Empathy and Collaboration in Social Business Design


Source: David Armano "Social Business by Design"

My first corporate position carried the title Methods Analyst, working for a large billing center serving a telephone company. One of my main tasks in that role involved learning how other employees performed their work and documenting it. On each project I typically spent several hours observing people work (what some today call rapid ethnography or guerilla ethnography) and then did in-depth interviews of the people I observed. Usually, at the end of my observation, I took responsibility for doing the work for a brief time under their watchful eye. In some sense you could say my work required me to continuously cross train in other people’s work, analyze the process, and write it up in a technical document.  The main insight I took away from that experience was an appreciation for the importance played by empathy in effective collaboration.

First off, collaboration isn’t just about people sharing information to achieve common goals. Collaboration is about people working with other people to achieve common goals and create value. Advocates of Enterprise 2.0 sometimes make the fundamental mistake of arguing that collaboration is really only about achieving business goals, leaving the implication that incorporating social software into the work flow of organizations is sufficient. Even though goal-orientation is a big part of collaborating, collaboration requires more to achieve goals effectively. It requires shared experience. As Dev Patnaik and Evan Rosen recently noted, empathy and collaboration go hand in hand.

Empathy Boosts Collaboration

People who identify with one another are more likely to share information proactively, without waiting for others to ask for it, because they understand how their own work relates to that of other people and see the flow of work from multiple points of view, spanning silos. Too many social computing experts view collaboration from within a command and control prism, assuming people collaborate because coordination and communication are part of their job description. 

Effective collaboration really requires proactively sharing information with those it affects, not simply reacting to information requests. It means anticipating the future impact of actions you take on the responsibilities of other employees or business partners, or the needs of customers. People really don’t do this well unless they see other employees, and customers, as people too. Indeed, this is one of the main reasons that social networks increase in importance as collaboration decreases as a face to face activity. As I noted previously,

Collaboration means getting to know that other employees possess expertise on this or that topic, but also developing comfort with one another by sharing significant symbols relating to self, family, friends, and social activities, thereby understanding one another as people.

Now, it is certainly true that learning architectures designed for scalable learning make it easier for people to find answers to challenges they face when trying to locate information. Customers can find answers to questions in online FAQs or online communities. Employees can find answers to questions they face in the flow of work from other employees, professional associates, electronic performance support systems, online communities and social networks, or other information resources (blogs, wikis, etc.). However, when it comes to getting information needed in the moment of need from the people who possess it, the process of sharing that  information is, mostly, voluntary.

Indeed, this is my take on the point of the Hivemind concept the Dachis Group offers in its framework on social business design. People more readily share information with others they identify and feel comfortable with, those with whom they share a socially calibrated mindset. Dev Patnaik gets it right when he points out that, “Do unto each other as we would have done unto us” — provides for empathy by focusing on “how we’d all like to be treated, inside the company and out,” yet he also recognizes that good business practice might additionally require treating people “better than they expect to be treated.” As naive as many may find the point, the insight applies to people inside and outside businesses. Professionals working in customer experience management often note that consumers trust a company more when they think it treats employees well.

Interactions among people (customers, employees, or business partners) are the key to understanding collaboration. Although social networking is an important part of thinking about ecosystems, nodes and links don’t socially interact, people do. For that reason alone, empathy is a key human dynamic in the collaboration needed by social business design.

On the application and systems side, empathic research is important in developing interfaces and capabilities to support engaging social interactions and adapting business processes to the emergent challenges that occur. For the ecosystem, it is crucial to making the brand’s engagement with stakeholders inside and outside the enterprise feel authentic and meet customer needs.

Posted by Larry R. Irons

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16 Responses to Empathy and Collaboration in Social Business Design

  1. Have you read my change management model blog post? Usually applying those steps towards change are useful in any situation.

  2. Larry,

    You have raise a very important distinction between the mechanics of information exchange and the sense of a shared purpose that comes from understanding how what you do meshes with what someone else does.

    As I read you post, my mind flashed on the ubiquitious silo problem within organizations. People and groups compete rather than cooperate. Unfortunately, the traditional organization fosters this sort of adversarial relationship.

    Similar blinders are at work when many companies try to improve their customer experience using what is largely an inside-out view.

    Thanks for jarring my thinking. Empathy is a critical for 21st century organizations that expect to harvest the benefits of collaboration and innovation.


  3. Larry Irons says:

    Hi John,

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts on this post. I’ve been trying to keep an appreciation for empathic thinking central to much of the posting done here. It is always nice to hear that other people see the significance of it, especially in relationship to customer experience.


  4. Katherine Barratt says:

    I read your artice and comments with great interest as I have been searching resources about empathy as part of the coolaboration process. With its importance in the 21st centruy business arena, it can begin right at college. My colleague and I have experimented with a colaborative apporoach in our classes (partner / triad combinations to reach a common goal) with first semester students who may not have a clue about working with others to these ends. I also teach the phenonemon of the brain’s specialized mirror neurons that “key” us into the intentions or others & can transfer one;s emotions to another. “I feel what you feel”. look it up.

  5. Larry Irons says:

    Hi Katherine,

    Thanks for reading the post and sharing your thoughts. I find the whole are of research in neuroscience interesting, even when it isn’t persuasive. If you are looking for interesting insights into the relation of empathy, neuroscience, and group processes I can’t think of a better resource than Ralph Stacey’s book, Complexity and Group Processes. I would have integrated its insights into this post but must admit that, at least for now, I remain unable to integrate its convincing analysis into my own thoughts around empathy and collaboration.

  6. Katherine Barratt says:

    Dear Larry, Thank you for recommending Ralph Stacey’s book. I will be sure to look into it ASAP. I just read “About skilful minds”. Truly a fascinating method in your market & design approaches which I had no idea exsited. Yet, what I find fascinating is that in my search for further information on collaboration in an educational setting. I should your find your perspective equally applicable from the business world into what I am reseraching. thanks,

  7. Larry Irons says:

    Katherine, thanks for the follow up. As you may surmise, I’ve been actively invovled in both academic and business pursuits over my career. I’m glad you see a way to use the thinking here in your own work.

    Hope you new year is a good one.

  8. thanks for your tips , i’d love to stick to your blog as usually as i can.possess a good day~~

  9. bayilik says:

    We started to a software as Bayilik Franchise Software. This article made help us for improve our program. We will send our program for your recommend.

  10. apple ipad future…

    Hey mate, thanks 4 sharing but this page isnt vewable when using Chrome it is doubled up….

  11. Barriers in Communication…

    […]Empathy and Collaboration in Social Business Design « Skilful Minds[…]…

  12. […] written more eloquently about empathy than me. You can read about empathy with Blog Gone Wild, Skillful Minds and Ashoka. SOme key points in developing empathy […]

  13. I was curious if you ever thought of changing the page layout of your site?
    Its very well written; I love what youve got to say. But maybe you could
    a little more in the way of content so people could connect with it better.
    Youve got an awful lot of text for only having 1 or two images.
    Maybe you could space it out better?

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