Myths of the 21st century organization and the sad truth about enterprise collaboration


There have been 2 milestones in my story with online collaboration tools. First, at the turn of the century, these have helped me to get out of a very tricky professional situation. Then I was fascinated by the geek culture after I joined an innovative start-up in 2004, where everybody would use such tools while collaborating in a very efficient way. And I kept on telling myself : why on earth isn’t everyone working like this ? This is fun, exciting, engaging I need to tell the world this is the way to go.

I have been a very active supporter of these ever since, in particular during the 2009 – 2011 period during which I have blogged extensively on the topic. Looking back to this activism, I have realized that I was making some major misconceptions, the very same that people talking about future of work or hacker culture are making today IMHO.

  1. People who are not digital literate won’t see the value of online collaboraton tools, especially if they don’t collaborate in the first place. In other words, technology is more an obstacle than an enabler to create a culture of collaboration.
  2. The hacking culture has emerged from people who are more comfortable collaborating online then in real life. Thank God, we are a minority (I’m counting myself in).
  3. Online collaboration tools are used to scale collaboration throughout the organization. If there is no collaboration in the enterprise, you ain’t gonna scale anything but frustration.

If buying enterprise software was actually solving organization problems, my job (organization coach/consultant, i.e. fixing broken organizations) would not be a multi-billion dollar industry. If this a strategy, it is just a CIO/VP self-preservation one (“No CIO hs been fired for buying ${enterprise_software_vendor} solutions”).

This easy approach has even less chances to succeed for something as fragile as enterprise collaboration. It may, though, in very specific contexts, but in my opinion these are more evidences of leadership of the professionals making their project a success (Claire FlanaganDan Pontrefact, or Celine Schillinger being names coming to mind) than evidences of the viability of such initiatives.

Baring in mind these sad truths, this post proposes an alternate strategy to root collaboration in the organization.

1. Why technology is an obstacle (for most people)

During these 4 years as a coach, years during which I have helped a dozen of teams develop collaboration, learn and improve on the workplace, I have learnt that technology, initially, creates a barrier between me and the teams. Technology brings friction (the projecter doesn’t work, people don’t know how to change this laptop/application setting or to find this information), especially with enterprise software where usability has never been a real concern : this is a major obstacle to the required seamless flow for collaboration to emerge.

It is very appealing to think that everybody is a digital literate because I am able to easily integrate online tools in my daily work. Yet this is not how it looks for everybody. When I coach a team towards more collaboration and joint learning (as Edgar Schein defines culture) the attention and the benefit of the doubt the team grants me is like a super thin thread : the smallest obstacle may look to them like the highest mountain. Getting rid of technology in the first place and focussing on lo-tech tools (post-its, hand-written indicators) has proved to be a massive help for new collaboration practices adoption.

Last but not least the major issue with enterprise software is its lack of agility. Say you need to change a part of the process. With post-its you just replace it : cost is about 30 seconds of your time. If you need to change your process implemented within an online tool : costs are … oh dear ! you don’t even want to compute it nor think about all the headaches.

2. The hackers culture fantasy

There have been many articles and impressive talks singing the praises of the hackers culture. It has been seen as the 21st century de facto model of collaboration by many consultants / thought leaders. A network organization, people working through sheer passion, yadda yadda yadda … There are two underlying trends that these statements never refer to :

  1. As Clay Shirky wrote in Here Comes Everybody, there is a brutal meritocracy culture in such projects. It is a very masculine and strongly disciplined culture where people are judged on the quality of their deliverable (i.e : code). No matter how nice, friendly or collaborative you are, either you stick to the strict rules of the community (code standards, tests, quality) or you are out. Believe me, this is not a place suitable for everybody.
  2. These people work out of passion, investing many of their own hours in these projects. You can not expect such engagement from the people in your teams. I strongly believe that people have the right not to be passionate about their work, even if they give their best during their work hours. All this corporate BS about blurred line between work and leisure makes just work unsustainable. This is against the principles of agile methodologies or great startups such as Basecamp (formerly 37Signals) for instance.

I would strongly recommend to people writing such articles to commit some code to open source projects to fully measure what collaboration in such environment means before suggesting organization should adopt this model to improve collaboration.

3. Acting everyday on collaboration practices before scaling it

Culture is all the rage and everybody is talking about it as the cause of many organization unability to scale collaboration, with managers the ideal target and identified root cause. So the hypothesis is that getting rid of managers will magically improve culture and collaboration. This is an hypothesis I personaly would not waste my time on until I have a clear answer to the following questions : 1/ what is the problem (in its scientific meaning – i.e a measured gap) that this counter measure is adressing 2/ how will we be able to tell that it works 3/ how will we adjust if it does not ?

Regardless of how appealing the idea of firing all managers may intellectually seems, the problem is : you can’t directly act on culture. You can only act on it indirectly. The only way I know, is to act on practices. Daily practices. You scale it up going up the hierarchical ladder with weekly and then monthly practices.

I was deeply entrenched in this way of thinking (culture, bad managers) until a day during a agile retrospective in 2008 when the excellent Charles Couillard, a Bordeaux genuine software craftman and Agile zealot told me :

While you talk and try to solve cultural issues, you don’t act on practices and you’re just wasting everyone time. You can’t change the culture but you can change the practices.

3 daily practices to develop collaboration

This has been a wake up call and ever since I have been focussing my time and energy on three practices with all the teams I coach :

  1. Visual management
  2. Daily stand-up meeting(s)
  3. Collaborative Problem solving

This sounds simple yet it is difficult (refer to the simple/difficult paradox in Knowing Doing Gap or Gemba Walks by Jim Womack) because this requires to confront the harsh reality in such a way to question our mental models, day in, day out.

Visual management helps in aligning teams, physically : people are standing (physically active) next to each other looking in the same direction at a performance issue. Compare this with a situation where people are in a meeting room, behind their laptop, throwing blames and justifications from over the iron shield of their device. Europe architect Jean Monnet made a great quote on that very specific issue (FR). Visual Management also helps in removing implicit (a major obstacle in collaboration) and in making it clear what the success criteria are.

Daily stand-up is a great practice as it helps team in quickly aligning toward a very simple and actionable goal : how do we organise ourselves to succeed today ? This is where collaboration and engagement emerge. This is not spectacular, it can’t be measured using big data but I have seen it many times improving directly the team engagement and their daily performance.

Last but not least : problem solving. We are not talking of problems like hey the app is slow or customers are not happy. These are worries. (remember : the difference between a worry and a problem as  my sensei Marie-Pia Ignace says is measure : a problem can be measured.

First helping the team in defining properly what the problem is in terms of gap (our page should load in 200 ms, it loads in 2000 – the gap is 1800ms, our net promoter score should be 8 and it is 7 this week – what happened?) has great result in terms of collaboration at it puts the focus on measurable and actionable performance and not on people. Second when the team starts to think about potential counter measures and how they are going to test it, the magic of collective intelligence appears, before your eyes. Lastly, when the problem is solved (i.e the counter measure has a direct positive effect on the performance) you can see what has been learnt by the people working on the problem : Eric Ries calls it Validate Knowledge in the Lean Startup : it just unfolds before everybody eyes. This is the most efficient way I know to change the culture.

Besides, tackling cross-organization problems, with people from different teams, gives a real tangible meaning to the network organization. And managers just understand what their role is : coaching and developing their people through problem solving. It cold be that these are minor problems but 1/ improving 100 times 1% is much better than improving 100% at once and 2/ this happens everyday : the collaboration practices take root. The organization is then in the right context to hear about and to consider online collaboration.

What is your strategy to scale collaboration ?

What I have found out is that scaling collaboration throughout the organization requires a step by step approach : one team at the time. There is no way to tell what a given team problem, let alone the solution, is unless you have spent time with them, sitting next to them, trying to understand their processes and its performance. I have learnt the hard way that well before digital literacy or slideware maestria, developing enterprise collaboration requires humility, patience and the ability to offer the same quality of listening to VP/CxO on one hand and people doing the work on the other.

4 thoughts on “Myths of the 21st century organization and the sad truth about enterprise collaboration

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