Trust is the Key to Social Collaboration

I just finished reading Extreme Trust: Honesty as a Competitive Advantage by Don Peppers and Martha Rogers, and it got me thinking about the social collaboration efforts I have worked on the past couple of years. Though the book has an external focus in regards to how social networking is forcing companies to be more transparent with its customers, I think the same principles apply to the collaboration between colleagues within a company. From what I have seen, a “build it and they will come” mentality takes hold and stakeholders forget that trust needs to be built between the different parties in order to communicate effectively. As it always is with technology, implementing the software is the easy part; getting people to use it can be a challenge.

To understand why trust is so important, let’s look at this example. While working at a small consulting firm, I attended yearly company meetings for which employees were asked to submit questions in advance which would be addressed during the meeting. This is not uncommon, but the issue here was that the questions that were answered were hand picked from the pre-submitted questions and employees were not allowed to ask follow-up or impromptu questions during the meeting because the leadership team was worried about fielding controversial questions. The leadership team did not create an environment of trust, and that led to an “us versus them” atmosphere within the company. Now relate this to the virtual world in your chosen collaboration tool. If communication is not open and honest, why would anyone utilize the tool? This is what happened to the author of Are You Building Facebook’s Empire, Or Your Own?:

I was once hired at a large organization in a dream role: to change the organization from within. I didn't last long, mostly because I lost my desire to spend my energy fighting. Instead, I chose to focus that energy on building my own business. But my short experience was incredibly eye opening; I managed to get in trouble from both the legal and the public relations department within a week of my hiring because of a tweet. Within the first month, I was instrumental in the organization shutting down all chatter on the corporate Yammer, an internal, private Twitter-like service that enables organizations to bridge those silos and communicate in a lightweight way. I brought up a controversial topic (or, okay, two) that found some support across the organization, which scared the living daylights out of management, who promptly shut the communication tool down. They told us it was to prevent corporate leaks, but I knew better. I had gotten a heads-up from my boss that I should lay low on Yammer if I wanted to keep my job.

If a company invests in social technology, but a culture of trust does not exist, how can the technology ever be successful?

Creating a culture of trust is different for every organization, but there are some simple steps that can be taken to create that trust. The first is to encourage everyone to ask questions and to answer questions. This means that there are no dumb questions or dumb answers. Giving employees the opportunity to freely ask and answer questions allows for greater collaboration. Secondly, most tools allow for creating groups to segregate users and data. When creating these groups, users should not create invite-only or closed groups. Keeping groups open enables information to flow more freely. Finally, managers should get out in front of the rumor mill by allowing for open dialog on issues facing the organization. This includes looking for feedback and allowing employees to participate in the solution to the problem.

Remember, the great promise of social collaboration is to break down the traditional silos that have been built within a company to allow information and knowledge to flow more easily. This requires a trusting environment where people are allowed to freely connect and ask tough questions. By enabling this free flow of information, companies can jump-start innovation, improve communication, and find operational efficiencies to help achieve business objectives.