Only 10 years ago, we had no Facebook, no iPhone, no cloud, no Amazon Web Services… not to mention no 3D printers or Google driverless car (and the list goes on). Nearly 20 years ago, 42% of US adults had never heard of the internet, and an additional 21% were vague on the concept. (source: Pew Research) According to the Economist, the web has the fastest rate of technology adoption ever – faster than the PC, TV, and radio. Pew Research data on mobile device ownership shows 90% of US adults have a cell phone, 58% have a smartphone, and 42% own a tablet.
In sum, as we all know: a fast changing world of information and technology yielding new ways to connect, share, create and respond. The global work culture is one of continuous work, ubiquitous connection and unbordered collaboration. I’ve blogged previously on the disruptive power of collaboration in business, and recently spoke to MBA students about collaborating for impact.
This was the 5th year I’ve guest lectured in UNC-Chapel Hill Kenan-Flagler MBA classes on the topic of virtural working environments. As in previous years, I covered the business and strategic reasons for fostering collaborative environments, some practical tips on how to collaborate effectively, and thoughs on leadership in virtual enviroments. I’ll blog about these topics in coming weeks. Over the years I’ve been guest lecturing, it seems the MBA students have gotten younger (ok, maybe I am getting older). So as I was researching new things to talk about this year, I was thinking about how to capture the difference in the expectations of the digital world they are in and the workplaces they are about to enter, versus the ways I’ve grown into a digital life, at work and at home. The habits and expectations are different, and so are the outcomes and impact of the collaborative environments.
Here’s an example: the story of Robohand. This MakerBot blog explains the story better than I, but essentially this is a story of a need, a community, multiple technologies, and many lives transformed. A worldwide community of people is collaborating to design robotic hands that can be printed on 3D printers. Not only are the collaborators reducing the production cycle time (from months to minutes), but they are also reducting the cost to produce. This is especially meaningful for children who outgrow expensive prosthesis devices in just months.
I use this story as an example because it underscores the fact that virtual collaboration is assumed by those involved. The original pair of inventors are a master carpenter from South Africa and a puppeteer from Washington state. They share their designs on Thingiverse, and people connect with them on Facebook, blogs, and other social media to send requests and feedback.
The assumption of virtual collaboration is a significant shift in our collaborative environments, and creates different expectations and opportunities. And, these assumptions are starting at very young ages – which will be a topic for next week’s blog.
Yesterday I had a conversation with an MBA student who is interning with a major bank in New York City this summer – a coveted position for which this smart, personable, talented young woman will work 100+ hours a week. She’s anticipating a grueling schedule, missing a friends wedding (she doesn’t think she’ll get a weekend off), and an inside look at a worklife with little “life” outside work.
Later in the day I read this Atlantic article: America’s Workers: Stressed Out, Overwhelmed, Totally Exhausted, with the subtitle: Why do so many people—particularly women—seem to have so much on their plates?
In the article, a writer who has researched and written a book about feeling overwhelmed posits that this issue of work-life balance is a societal problem, rooted in cultural pressures formed in the industrial age and exacerbated by societal pressures forming in today’s “always-on” age.
I agree, and she makes many good points about the pressures to succeed, and the constant stress men and women are under as they work, raise children, and worry whether they are doing enough. I have certainly felt these pressures in many years of working, raising a family, and balancing ambition with the needs of my family.
I’ve worked hard on defining balance as something other than a number of hours worked (and I hope my MBA friend can discover her path even while working 100+ hours a week). To me, having a balanced perspective on work and life is about having good definitions of success, a flexible attitude, and a clear sense of what keeps me feeling creative and happy.
- Defining success. Definitions of success are often in conflict, because they come from so many sources: personal ambition, corporate career paths, family roles, faith traditions. Rather than fight the conflicts, I try to use these structures as guidelines from which I can forge definitions of excellence that work for me, and can shift with time. I can, and have, redefined success at various times in my life as a promotion, as a successful fund-raiser at school, as a remodeling project at home. An expansive and long-term definition of success helps me keep a balanced perspective on success.
- Staying flexible. Balance doesn’t mean equal. We all have day-to-day fluctuations in intensity, where work is all-consuming or sudden events at home take precedence. But the flexibility applies long-term, too. I may not move to a new assignment as quickly I’d hoped. I may take my Girl Scout troop camping in the Fall instead of the Spring. We may postpone a project at home. I’m not flexible about what my priorities are; I’m flexible about my perspective on achieving my goals.
- Fostering creativity. I have learned to listen to the voice inside that tells me I’m not functioning on all cylinders, and it has been the most important thing I’ve done to maintain perspective and balance. I’ve come to understand that my balance comes from restoring the creativity that gets zapped by stress of all kinds – physical, emotional, and mental. The restoration can be as basic as a long run to release tension or a date with my husband to reconnect. But it can be as complex as realizing my work assignment is no longer challenging me, or that lack of volunteer work is making me feel spiritually empty. I am most productive at work and at home when I am feeling creative and strong. Fostering creativity in all parts of my life is the best way for me to keep a balanced perspective.
It isn’t always easy to have perspective, especially amid deadlines, distractions, or disappointment. I am not perfect (or perfectly accomplished), nor do I represent all working women, all mothers, all professional and personal situations. And so I share my story as a work-in-progress, and as one that works for me.
A chance encounter with key information in her own organization makes a manager wince with lament about lost opportunity. On a teleconference call with her team, a manager learns in casual conversation that one of her employees has some key experience that was unknown to the team.
Is there a more systematic way to surface this type of information in a team? in a company? across a business? Yes of course but it is not easy to do effectively.
The many years of forced march with knowledge management systems that no one kept up to date have given way to a more fluid sharing of knowledge through more informal systems, facilitated by easier social collaboration tooling – namely, blogs, wikis, communities, activity streams, photosharing, etc. But the tricks to getting the right information out of these systems are challenging, too – what information is worthy of attention, how to get busy people to participate, and how to evaluate whether time spent on these endeavors is worthwhile.
At IBM I worked on these issues in several capacities. The central problems we addressed were finding expertise and finding information in a company of 400K+ people, and then, once that was humming, to extend it to the ecosystem of customers and partners so all could engage with each other. I managed programs to train IBM employees on the art of collaboration and built evangelism communities to support the programs when it quickly became clear this was about behavior change, not tools. We were challenged by what to measure – activity measures such as likes or followers only tell you so much – and I think the industry as a whole is still searching for viable metrics.
The biggest lesson learned is how much deliberate effort it takes to create serendipity when you have a busy, often virtual, workforce. But once people experience the benefit of collaboration in a connection made, or time saved, or a win because someone has the right info at the right time – it is a very powerful endorsement for expending that effort.
Sharing changes everything, says NYU professor and author Clay Shirky in a featured interview this month in a McKinsey series on the disruptive power of collaboration. From the printing press to today’s social media tools, innovation in the ways people communicate has transformed not only how we live and work, but also how businesses are run and the economics of what we create, buy, and share. This six minute video sums up his perspective on the ranges of collaboration that these innovations make possible, on how the abundance of information breaks models of profit that are based on scarcity, and on how success comes from failure when you think of failure as just a course correction.
I’m intrigued by his idea of the ranges of collaboration, because I think the power of collaboration is often seen through a more limited lens of sharing or teaming. For example, in a work context, people think of collaboration as participating in an online meeting or accomplishing something through teamwork. In a social context, collaboration is viewed as sharing photos or status updates, or arranging tennis dates through a Doodle poll. All valid ways to think about collaboration, but limited in explaining the power of collaboration.
Shirky refers to the collaboration penumbra, a word mostly used to describe partial illumination in an eclipse, but here meaning the important aspect barely visible (kudos to him for using a very descriptive if a bit obscure SAT word in a sentence).
“So the thing I always watch out for, when any source of disruption comes along, when anything that’s going to upset the old order comes along, is I look for what the collaborative penumbra is.
For instance, around MakerBot, which I was on the board of back when it was an independent company, most of the company, for the obvious reason, was focused on the possibilities of 3-D printing and the output of 3-D printers. But the thing I was most interested in was Thingiverse, which is the website where people were sharing and talking about their objects.”
He goes on to describe the phenomena of people uploading objects, ideas, improvements, and solutions without any one person responsible for the end product. We see this in many loosely organized collaborative projects – Wikipedia, open source, etc. No one needs to be able to do everything, and the permissions needed to contribute can vary widely. The idea of collaboration across ranges, from tight collaborative groups all the way to the very loosely collaborative, is where things get powerful. It has me thinking about how to incorporate ranges of collaboration in solving problems and leading teams, whether the context is business or community service.
I recently completed a digital consultation with a small business, helping them form a strategy for social engagement (specifically, on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, LinkedIn and the blog on their website.) We set objectives for purposeful engagement, with a focus on communicating key attributes of their brand, monitoring competitors, and driving measurable results.
The point about purposeful engagement is very important. People don’t want to spend time on things that aren’t laser focused on business results – particularly in a small business setting where time is tight and people wear many hats.
And, it can be tricky to harness the seeming randomness of social media. For example:
- Content isn’t only in the form of traditional collateral: you’ll have photos and videos from smartphones, short blurbs and 140 character tweets, hashtags and handles. It is important that all content shared reflects the brand – and that all who share it understand this
- Usage patterns for digital media are much different than the cadence for other types of project planning. For example, participation can be driven by events, but can also be scheduled at regular times.
It is tempting to assign one person the responsibility for social. But if your strategy includes monitoring competitors, market listening, communicating your brand, interacting with customers – you want more than one person paying attention to these critical aspects of your business.
Therefore, in addition what you’re trying to accomplish and what results you expect to see, your digital strategy must also include structures to help the key people in your small business form the habit of participation.
For example, in the consultation I just completed, I guided the team in brainstorming hashtags and content sources to follow and in identifying keywords and topics to use in their outbound communications. They set up an editorial calendar and templates to plan content, assigned responsibility for channels according to interests of the team, and developed ways to monitor and share results.
I’m confident they’ll see results from their more coordinated effort. Contact me if you want me to help you improve your approach to a more coordinated digital strategy.
Additional thoughts from more experts, from this week’s Wall St Journal: Facebook, Twitter and Other Social-Media Tips for Small-Business Owners