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Author's profile photo Ramkumar Yaragarla

Best practices for social collaboration

It has always been an established fact that companies have depended on the merits of employee social collaboration for the generation of new ideas and for innovation.  Management needs to accept the chaos during the initial stages before they venture out to making detail product development plans. We can learn a lot from other companies on ‘how to foster social collaboration’ who have been trailblazers in this field.

Please find below some of the best practices, which we can adopt to make social collaboration successful in organizations.

Having a curated and facilitated collaborative environment

Often a regular feedback is that employees get overwhelmed and often get distracted with collaboration overload.  Ton Davenport, the distinguished professor in Information technology, analytics, and knowledge management at Babson College in his interview for MIT Technology Review says that for collaboration to succeed, organizations need to have a limited use of it.  This means, employees need to collaborate for a limited period to avoid getting overwhelmed.  Social collaboration at work does not mean that everybody in the organization needs to collaborate.  Sometimes, it would do more good if we limit it to people who are naturally keen and have intrinsic ability to collaborate.

We would see more and more organizations favoring curated and facilitated collaborative environments.  In a recent research study, conducted at IBM, they found that the employees source of inspirational ideas were within the organization rather than outside.  Employers insist that managers and their direct reports spend enough time to scan their own business function to assess and identify the business needs and gaps for collaboration before they venture out with their colleagues from other business units.

Organizations are keen on responsible action from their employees on collaboration activity.  With a return to  curated and facilitated collaborative environment, organizations can ensure that their senior employee’s time is prioritized and they can spend time on sharing their inputs and expertise in internal meetings rather than spending much of their time on external social networking.

Working on smaller projects

Organizations that nurture social collaboration had encouraged employees to experiment and work on smaller low cost projects.  It was good to experiment with smaller projects and see what comes out of it rather than to have one grand plan and run into irreversible changes and challenges.  It is good to plan but it would be wise to plan the minor details and dates and keep the major goals flexible with changing scenarios.  If the future scenarios did not turn out the way we expect them to be then there could be repercussions to deal with.

Best practice companies like 3M, Cisco and Google set aside about 20-30% of employee’s productive hours for experimenting on low cost projects through social collaboration.  Product engineers at Boeing, spend their night hours at the shop floor testing their new prototypes, while the daily production runs during the day.  Even at Pixar, the world’s best animation movie house experiments with short films before they induct the scripts into the main movies.

Create a balance of not being too rigid nor too loose

At the very heart, it is of building semi-structures of employee workgroups.  Structures, which support enough flexibility to change the plans till the very last moment and which allowed for improvisation.  A critical balance is required, which creates the rhythm of collaboration.  Rhythms where participants are able to join a group to brainstorm, collaborate, and at the same time break away with ease to focus and concentrate on their individual work.  In other words, collaboration for problem solving should happen at the edge of chaos where it is not too rigid to prevent collaboration nor too loose to create chaos.

As an example, Titan had built coffee bars all around its workplaces.  This enables people from different workgroups and teams to mingle and interact with each other during their breaks.  The work design was semi-structured.  Employees would work on their designs with a general outline on how to proceed.  This was rather an ‘Opportunistic planning’ with enough flexibility to change in case there was an unforeseen development.

Creating an idea bank at workplace

It is imperative to understand that ideas that fail in one project can always be used in another project.  In most of the cases, we would know the merits of an idea in due course of time, retrospectively.  All ideas are good.  The initial hunches and sparks that fueled the project may not have been used later on.  These hunches and sparks could be a valuable resource for other projects to drawn upon.  Successful social collaboration starts when we build suitable network structures and forum to store these initial ideas.

The process of innovation starts when we collaborate and successively iterate on these initial ideas leading to breakthrough insight.  A good example of such a practice is at Royal Dutch Shell.  The company has built an internal network or a hub called the ‘Game changers’.  Employees from all over the world email the hub with ideas.  An employee group of six people manages the hub and they acknowledge and recognize the ideas sent by the employees.

Final thoughts

For social collaboration to thrive and grow, organizations need to set aside at least 20% of the employee’s work time for collaborating with others.  In addition, at the same time to make it effective, it is essential that only those employees who have the natural ability and talent need to collaborate with others within a facilitated environment.  This is to avoid getting overwhelmed with collaboration for the rest of the employees.  It is also important to realize that not all ideas will lead to successful outcomes.  Failed ideas and outcomes need to be recognized and not all of them can be treated as failures as there is much to learn from these failures.  Such failed outcomes also have usable knowledge and techniques, which can be used in the future.


Ramkumar Yaragarla

I also blog at attentionable

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