Are We Headed For More Isolation?

The research team here at nGenera were having a conversation yesterday about how being more social and collaborative at work, using technologies such as collaboration platform software, might change the workplace, even the structure of organizations. It’s pretty well accepted that organizations of all kinds have more information, data, knowledge, expertise, connections, and internal networks than they can either find or take advantage of, so software that can help identify and then filter the flow of data and even expertise throughout an organization would be incredibly helpful, if not bottom-line productive.

Someone in the group mentioned how it would be great to be able to filter information from individuals, so that you only received from any person what you found most helpful or useful from that person. Makes sense to just use each person’s skill or knowledge strength to enhance your own. So, if you had Facebook-like connections with lots of people, you could selectively receive information about trends in mobile marketing from someone whose focus is mobile marketing. I see this as a kind of best of the best relationship approach: You get your colleagues’ best and they get yours.

But, when I thought about this approach, it struck me that it was actually anti-collaborative. A few byproducts of this approach came to mind, none of which I liked. Deciding who you want to listen to about specific topics – essentially, getting only insights and information that you think this person is best at – means you never hear from anyone else, never hear anything but what you want to hear, and you only hear one person’s views on a given topic. Taken to an extreme, I see this as exclusionary, not collaborative.

When I interviewed Randy Adkins, former Director of The Center of Excellence for Knowledge Management at the United States Department of Defense, he told me that the idea for a people search feature in the Air Force’s highly regarded knowledge management platform, Knowledge Now, originated in what he described as an unlikely place: the Air Force Audit Agency, the unit that senior leaders in the Air Force rely on to understand problems and develop solutions. The Audit Agency was having trouble locating the best people to dig deep into a specific problem and prepare solutions. With 900 auditors, knowing exactly who knew what or who was most knowledgeable about a specific weapon system or organizational process was almost impossible. Each auditor’s previous experience was invisible to the Auditor General (AG), which meant problem-solving was more complex than it needed to be. Taking advantage of the wealth of experience in the division was a high priority for the AG. “If you need to audit an F-16 supply support issue, is there anybody else out there that has had F-16 experience or supply support experience that we can put on that audit?” Adkins commented. “It benefits everybody because you have a more informed auditor, so when you are being audited, the chances of getting a more insightful person to help solve that problem is increased dramatically with People Search.”

So, yes, a collaborative platform should have a feature that exposes everyone’s strengths and skills to everyone else. But what I am getting at is this: Even with an expertise identification system, such as one based on people tagging, you never know where great ideas are going to come from. Filtering is great but if it closes off the possibilities of surprise and even creative thinking, it’s going to result in more isolation than sharing. The possibility of insights and ideas from unlikely places, it seems to me, would be minimalized if people filtered their connections to the extent that they saw individuals in a narrow way, as having useful information on just one topic. If collaboration platform software does anything well, it has to expose lots of people to lots of other people across the enterprise. It should increase the opportunity for surprise, not narrow it.