to seem excessive. Also crucial to the exercise was the museum or archive setting, which removed the student from his or her everyday surroundings and distractions.
At first many students resisted the exercise, failing to see how the small, still frame of the painting could warrant three hours worth of study. Was it possible to hold three hours worth of stimulation and thought in a single work of art? Yet having completed the exercise, many were amazed by the recesses of explorative thought that this contemplation had unlocked.
The exercise demonstrates the difference between things looked upon and things seen, offering an interesting meditation upon the parallel rise of connectivity and mindfulness in modern society. The Internet and MOOCs offer access to a wealth of material, but access does not equate to knowledge: just because we have observed something, does not necessarily mean we have truly understood and absorbed it. To turn access into learning requires time, discipline and patience.
So, how can apply this within our organisations? And, what potential does this have in helping us bring those uniquely human skills to work?
Organisations seeking creativity and innovation from their people must consider how they may be eroding their employees’ ability to focus and decelerate through too many demands and obligations. This ultimately requires a brave call from managers, who must seek to cut menial tasks and process in order to reduce the burden on talent. It requires them to free up their teams so that they can bring those uniquely human qualities to their work, and can focus and think critically in an otherwise accelerated world.
For more information on the topics covered in this blog, contact Tom: firstname.lastname@example.org
Photograph ©2013 Museum of Fine Arts, Boston
Advances in technology have revolutionised the way we collaborate in our personal lives. We have daily updates even from distant friends through Facebook news feeds, we rent hotel services through peer-to-peer platforms like AirBnB, and we seek help and advice from user forums rather than company manuals. Where we have made far less progress however, is in awakening this new era of collaboration in the workplace. Indeed, while collaborative technology is at our fingertips, we still gravitate towards conventional and outdated approaches to information sharing, decision-making and personal development. But why is this?
My many years of research have taught me time and again that a company’s culture is often at the heart of the issue. Even organisations that invest time and money in collaborative platforms like Yammer and Chatter, fail to see the impact they hoped for because they neglected to assess whether or not their company’s culture encouraged collaboration. Indeed, if performance management processes, remuneration systems, and job deigns are all individually oriented, then companies are unlikely to see employees dash to engage with collaborative technologies. To make collaboration work then, we must view an organisation as a system and develop processes and practices that give clear signals in favour of collaborative behaviour. But who in the organisation is able to transform culture in this way?
Of all the functions in a company, HR is the guardian of the future and the most influential in transforming culture. In the coming years it will fall to HR teams to foster collaborative cultures through rewards and recognition for knowledge sharing, complementary skill development within teams, and a renewed focus on network building. This challenge is the current focus for my research team at the Future of Work Research Consortium. Over the next few months we will be working with our members – some of the world’s leading organisations – to craft the future of HR and define the capabilities needed for this function to be the driving force behind collaborative organisations.
By Lynda Gratton
The start of a new year is a natural point for thinking ahead and planning for the future. Just before 2013 ended, I sat down for an interview with the BBC’s Peter Day, continuing a conversation he and I have been having for over 20 years. During the interview I talked not only about the changes I’ve observed since he and I last spoke, but also about the five trends I see emerging in 2014 and beyond.
The shade of your future depends on where you are
Something that has become abundantly clear in recent years is that whether your future seems bright or dim depends on where you live. Young people in Europe, for example, are facing an extremely tough time and face the prospect of being less prosperous than their parents generation. But for their counterparts in India or China, expectations are entirely different, with many of them looking forward to a higher income than their parents.
It’s my belief that the youth unemployment we see affecting many countries is structural not cyclical. The past few years have been marked by the hollowing out of work, by which I mean that the middle-skilled jobs traditionally taken on by graduates have been outsourced or being replaced by technology, leaving only low-skilled jobs or high-skilled jobs which require more experience and education than the average twentysomething has to offer. This can leave young people adrift, without that very first job role from which to move upwards.
One major game-changer which I see having a huge impact in 2014 is online education. Online courses are becoming widely available – and they are revolutionising the scope of what people can aspire to. Suddenly, people all over the world are enrolling on courses that were previously only available to affluent individuals in specific locations. I saw a living example of the impact this is having at the World Economic Forum at Davos in 2013. There I watched a panel with Bill Gates, the head of Stanford, the head of MIT – and a 13 year-old Pakistani girl. If you’re wondering why this girl was invited to join these eminent figures, the reason is simple: this young teenager came top in Stanford’s online examinations. This struck me as an outstanding example of how the world is changing: here is a girl who even five years ago would have had no opportunity to leave Lahore, but thanks to a world-class university putting its courses and examinations online, she has the world at her feet. There is no doubt that this will create huge competition for young people in the West.
Quotas for women?
It’s astounding to think that while 50% of graduates are women and 30% of managers are women, only 10% of business leaders are women. For someone who thought that the glass ceiling was about to shatter 20 years ago, this is extremely disappointing. Despite all our hopes to see more women at the top of leading organisations, the speed of change has been glacial. It seems that large organisations remain hierarchical, bureaucratic and have a tendency to pay lip service to the concept of having women in the boardroom. Frequently, they are not places where women feel comfortable holding senior positions. One solution that has been put forward is that of female quotas, but this is an issue which divides opinion amongst senior women. For my part, I’m on the side that thinks quotas are a good thing. The way I see it, if you are in a situation where nothing seems to be moving, a shock is what’s needed.
The business side of social media
I also think we’ll start to see organisations using social media within their businesses as elegantly as people use it in their everyday lives. A trend that has emerged in the last year or two is that there is technology that connects every single person in an organisation in a very sophisticated way. For example, I’ve seen this happening at Tata Consulting Services, a business that employs over 150,000 people under 24 and connects them to each other using social media. The result of this is that people naturally form communities to get things done, to discuss ideas, and to have fun. Since their Knome platform was launched, TCS employees have formed themselves into 3,500 communities. My team at the Hot Spots Movement helps companies do this in a more targeted fashion with their FoWlab jams: facilitated online conversations which companies can use to engage their employees on issues as diverse as brand values, job design and meaningful work. I see this becoming a model that many other companies will follow. 2014 promises to bring some interesting organisational changes led by technology, particularly the kind that allows people to communicate on a many-to-many basis. This kind of communication model will have a huge impact on how people work together – and on the role of leaders. In fact, it has the potential to change the very nature of what we call leadership. After all, if information is flowing easily and horizontally – what does a leader do?
Both online education and social information sharing rely enormously on trust – something that will prove challenging for some. For those of us who are Baby Boomers or from Gen X, building trust has always been based on face-to-face interaction – and building trust in a virtual environment can prove challenging. People from younger generations, on the other hand, have grown up working online and playing games virtually, which gives them the advantage of being able to develop trust easily without the need for face-to-face contact. A workforce is emerging where humans can build trust in a virtual environment and this promises to revolutionise how information is shared and how knowledge and expertise flow within organisations.
Companies have understood the benefits and pitfalls of using social media to engage customers for some years now, with Facebook and Twitter now commonly used as platforms for identifying new customers, fostering brand recognition, and building or harnessing engaged communities. However, few companies have successfully replicated the success of these social platforms internally.
Engaging employees and motivating them to embrace new ways of working often proves difficult, with companies often seeing low uptake rates of enterprise social networking platforms such as Microsoft’s Yammer and Salesforce’s Chatter.
Though enterprise social networks can take off, they tend to end up supporting a small group of core users, whose interest in the platform ebbs over time. We have spoken to a number of companies who have been frightened away from internal social media after they have failed to gain traction.
The problem with internal social networks is that they often lack purpose, they are rarely facilitated, and they tend to lack sponsorship from leaders. Providing a platform is a prerequisite for enabling new ways of working, but it is rarely sufficient. People need to have a reason for engaging.
The importance of purpose
One of the most successful enterprise social networks we’ve seen, Tata Consultancy Services’ Knome platform, creates engagement by encouraging people with common interests to share their experiences. Building on people’s preexisting passions is a quick way to create engagement with a platform, as it taps into a nascent desire to connect.
Uniting a large and more diverse audience often requires the identification of a broad challenge that everyone in the organisation has a vested interest in addressing. For our FoWlab Jams, we always identify a big strategic challenge, and try to tie the Jam itself to an existing organisation-wide change program. This frames the platform as a vehicle for change, and as a unique opportunity for employees to contribute to high-level strategy.
Personally, I don’t like networking events because I’m rubbish at striking up conversations with people I don’t know. I’m sure it’s a common trait, and one that I know translates to the online world. Though we’re often given a confidence boost by a cloak of anonymity on certain online platforms, most if not all enterprise social networks build on our existing work identities and reputations.
To avoid everyone lurking around the canapés or pretending to check their phones, you need someone facilitating interactions. Someone to introduce them to others and reveal common interests they can talk about. We’ve found that facilitators in online platforms are almost a prerequisite for engaging a diverse audience. They may not be expert in the area under discussion, but they are expert in creating exciting questions and connections between ideas and people.
Unlike customers, employees have a reason to be scared of sharing their opinions. They think they are being observed by people who want an excuse to fire them. This is the default assumption, and the mentality arises even in the absence of overt authority. It’s something that needs to be actively and continually refuted by leaders in order for their employees to feel they can be honest and open.
Transparent and authentic leaders, who value and act on the opinions of those working for them, are invaluable in getting employees to embrace enterprise social networks. Even for those lucky enough to work in ‘flat’ or ‘horizontal’ organisations, there needs to be a shared understanding that your opinions matter, and that you won’t be penalized for openly collaborating with others.
By providing enterprise social networks with purpose, facilitation, and sponsorship, the chances of people engaging with them will increase dramatically. In our FoWlab Jams, we tend to see 50% of our target audience engaging with the conversation – and that’s just over three days. Employees won’t naturally transition to these new ways of working, but if you give them a reason, guidance and leadership support, you’ll remove the main barriers in their way.
- 10 useful tips for better use of social networks (part 1) (fieldoo.com)
- Customer engagement in social networks isn’t enough (knexusgroup.wordpress.com)
- Social Networks Increasing Their Power as a News Source, LinkedIn is Still Behind (business2community.com)
- Applications of Enterprise Social Networking Across The Whole Company (business2community.com)
- Measuring Social Business Success (business2community.com)
- Are Intranets Becoming Irrelevant? (cmswire.com)