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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