Collaborative hellholes

Mark Samuels ponders why many collaborative initiatives actually fail to achieve their goals.

Mark Samuels

Employees need to collaborate more. It is a mantra senior executives are used to hearing, especially in the modern era of work that is dominated by the prevalence of digital technology, social media and cloud computing.

While the building blocks are in place to help workers collaborate, the methods that are constructed to help smooth communication are often lopsided. Take these comments from a CIO I spoke to recently, who described internal wikis as "the curated hellhole of an organisation." His point was that, despite best intentions, most collaborative attempts flounder.

In the case of an internal wiki, the objective is to get people posting ideas and sharing best practice. Which seems a reasonable enough aim. After all, too much great knowledge stays embedded in workers' minds. Everyone has encountered the situation where a great employee leaves and there is no documentation to capture how this individual operated.

An internal wiki is one method for codifying practice and ensuring an employee exit does not leave a gaping void. But the CIO I spoke to believed the method was as good as useless. The internal thought police muddy the best intentions of the wiki. A cohort of HR, PR and communications executives almost always moderates comments.

Instead of worker-generated knowledge, the internal wiki quickly becomes an employer-controlled marketing statement. In short, what emerges from the collaborative process is a curated hellhole. But do all attempts to increase collaboration in the digital age have to lead to something hideous?

At some point, most of us will have used an internal collaboration tool such as Microsoft SharePoint. And most of us, on attempting to use such systems, will have yearned for the days of saving documents locally on the hard drive. That sort of yearning leads employees to work to their own rules and download Dropbox. The result, then, is information anarchy and knowledge leakage.

What often starts out as an attempt to increase collaboration actually leads to more individualised ways of working. Humans are naturally secretive beasts and collaborative tools often feel like an unnaturally overt way of working. The digital age has led to us all being a little bit sneakier.

Doubters need only take a quick glance at their social media timelines. Just contemplate the huge amount of self-editing that takes place before people post an opinion online. In an attempt to increase collaboration, we and our employers are all in danger of creating millions of curated hellholes. And that prospect is simply horrifying.

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