Understanding the failed promise of ‘social collaboration’

I’ve been using a phrase in my work with clients recently — the failed promise of social collaboration — and I thought I would take a few minutes to write down the thinking behind it, because I think we are at an inflection point in the market for work technologies.

Work tech is the spectrum of digital tools we use to get our work done, ranging from hardware like our mobile devices, wearables, tablets, and laptops, but more specifically the software tools that mediate our work communications and form the shared repositories that serve as the content and context of our work. These tools shape our work and our work relationships, because their affordances prioritize and polarize what we do, say, and think.

The generation of work tech that was sparked in the Web 2.0 era, based on a common set of work premises, are characterized by a number of design features that are now commonplace. These I call social collaboration tools. Note that I am hesitant to use the term ‘collaboration’ these days, since it has become so tied up with the basic premises of these tools — and the management approach that underlies them — so I generally use the term ‘working together’ or ‘cooperating’ to denote the most general idea of various people working together toward largely common goals.

What do these social collaboration tools have as shared design principles:

  • Project- and group-centric — rather than starting with the individual, social collaboration tools are based on projects and groups. Someone — presumably a manager or project lead — creates a project or group context, and invites others to join. That creator has the right to limit various sorts of capabilities for the other participants, such as the right to create or edit documents, create or modify tasks, and so on.
  • Work assignment and status updates — in general, social collaboration tools are focused on updating others, tracking status, and being assigned things to do. This is all overhead, not the work itself.
  • Large social scale — social collaboration tools are based on the communication patterns of large groups: it is just as easy to post some update in a group or project involving hundreds or thousands of people as it is to send a message to one other person. And in fact, features like broadcasting to all in a group or project — ‘@all’ — are designed to make this easy. This is communication at the social ‘scene’ (dozens or hundreds of people) or ‘sphere’ (involving thousands or more).

This is not exhaustive, but these are some of the features that I think set the backdrop for my argument that the idealized company supported by social collaboration tools is not where we work today, if ever.

Work — in the basic sense of getting things done, not the place we go to do it — is a combination of focused individual activity, focused joint activity (working together with others in real time), and cooperative and coordinative activities (working asynchronously with others on framing and planning of work, like chatting online about deadlines and features in a product development cycle). Social collaboration tools overemphasize the last of these three categories of work, and de-emphasize — or ignore — the first two. The reason? Perhaps one reason is that the last category is the province of old school managers: those who were charged with managing others.

My sincere belief is that we are seeing a shift from social collaboration tools toward alternatives — like work chat — where the first two categories of work are supported and the last category — overseeing others’ progress and managing what others do — is significantly de-emphasized. We are moving to smaller social scale, starting with the individual, and then on to small cooperative groups, or sets.

Many years ago I made the following statement —

The individual is the new group

— and the tools that we see arising today start there, focusing on what Cal Newport, the author of So Good They Can’t Ignore You, calls ‘deep work’:

Deep Work: Cognitively demanding activities that leverage our training to generate rare and valuable results, and that push our abilities to continually improve.

He contrasts that with ‘shallow work’:

Shallow Work: Tasks that almost anyone, with a minimum of training, could accomplish (e-mail replies, logistical planning, tinkering with social media, and so on)

I maintain that much of what social collaboration tools are designed to support is shallow work, and the stuff of managerial oversight.

And to return to the failed promise of social collaboration, the idea driving it was that it would increase productivity. But deep productivity comes from supporting deep work, while trying to support shallow work doesn’t necessarily even lead to shallow productivity increases. Instead, that causes productivity shortfalls since the demands of responding to others’ shallow work takes us away from our own deep work, and steals productivity.