Collaboration is About Behavior, Not Software

Supriyo B “SB” Chatterjee (@sbc111) shared an excellent article on SPYam last night from Adi Gaskell’s (@adigaskell) blog.

In the article, Adi says:

If only it was that simple. The reality is often very different however. The reality is often that most organisations are not collaborative at the moment. Employee behaviour has been ingrained through years of reinforcement, that salary and promotion are intrinsically linked to individual performance.

Changing behaviours at work requires changing the environment that surrounds people when they’re at work.

Image from Adi’s post

Big thumbs up on this one. Collaboration is a result of a culture that encourages it; culture is a sum of the individuals in the group. Most organizations tie their incentives to things that actually discourage collaboration (stack ranking, anyone?). We can implement every system in the world and people who aren’t encouraged to collaborate, won’t. This is one of SharePoint’s dirty secrets: it can’t solve anything that people don’t truly want to solve.

One of my biggest beefs with most SharePoint installations is the strong desire for workflows. We don’t do workflows for ourselves (generally), we do them *to* others. Collaboration isn’t something we force; it must be a natural step in the work process. By putting too much rigor around work, we end up discouraging collaboration. We’ve removed the back currents and eddies in the flow where serendipitous collaboration can occur. Note: I have no beef with workflows for highly repetitive, non- value add tasks, like submitting expense receipts or approving a document. If there’s any room there for collaboration, please tell me about it.

This is nothing new. The knowledge management movement in the mid-nineties suffered from similar constraints. We’re still outgrowing the command-and-control structures that were so successful in the 1950s. Those militaristic management styles work pretty well in manufacturing or assembly work, where consistent unit production is the goal. With knowledge work, there are many intangible work products like effective meetings, project management (not project measurement, which is often the tacit goal), or effective content generation.

So if you or anyone you know think that installing some software will change your company’s ability to collaborate, think again. It’s going to be a very long haul for you with a lot of wasted time and money unless you focus on the underlying incentives and motivations at the same time – or even ahead of time. That starts with the people at the top and trickles right on down. “Thou shalt collaborate” is a death knell for the very goal it espouses. “Let’s talk about how we can encourage collaboration” is oh-so-much better.

<UPDATE date=”2013-09-03″>

Pankaj Taneja wrote another take on this in his post The 3 Pillars of Collaboration, which I culled from the comments on Adi’s post.

To me, policies are good as fall backs in case of issues and can set the tone for how collaboration might work, but too many constraints quash collaboration.

I would disagree that “[a]mbiguity is the greatest enemy of collaboration”. Ambiguity is a given in life. Collaboration happens where and when it makes sense, as long as we don’t prevent it. That prevention can come from the way we implement technologies or structure incentives, but it can also be caused by an abundance of policy. A certain amount of undefined leeway is crucial to good collaboration, and that requires trust, not rules.


What Should Microsoft Do for the SharePoint Community – My Opinions

This post was cross-posted on on 23 November, 2010.

As with so many things these days, this post started off in a conversation on Twitter. Eric Ligman, Microsoft Global Partner Experience Lead, tweeted a question: “What would you like to see from #Microsoft from a social networking/community perspective? #socialmedia #mspartner“. Here’s the conversation from Twitter:!/EricLigman/status/4519662494679041!/sympmarc/status/4521458227220481!/EricLigman/status/4524540445073409!/sympmarc/status/4522333704294401!/EricLigman/status/4525945939558400!/sympmarc/status/4525599607492609

I realize that Eric’s question was about communities around *any* of Microsoft’s products, but what I know is the SharePoint community. I’m betting that it’s as much of standout in the technical community spectrum for Microsoft as it is against just about any technical community out there.

As I mentioned above, the SharePoint community is alive and well, thank you very much. Through the herculean efforts of people like Michael Lotter (the king of SharePoint Saturdays) and Mark Miller, Jeremy Thake, and Joel Oleson (the kings of SharePoint online communities), and a band of others, the ball got rolling.  After those early cultivators of the community started things off, it seems like the community just keeps growing. Of course there are those who enter the stream to try to make a quick buck off SharePoint as the latest new big thing, but the vast majority of the SharePoint community kicks in their time, knowledge, and effort for free or very little.  This is something which makes the SharePoint community so unique.

It’s been said ad nauseum, but the SharePoint community *really* is unique. I’ve been in technology for almost 30 years now and I have never seen such a giving, thoughtful community built around a technology platform. I often wonder if this is more due to the technologies available to support things (20 years ago we wouldn’t have even had a way to identify the others in our field, much less collaborate with them regularly) or the domain itself. I think it’s probably the confluence of the two: passion for collaboration supported by the best collaborative technologies that have ever existed. I’m not just talking about SharePoint here; it’s just one of the threads in the amazingly vibrant social and collaborative technology fabric which we all use every single day.

So, what do I think that Microsoft should do in the SharePoint community space?

Be Aware

For gosh sakes, know what the community is doing. I was at a Microsoft-sponsored event a while back and it flabbergasted me that we had to explain to marketing folks in the Office division how SharePoint Saturdays worked and how the SharePoint community uses Twitter. Microsoft needs to know all that is going on and participate mindfully. Know what we are up to and learn the lingo and the names. Get to know us, even those of us who aren’t MVPs. Many of us don’t do this for things like MVP badges, but for the community itself and the rewards we get from participating, as intangible as they may be. Think about what we are doing and why. Let us know what you see us doing that seems good or bad and why. Keep the channels open. 

Be Respectful

Yes, the community is alive and well, and to a large degree that has been without much help from Microsoft. So respect what has happened around SharePoint and don’t meddle without very carefully considering each act. We don’t just need a bunch of money and a herd of Softies showing up at all of the events. But the events are fun, mind-bogglingly valuable and informative, and might benefit from a little Softie TLC and mind share.

Understand how much time many of us put into the community. Think about the fact that the reward structures (the MVP program for one) that you offer to the propeller head geeks (That’s not a put down, BTW. I’m a closet propeller head.) don’t really work for everyone in the SharePoint space. There are also a lot of *very* good small shops out there who work with SharePoint who don’t necessarily get much from things like the Partner Program. That’s OK, frankly, but we’re not just going to sell software seats for you (which *sometimes* seems like the overarching motivation for you). We’re going to help make people think about Microsoft differently, one project at a time, but also one conversation at a time.

We’re in this not just for the technology, but for how this stuff can fundamentally change work as we know it. We see potential far beyond documents in lists and social networking. We see a greater whole which transcends SharePoint itself. (OK. I’m getting a little ridiculously hyperbolic here, but I’m not kidding, really.)

Be Supportive

Yes, that may mean a little money. But it also means continuing to let us use Microsoft facilities for SharePoint Saturdays. It may also mean being there at SharePoint Saturdays to show that you know about them and understand the value. It may mean tossing the community leaders a few bones every once in a while, and that may be very simple stuff like mentions in articles or invitations to cool events. Different rewards work for different people. If you get to know us, you’ll figure out what those might be. Acknowledge what we do and the difference it makes to you. Help us when we ask for help, whether it be on a particularly thorny technical issue, or when we point out problems with your documentation, or when we ask for new ways to work with you.


If there’s one message I’d say is the take away for Microsoft in all of this, it’s “Don’t screw this up”. We’ve got a great thing going here. We may not all get rich, but we’re doing good work and making a difference.  The SharePoint community is the glue that hold it all together.