Autonomy in Collaboration

handcuffedIt hit like a flash of lightning.  I was hanging out in the Twittersphere yesterday, as is normal while working at my desk.  Then, right in the middle of one of the lulls in Twitter traffic that seems to occur every afternoon, I was rocked by a singular tweet posted by Stowe Boyd.

Stowe was in attendance at the Defrag conference, in Denver.  He had overheard a conversation and tweeted a simple, but striking comment on it:

“When collaboration people start talking about motivating people to participate it means the tools don’t provide enough autonomy.”

In one short, clear sentence, Stowe summed up much of what I believe is wrong with Enterprise 2.0.  Too much workplace collaboration is too tightly controlled by corporate IT.  Not only do they choose which collaboration tools employees can use, but they also (in most cases) prescribe and limit how those tools will be used.  Sometimes this constriction of usage is unintentional (poor product choice), but often it is intentional (policy and business rule choices.)

Here’s a hypothetical, but plausible example.  The CIO of Acme Corporation was concerned because a large number of employees were using external blog providers to publish information and opinions related to their work and the corporation.  Acme had no way to identify and monitor all the external blogs, and the company’s leadership was concerned that the Acme brand was taking a hit as a result of comments made in public by employees.  Acme was also terrified that employees might carelessly divulge confidential information on external blogs.

In order to accommodate employee eagerness to blog, Acme deployed an internal blog network, based on software purchased from Vendor X.  The intranet blog facility was established behind the corporate firewall, effectively excluding all non-employees from reading posts and commenting on them.  Acme’s CIO believed this solution would be a win-win; employees could fulfill their desire to blog, and the corporation could be certain that its brand reputation and confidential information would be protected.

The existence of the new intranet blog was heavily publicized, both before and after launch.  Training was provided on the use of the blog environment to any employee that registered.  Acme’s CEO and CIO even started their own blogs in an effort to lead by example.  However, six months after go-live, the number of blogs established and the number of posts and comments created were dismal.  And, despite the money, time, and effort spent to motivate employees to shift their blogging to the internal environment, anecdotal evidence suggested that even more Acme employees had started external blogs!

Why did the Acme internal blog fail?  It did not provide the autonomy needed by employees.  Acme employees wanted and valued feedback from their customers, business partners, and industry peers and analysts.  The intranet blog excluded those external collaborators, thereby limiting the value created by the blogging activity.

This is a very simple, hypothetical example, and I’m not at all sure that it represents what Stowe Boyd was expressing when he tweeted yesterday (I apologize to Stowe if I’ve misinterpreted his line of thought.)  However, I hope it illustrates the issue as I construe it.  Savvy employees know why and how they want to use specific collaboration tools.  Corporate IT must listen to its constituents and work with them to meet their requirements, rather than imposing solutions and trying to motivate adoption.  Providing autonomy hinges on one thing — TRUST.  Show me an organization that isn’t willing to trust its employees to use collaboration tools appropriately and provide them the autonomy to do so, and I’ll show you a collaboration failure about to happen.


5 responses to “Autonomy in Collaboration

  1. This is definitely true, but the full-autonomy end of the spectrum is also no picnic. Organizations need to make smart decisions about where they should be centralizing technology for scale, standardization, and integration and where they should be allowing end users to use whatever works best for them

    This is a good day for a parallel analogy with Govt. If we go full free-market, we get into financial trouble. If we control too much we get bureaucracy. The trick is to find the right things to control and the right things to allow to be free.

    My most recent post on Future Business ( discusses a similar issue about building bottom-up solutions vs. top-down.

  2. Arthur VanderVeen

    We’ve struggled with this tension at NYC DOE–recently launching a DOE-wide Web 2.0 collaboration space for 90,000 educators, hoping to generate sufficient critical mass to achieve network effects within an internal network that provides access to confidential student data that cannot be shared externally, balanced against our educators’ interest in an even broader audience of educators outside NYC who are exploring effective practices. Question is whether defining boundaries to collaborative groups concentrates the value of shared contributions, or kills it.

  3. @Swan: Thanks for your comment! I agree and am not advocating a rush to either end of the spectrum of organizational control. I would, however, like to see less control and more trust in general regarding collaboration.

    My point is not so much that users should be allowed “to use whatever works best for them”. Rather, it is that users should have the autonomy to choose collaboration tools from a range of options selected and supported by corporate IT, with heavy end user input. As organizations continue to increase in complexity, one-size-fits-all solutions dictated by IT departments become less viable.

  4. @Arthur Thank you for sharing your experience and the resulting dilemma. The question you pose in your last sentence is central to the debate.

    We used to be predisposed to defining and launching communities, because the available collaboration technologies did not allow for self-discovery of like-minded peers. What excites me about Web 2.0 is the ability to find others with shared interests and to form communities on the fly. I increasing believe that collaboration without boundaries is preferable to narrowly predefined interaction; it yields greater innovation and helps individuals be more productive. Hence, my “amen” reaction to Stowe Boyd’s tweet yesterday.

    What do other readers think about this issue? Is there a trade-off to be managed? Or is the need for predefined communities made obsolete by Web 2.0 technologies?

  5. Pingback: Centralize vs. De-centralize. Is SOA the answer? « Future Business

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