The Creative Solitude of Online Collaboration

This post was written for my client gnowsis and appeared initially on their blog:

In her best-selling book „Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can´t Stop Talking„, the author, Susan Cain, challenges the suitability of collaboration as a means to produce great creativity outcomes or good decision making.

Opposing mainstream believes about the collaborative powers and benefits of groups, she refers to a number of research, which comes to the conclusion, that work in solitude frequently originates much better results, let alone the fact, that many people simply prefer to work in an uninterrupted and unobserved environment. Specifically, she warns, that working in teams, sharing of open-plan office spaces or other forms of unsheltered social exposure at work can be prone to a phenomenon called „groupthink“.

Groupthink, a term coined by social psychologist Irving Janis (1972), occurs when a group makes faulty decisions because group pressures lead to a deterioration of “mental efficiency, reality testing, and moral judgment”.  Groupthink happens, when the desire for harmony in a decision-making group overrides a realistic appraisal of alternatives. Individual creativity, uniqueness and independent thinking fall prey to the groups efforts to minimize conflict and reach consensus.

I´m sure, most of us have made unwelcome experiences with groups at work. Thinking of tired brainstorming sessions. Or phone conferences dominated only by the most vocal participants. Or the desire to flee from a noisy office.

How do these experiences relate to online collaboration? Is online collaboration equally susceptible to the socially negative cost of group work? Is online collaboration better qualified to emphasize creativity and to produce more appropriate business outcomes?

Even Susan Cain thinks this is the case: „Groups brainstorming electronically, when properly managed, not only do better than individuals, research shows; the larger the group, the better it performs. The same is true of academic research. Professors, who work together electronically, from different physical locations, tend to produce research, that is more influential than those either working alone or collaborating face-to-face.“

The online collaboration environment is both, a protective and stimulating place to work for all participants. Its separation from the immediacy of the direct conversation allows to unfold contributing behavior in an asynchronous way. This leaves more time to think and decelerates controversial discussions into a comprehensible, slow-motion pace.

As Susan Cain expressed it in her book: „Participating in an online working group is a form of solitude all its own.“

More about her balanced views on teamwork versus work in solitude in this New York Times article.

Social software adoption and the psychology of users

This post was written for my client gnowsis and appeared initially on their blog:

Enterprise social software sees some hype in the media, but it does not need much digging, to find voices dedicated to one of the fundamental problems of participatory technologies: software adoption.

Adoption deals with the problem, why and how a software tool finds acceptance, affirmation and sustainable usage by its alleged users. It raises the question, what can be done to facilitate and to unburden the process of introducing software in order to achieve the hoped-for business outcomes lastingly.

I’m not talking about a situation, where business software is implemented, learned and used, based on a verdict from the upper ranks. In regards of social software, one can command the installation, but not the intended use.

Social software adoption in the enterprise is based on voluntariness, driven by comprehension, insight or an intuitive understanding of its benefits and potentials.

Why do I depict such a soft adoption scenario, after all, corporations are not built on feel-good factors?

 An environment, to speak up and get amplified

The answer rests in the very nature of enterprise social software:  it is an environment, to speak up, contribute, make oneself present through participation, sharing, opinion, response. You can´t assume everbody to live up to this challenge with ease.

As we know, speaking up in a group scares some people, in contrast to others, who have not at all a problem to do so. You cannot force a person to speak up in a group and you cannot force employees to speak up through enterprise collaboration tools.

One might argue with the tremendous success of Facebook: 800 million people shouting out loud. But opposed to consumer social media, enterprise social software is neither non-committal, nor principally aiming to be entertaining or fun. Not only does it require, to speak up, it even amplifies, what you are saying and preserves it for ever. Personal success or failure to deal with it, can be career changing. Enterprise social media is a playground for all facets of group dynamics, the positive and the negative ones. As power can be exerted on groups, legitimately or with abusive intentions, so can enterprise social software be used for very good purposes or gamed for undue ends.

A spoiled company climate won´t rehab through new communication tools

Technology already redeems many of the promised virtues of social collaboration in the workplace, but there is an area beyond software features, application integration or business processes, where adoption strategies have to consider the psychological state and affective maturity of the targeted user groups. In fact, adoption of social tools is a challenging task, and to understand (and remove) potential roadblocks  requires sensitivity and the skills, to engineer human relations with great care.