Collaborating and Connecting

(Chapter 11 from Transform: A Rebel’s Guide for Digital Transformation)

Gerry McGovern
May 19, 2017 · 20 min read

What makes us human

Let’s face it, humans are arrogant. We think we’re just much better looking than worms. (Have you ever asked a worm what they thought of humans?) Some years ago, scientists discovered that worms had about 20,000 unique genes, and then simply assumed that humans would therefore have millions. However, according to Douglas Main, writing for Popular Science in 2014, “the estimated number has been steadily shrinking. A new study suggests that the human genome could contain as few as 19,000 protein-coding genes, fewer than nematode worms.”

Image for post
Human versus worm genes

What!? Even less genes than a nematode! No need to get overly depressed. What makes us human, you see, is not the number of genes we have but rather the complex web of connections woven between our genes. What makes society is not so much the individuals but the connections we have with each other. What makes this network we call the World Wide Web is not so much the pages and the websites and the apps, but rather the connections — the links — between everything. The magic of the Web is in the linking. It is in the connections and links where the magic of complex life resides. In a network, there are two things: the node (gene) and the links between the genes. The links get less attention and are generally more important.

In working on web stuff since 1994, here’s what I have learned: We produce far too many nodes (websites, sub-sites, content, pages, apps, tools) and far too few quality links. We’re not good at linking because we are trained in school to create things, not to connect things. In our observations of customers as they try to do things online, the number one reason for failure is not because of code, content or graphics, even though these do cause problems. It’s because of poor quality, confusing menus and links. Linking is the art of the Web — is the art of the network — and there is no greater skill you can develop. Seriously, there is no greater skill. To have a great career in digital:

1. You will constantly be thinking about how things connect and how to connect things.

2. You will constantly be thinking of how to connect and collaborate with other people. Collaboration is messy but it is the road to success in the digital network.

In the digital network, nothing is ever finished. The physical world is about projects and endpoints but the digital world is about rapid evolution, constant learning, connecting, collaborating and evolving. The physical world is obsessed with physical things — with genes. We want more genes when we should want more connections. It used to be about how much land you had; then it became how many cows and children; then it became how many soldiers; then how many workers, how much turnover, how much sales, how many genes, how much stuff.

Digital network value is based on connections and use, not ownership. The more use you get out of it — and the more use others get out of it — the more value you create. Your value is in use, in consumption, in your network, your connections.

Thus, in digital we must focus on outcomes not inputs. It’s irrelevant how many lines of code or text you write or own. Who cares if you own servers or pipes or all that physical stuff? In fact, physical often drags you down, holds you back, makes you more rigid and fixed, and less flexible and nimble. Linking and collaborating allows you to be more adaptable and nimble.

Collaboration solves complex problems

In the complex world we live in, there has never been a greater need to specialize in order to solve the problems that we face. However, specialization on its own will solve very little. Today, solving problems requires many specialists and specialisms to work together in unison in a collaborative venture.

Science is a good model for the way forward. For years, scientists have become more and more specialized in their areas of study and research. But if they are to achieve anything of worth, they must collaborate with their colleagues. In the last 100 years, the average number of authors per academic article has gone from an average of 1 to over 5.

Image for post
Authors per scientific paper: 1920–2010

“Recent years have seen a steep increase in the number of papers with authors in excess of 50 — and a particularly notable spike in reports whose author counts exceed 1,000 and more,” Science Watch stated in 2012.

The mapping of the human genome was the world’s largest collaborative biological project, involving multiple universities in many countries. But it was just one example of scientific collaboration. The smart people are collaborating, connecting.

Linking the internal silos

In 2013, published a study which had asked finance professionals to comment on the following statement. “The financial data provided by operating units and subsidiaries at my company is highly accurate, requiring little correction or manual intervention.” For those whose organizations that had separate systems linked by manual processes, only 26% agreed. For those with well integrated systems, 82% agreed.

Collaboration leads to greater value and higher profit, according to Heidi K. Gardner in an excellent piece of research on professional services firms entitled “When Senior Managers Won’t Collaborate”. When the specialists within these firms collaborated with each other, “their firms earn higher margins, inspire greater client loyalty, and gain a competitive edge,” Gardner states. “But for the professionals involved, the financial benefits of collaboration accrue slowly, and other advantages are hard to quantify.” Why? Because they are measured and motivated based on old model metrics. “For a firm, the financial benefits of multidisciplinary collaboration are unambiguous. Simply put, the more disciplines that are involved in a client engagement, the greater the annual average revenue the client generates,” Gardner states. And yet most organizations still stick with the silo model because the silo is a known entity and is easier to manage.

The culture of silos cause the following problems:

1. Because they only think about what information they create in the context of their own silo, the navigation links and language of the content tends to be full of internal silo jargon. For example, we tested an intranet once where employees were looking for the policies in relation to “unpaid leave.” They couldn’t find them because HR had named the policy “sabbatical leave.”

2. Duplication is rife. Organization divisions often copy HR or product information to their section of the intranet. As a result, you are likely to find multiple copies of a piece of content when you search.

3. Out-of-date content explodes. The duplicated content is rarely updated. Thus, you can find multiple copies of content, many of which are older, out-of-date versions.

4. Confusion reigns. We worked with one large organization that had multiple systems and environments for training. Employees were so confused about where to go on the intranet that they had essentially given up and were instead asking colleagues about training.

These problems must be solved by the organizations that want to survive in the new model. This transformation from silo-thinking to network thinking is at core not a systems problem but rather a cultural connecting and linking problem. Yes, buying a new software system can help but often it just compounds the problem as it becomes another silo in its own right, since the older systems are rarely shut down. Also, buying technology is often seen as the entire solution. The reason organizations have such atrocious intranets and workplaces is because they have bought awful, unusable technologies without any concern for their use. Let’s buy a new technology is in fact one of the classic systems of the old model silo thinking.

The new model involves creating an intuitive employee-facing information architecture and navigation. (An example of which I described in the previous chapter.) It involves looking at the information itself and stripping out the jargon and making it understandable to the employees who need to use it. (Which is very different to it being understandable by those who created it.) For you to achieve these things will require you to create or become part of a collaborative cross-disciplinary and cross-silo team. All the key stakeholders in the organization must be present and the first thing on the agenda must be findability. How do we create a navigation and search that allows employees to find quickly what they need? Going hand-in-hand with findability is understandability. How do we create content / information that is easy to read and understand? These two challenges are interlinked. If, for example, an employee searches for “unpaid leave” and you change the language in the content from “sabbatical leave” to “unpaid leave”, they will have a much better chance of finding and then understanding the content. It really is as simple — and as difficult — as making the language employee-centric.

Here’s where the culture comes in. The silos often don’t want to change the language. They feel it’s dumbing down or that they’re losing their specialness. The Training department wants to be called Learning & Development. You drive the change in culture with evidence of use. You test real tasks with real employees. You show that employees are searching for “training” and that they are less successful if the links are called Learning & Development.

We don’t always need new software. But we do need to link up existing software with a common employee-centric interface. We might have multiple training systems, but if we can achieve a common navigation and search interface we can achieve a surprising amount. So, it’s not that we must get rid of the silos, whether they be departments or systems. Once we can bridge them — link them — with a common interface, we can make them invisible. After all, people are just booking a flight or finding training. Once it’s an intuitive logical flow they don’t care how many systems they pass through.

When we did a customer Top Tasks analysis with the European Union (EU) in 24 languages and in 28 countries, we found that there were 77 tasks that defined what people wanted to do when interacting with the EU. When we got people to vote, we found that the top tasks were almost identical in every EU country. We also found that every single task was shared across multiple EU departments. In fact, on average each task was shared by 12 separate departments. The EU understands that it must be much more connected and it seeking create a common navigation and information architecture that brings together all aspects of a particular task into a common and intuitive interface.

In every EU country, the top tasks included law, research, funding, education, etc. There was incredible agreement and this is leading to the design of a common information architecture for the EU.

Image for post
European Union citizen top tasks

When we did Top Tasks research for Cisco on their social / community web space, we found that there were two important tasks people wanted to complete: complex troubleshooting and training / career development. Engineers would come to Cisco communities and Facebook pages to ask their peers what were the best network certifications and specializations. However, once they found out the right course they then had to go back to and head to the Training section to find it. Linking up the environments in a logical and seamless way would provide a better experience for customers. On the Web, no website or app is an island.

Linking people

Facebook was born because Harvard University was continuously putting off creating an efficient people directory. Obviously, Harvard management didn’t see it as being worth the money or effort to allow people to easily connect with each other. Not at all untypical. Most managers simply do not recognize the huge potential value of quickly, easily and accurately connecting people.

“Harvard had repeatedly said it would combine its various campus directories — what it called ‘facebooks’ — into one easily searchable online database,” Seth Fiegerman wrote for Mashable in February 2014. Harvard continued to delay building it, so Mark Zuckerberg decided he would. So, on February 4th 2004, Facebook was born.

“The average Intel employee dumps one day a week trying to find people with the experience and expertise plus the relevant information to do their job,” Laurie Buczek of Intel stated in 2009. “We have calculated some of the dollar impact due to lost productivity and opportunity. Let me just say that it is motivating us to take action.” Think about it. Intel was losing one day a week with people trying to find other people.

In the new model, with network-based, cross-disciplinary collaborative and team-oriented organizations, finding the right person has never been more essential and more challenging. It used to be a lot easier to find people, a BBC manager once told me. “You just used the staff directory, but now half the people we need don’t even work for the BBC. We have independent directors, producers and writers.”

When I worked with Schlumberger, a large oil and gas consultancy, I was told that if the CEO gave a talk, then within hours of that talk happening, details (links to the text of the talk, video) would be made available on his Schlumberger profile. If you changed your phone number and didn’t immediately update your profile, that would be seen in a very negative light. Because in Schlumberger if something breaks in an oil well, the costs per hour can be astronomical, so finding the right person as quickly as possible is essential. It’s a culture of findability.

Many old model organizations have a culture of “hideability.” I once asked someone why they didn’t add to their profile the fact that they had just attended a conference. They looked at me and said: “I might get asked questions. More work that I don’t need.” I met another employee who had come up with an excellent sales presentation for a particular product. They were getting questions from other sales reps from all over the world. Their manager came to them and told them to stop answering these questions. They were being paid to meet targets within theirown country, not anywhere else, they were told. Classic silo model — you only get rewarded for work that occurs within the silo.

You can’t create a social workspace for a new model organization if you don’t have cross-disciplinary collaboration that reaches not simply across silos, but also outside to customers and all sorts of other interested parties. And no new model organization can hope to succeed as long as old model metrics discourage and punish those who share and collaborate in a cross-disciplinary manner. You see, in most organizations the problem of findability is not primarily a technical issue. People and content don’t want to get found because there is, in fact, a disincentive to get found. You get more work, which is not part of your core job. In other words, you get more unpaid, unrewarded work. It makes absolutely no sense for someone to volunteer for punishment.

We must change the model. You can’t change this part of the model on your own, of course, but you can begin the conversation. When you raise the findability / “hideability” challenge, your manager will probably have never even thought about it like that. It will force them to begin to think about and address core issues. Everything begins with an idea, a thought. Everything has to start somewhere.

Leadership everywhere

The new model requires leaders everywhere, a team spirit and a collaborative environment. The hierarchical “leadership from the top” old model is broken. Its narcissistic “Great Man” culture, though, is deeply embedded. We once tested a task for a large organization’s intranet, asking employees to find out about leadership development.

It was expected that employees would select the “About Me” link. (That’s why it is circled in the following image.) However, far more people selected “About My Company.” This was initially surprising. However, on investigation, we discovered that most employees didn’t associate leadership development as being about them. It was something for an elite, for senior management, something you’d find out about in the “About My Company” section, rather than “About Me”.

Image for post
Where employees look for leadership information

“How did leadership development became so elitist?” David Altman from the Center for Creative Leadership asks. “The world’s challenges are big enough now that we need to think about how we can democratize leadership development, take it back to the masses — to the base and middle of the socioeconomic pyramid, not only the peak.” As John P. Kotter wrote for Harvard Business Review in 2012, “People have been talking for a quarter of a century about the need for more leaders, because an organization’s top two or three executives can no longer do it all.”

“A new leadership paradigm seems to be emerging with an inexorable shift away from one-way, hierarchical, organization-centric communication toward two-way, network-centric, participatory, and collaborative leadership styles,” Grady McGonagill and Tina Doerffer state in The Leadership Implications of the Evolving Web. “Most of all a new mind-set seems necessary, apart from new skills and knowledge. All the tools in the world will not change anything if the mind-set does not allow and support change.”

A new way of leadership is on the way because the old one is simply not fit for purpose anymore. As Patrick McGovern from MIT Sloan puts it, “Some of the most important innovations of the coming decades will not be new technologies, but new ways of working together that are made possible by these new technologies.” It is never safe to be a rebel, a revolutionary, but this is your time, your opportunity to be part of a major change in how organizations behave and organize.

Reinventing organizations

If you’re interested in what the new model organization looks like, then you would do well to read Frederic Laloux’s book, Reinventing Organizations. In it he describes the principles of these new organizational approaches.

1. Self-management: All business information is open to all and everyone is trusted until proven otherwise. Decision making is driven by a collective intelligence approach. Everyone has full responsibility for the organization. “If we sense that something needs to happen, we have a duty to address it.”

2. Wholeness: Every employee is of equal worth and they are provided with a safe and caring workplace. Learning and feedback are seen as essential for growth. Conflicts and disagreements are dealt with on a one-on-one basis, but the blame culture is avoided at all costs.

3. Purpose: The organization has a soul and purpose. A vision is required but forecasting the future is avoided. Rather, it is essential to adapt and refine based on feedback. “In the long run, there are no trade-offs between purpose and profits. If we focus on purpose, profits will follow.”

In an interview with InfoQ, Laloux describes how he “stumbled on these extraordinary organizations who have been founded (or at some point taken over) by people who believe that the organization is a living system, and that it has its own sense of direction, its own creative genius, its own thing to do in this world. And so the role of leaders (and if these organizations are self-managing, everyone can take up leadership roles) is not to make some good or bad claim to where the organizations should go. But the role of leadership is to ‘listen’ to where the organizations wants to go.”

These new model organizations are not some utopian dream but are rather highly successful. They include:

· Buurtzorg: A Dutch home care organization that has 8,500 nurses who work in 800 self-managing teams of 10 to 12 people. It has purpose but no plans. It behaves like a living, adaptable system. Established in 2006, it rapidly became the leader in its marketplace in size, customer and employee satisfaction and profit.

· ESBZ: a publicly financed school in Berlin, covering grades seven to 12, which has attracted international attention for its innovative curriculum and organizational model.

· FAVI: a brass foundry in France, which produces (among other things) gearbox forks for the automotive industry, and has about 500 employees.

· Heiligenfeld: a 600-employee mental health hospital system, based in central Germany, which applies a holistic approach to patient care.

· Morning Star: a U.S.-based tomato processing company with 400 to 2,400 employees (depending on the season) and a 30 to 40 percent share of the North American market.

· Patagonia: a US$540 million manufacturer of climbing gear and outdoor apparel; based in California and employing 1,300 people.

· Resources for Human Development (RHD): a 4,000-employee nonprofit social services agency operating in 14 states in the U.S., providing services related to addiction recovery, homelessness, and mental disabilities.

· Sounds True: a publisher of multimedia offerings related to spirituality and personal development, with 90 employees in the United States.

· Sun Hydraulics: a maker of hydraulic cartridge valves and manifolds, with factories in the U.S., the U.K., Germany, and Korea employing about 900 people.

· Holacracy: a management system first developed at the Philadelphia-based software company Ternary, which has been adopted by a few hundred profit- and not-for-profit organizations around the world, most famously by Zappos.

Getting customer feedback

Where does the new model organization begin and where does it end? The Web makes everything diffused and interconnected. You will find that connecting with your customers will be the most important set of connections you will make. Getting feedback from and co-creating with your customers will be essential to your success. You will live in a constant world of interaction with them. Everything you do you will test with them as quickly as possible, to see if it’s working, figure out what they don’t like, refine and test again. A world of continuous improvement founded in the world of your customers, that is the new model in essence.

In many ways, the idea of co-creation is nothing new. How tremendously exciting it must have been when the first books started being printed. When books were written by hand they were nearly always once-offs. Thus, feedback was not very useful because it was impossible to integrate this feedback into new editions — because there really weren’t any new editions. “The power which printing gives us of continually improving and correcting our Works in successive Editions, appears to me the chief advantage of that art,” Scottish philosopher David Hume (1711–1776) is reputed to have written to his publisher.

“By the simple expedient of being honest with his readers and inviting criticism and suggestions, Abraham Ortelius (1527–1598) made his Theatrum atlas a sort of cooperative enterprise on an international basis,” Elizabeth L. Eisenstein writes in The Printing Revolution in Early Modern Europe. “He received helpful suggestions from far and wide and cartographers stumbled over themselves to send him their latest maps of regions not covered in the Theatrum.”

Print allowed for the creation of direct copies of a manuscript. Thus many people could compare and give feedback on the same thing. Print allowed for much faster publication. Thus, new editions could come out with reasonable regularity. As a result, printed maps were much easier to correct and improve than hand-created ones. “The Theatrum was…speedily reprinted several times…Suggestions for corrections and revisions kept Ortelius and his engravers busy altering plates for new editions… When Ortelius died in 1598 at least 28 editions of the atlas had been published in Latin, Dutch, German, French and Spanish.” (The first edition had appeared in 1570.)

“The term ‘feedback’,” Eisenstein continues, “is ugly and much overused, yet it does help to define the difference between data collection before and after the communications shift. After printing, large-scale data collection did become subject to new forms of feedback which had not been possible in the age of scribes.” The Web is like feedback on steroids. Big Data is a feedback avalanche. Turning all this feedback into actionable insights will be a key differentiating skill, and later — in the chapter on the Task Performance Indicator — I’ll show you a simple, yet powerful, method for channeling customer feedback.

Today, Google is carrying on the same basic tradition of product evolution through feedback as Ortelius and his engravers did. Google uses multiple data sources to build the basic framework of its maps — some that it generates itself and some it gets from third-parties. Every day it receives thousands of messages from people using the maps. Where this feedback identifies specific problems with the maps, Google tries to fix these issues as quickly as possible, sometimes within minutes of receiving the feedback.

“One complaint reported that Google did not show a new roundabout that had been built in a rural part of the country,” Alexis Madrigal wrote for The Atlantic in 2012. “The satellite imagery did not show the change, but a Street View car had recently driven down the street and its tracks showed the new road perfectly.” An engineer began to quickly draw the new roundabout and within no time at all the change was live.

Where possible, Google gets back to people who have given feedback, thanking them and telling them about the fix. This is a really essential point. You must create a feedback virtuous circle. If you show that you are listening and acting upon feedback, you will get more of it, and of a higher quality.

This is the way forward: the road ahead.

Connect outside your comfort zone

You are a connector and your most important connections will be outside your peer group. Studies show that connections you make outside your peer group often generate more value than those within your network. It is highly unlikely you will ever drive the change you need to drive by just staying within your own network. You must combine with other skill sets because in a complex world it is cross-disciplinary collaboration that achieves success. If you are in marketing, you must work with IT, support, customer experience. If you’re a content professional, you must work closely with usability and visual and software design professionals. It’s all about breaking out of the silos.

We do so love our tribes, so it’s not going to be easy. I remember years ago sitting in a workshop with lots of other web professionals. There was a heated and passionate discussion about the differences between information architecture, user experience, customer experience, service design, content management, web design, etc. etc. And let’s not even go near software programming, branding, marketing and search engine optimization.

Sure, there are differences between these disciplines but it is the interconnections between them where the real value lies. Great web professionals are bridge builders, connectors. They don’t sit within the comfort zones of their discipline telling their peers how important their particular discipline is; how important UX, content or web design is. Instead, they go out and build bridges. I simply cannot remember a successful web environment where the techies and non-techies were not working well together.

In the new model, the old silos are becoming blurred and breaking down. It used to be that the “Support” dealt with product problems current customers had. Today, support is the new marketing. In test after test, we find potential customers going to the support section in order to find the detailed information they need to make the purchase decision. After the sale, the quality of the support will be the key determiner for many customers of whether they will buy more in the future. So, shouldn’t Support, Marketing and Sales be working very closely together? Of course, they should, yet in many old model organizations, Marketing doesn’t even talk to Sales, let alone Support. We need to build a lot more bridges. When Telenor Norway introduced support-type content about product installation onto their product marketing pages, their sales went up by almost 100%.

In the 2014 World Cup, Portugal had Ronaldo, Argentina had Messi, Brazil had Neymar, Uruguay had Suarez, while Germany had a team.

Read the previous chapter: A Map for the Digital Workplace

Read the next chapter: Big Data Builds Relationships

Buy print version of Transform for $12

Buy Transform ebook for $6


CFO Research. Future-Proofing the Complex Modern Business: What CFOs Know about Critical Information Sharing and the Systems that Support it, 2013

Main, D. Humans May Have Fewer Genes than Worms, Jan. 2014

King, C. Multi-author Papers: Onward and Upward, Science Watch, Jun. 2012

Gardner. K. H. When Senior Managers Won’t Collaborate, Harvard Business Review, Oct. 2015

Fiegerman, S. It Was Just the Dumbest Luck’ — Facebook’s First Employees Look Back, Mashable, Feb. 2014

Buczek, L. Why Intel is investing in Social Computing, Feb. 2009

Petrie, N. White Paper: Future Trends in Leadership Development, Center for Creative Leadership, 2014

Kotter, J. Accelerate, Business Harvard Review, 2012

McGonagill, G. & Doerffer, T. Leadership and Web 2.0, 2010

Laloux, F. Reinventing Organizations — A Guide to Creating Organizations Inspired by the Next Stage of Human Consciousness, Nelson Parker, 2014

McKitterick, D. Print, Manuscript and the Search for Order, 1450–1830, Cambridge University Press, 2005

Eisenstein, E. The Printing Revolution in Early Modern Europe, Cambridge University Press, 2005

Madrigal, A. How Google Builds Its Maps — and What It Means for the Future of Everything, Sept. 2012

Welcome to a place where words matter. On Medium, smart voices and original ideas take center stage - with no ads in sight. Watch

Follow all the topics you care about, and we’ll deliver the best stories for you to your homepage and inbox. Explore

Get unlimited access to the best stories on Medium — and support writers while you’re at it. Just $5/month. Upgrade

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store