Woody Allen And the Truth About Enterprise Collaboration

I love Woody Allen's movies. How can any writer not adore this auteur with a sweet tooth for words on celluloid? In one of his masterly creations, crafted with his giddily effervescent energies, To Rome with love, Woody tells the story of a mortician Giancarlo (Fabio Armiliato) who loves to sing in the shower. The trouble is that the man sings well only in the shower. And so, when a grumpy retired Opera director(Woody himself) decides to promote this tenor's talent, he installs the shower cabinet, soapsuds and all, in the theater.

In what could be one of the absurd-goes-for-a-walk-with-the-preposterous moments of the film, where we see the tenor wheeled on the stage in a production of the opera Pagliacci, singing inside the shower cabinet, I stumbled upon an unlikely metaphor which distilled the reasons why enterprise collaboration is defunct in most of the large organizations, despite the profusion of digital ways to collaborate with.

Allow me to go meta and unpack the metaphor slowly, without blowing it up. 

The mortician at work. The Shower Cabinet. The Theater Stage. The metaphorical elements at play must be obvious.

The shower cabinet (or more commonly bathroom) is the modern day equivalent of the caves of Euripides, where we express ourselves naked within the cloistered comforts, allowing us to be at ease with the untamed wilderness of our lives. We sing out loud to the heavens, allowing those exuberant outbursts which were once repressed to the surface. 

Ask anyone who has lived his/her virtual life inside an enterprise social network. It is the closest an employee can experience the digital joys of working inside an Euripidean cave. We work out loud in the corporate wilderness, sharing our thoughts and ideas which are meaningful to us, birthed from the purpose we believe in, and connect with kindred souls who share our purpose. In such a space, work and play become impossible to tell apart. 

It is difficult to step out of the cave and not feel anxious about the role we are obliged to play in the corporate theater. Those who've worked in a large organization long enough know the dynamics too well. Your role tells you everything. What status to play, high or low, in relation to other actors on stage. What mask to wear, insider or outsider, when you are accosted by strangers trying their darnedest to get things done from you. 

This is the truth. Building vibrant, open-ended life streams of people and ideas within an Enterprise Social Network inside a large hierarchical organization can sometimes look as farcical as transporting a shower cabinet onto a stage. 

Why is it so hard to embrace Work-Out-Loud to coordinate teamwork and get things done? To understand this in depth, allow me to dissect Oscar Berg's model of how collaboration should work.

The model is useful in showcasing the importance of social capital - accumulated from social interactions and relationships - needed to facilitate collaboration. It has eight layers, with each layer building on each other from the bottom to the top. 

The zone of low visibility, focuses on the predominant set of activities which happen in Enterprise Social Networks. These activities build trust over time, constructing the shared identity essential for the community to grow. The activities happening in this zone remain oblivious to the organizational hierarchy, and going by the volume of activities happening, one can fall into the seductive illusion that the ground underneath is shifting, bureaucratic reforms are round the corner, beckoning us to the hierarchy-free, networked paradise.

The truth is that successful engagement happening in this zone is not only invisible to the surface,it is also decoupled from organizational change levers. It doesn't even begin to scratch the organizational habits and entropy accumulated over time.

As we move further to the top zone of high visibility, we get into a direct conflict between the affordances of social technologies and the organizational hierarchy. Noble intentions to work-out-loud get killed by these conflicts, and this is largely the reason why social collaboration rarely succeeds in large organizations. 

It doesn't help that we tend to pay more attention to the dazzling social technologies, without focusing on the interplay dynamics caused by the forces of organizational hierarchy.Myopic attention to the social technologies without understanding organizational design would probably sound like a radio commentator, who, attending the Word Cup cricket match, offers his listeners a detailed description of the playing field, rather than account of what the players are doing.

Only when we directly address these conflicts, we stand a chance to make social collaboration work. In my next posts, I will address these conflicts, with its various dimensions in detail. Do share your comments and feedback. I would love to hear your thoughts.