03 May 2016

Social Collaboration tools in Foreign Cultures

Benedikt Sheerer is one of the up and coming young guys in the KM world.  I like his fresh approach, eager passion for social collaboration and the places it can take organisations in the Future of Work.

Based in Germany, recently he visited the Tokyo office of his company as part of the roll out program of their internal social collaboration tools.  You can read his report about it here.

Benedikt made three modifications to his usual launch presentation for the Tokyo staff. These were:

  1. First: We reduced the amount of topics we explained and discussed. This was due to the language barrier (meaning it simply takes longer to get a message through). Moreover, since the Japanese culture is high in context, people need more time to make up their own picture.
  2. Second: We also mitigated those messages that stress the social media possibilities to create short-cuts in the information flows (meaning: changing the role of management).
  3. Third: We focused on longer practice sessions that allowed me to help each participant individually (otherwise reluctant to raise questions in the group).

I really liked these three modifications, especially the mitigation of messages about subversive applications of Social Collaboration tools. A lot of my Asian experience (being based in Australia) is with South East Asia, but the strategy is also applicable to Japan and something Westerners can easily overlook.

His insight that national and corporate cultures are interwoven is a good one. Possibly thanks to the popularization of Hofstede’s cultural dimensions theory, many seem to over-simplify culture or think of it as a separate master attribute, rather than the emergent sum of the many individual’s beliefs and behaviors (see update below). I like Harald’s advice to Benedikt to get the local people more involved in the process. Not just because it gets them engaged and starting on a learning journey, but because a project like this creates an environment where ideas and understandings can be explored in an iterative way and new applications of Social collaboration tools can be tested (and hopefully measured). This helps us avoid the “It worked there, so it must work here too” problem that many managers fall for.

Senior Executives are undergoing an interesting time right now.  The push for the advantages of the digital workplace is strong and I am seeing support for a lot of fantastic and progressive projects. At the same time, this is more than just process automation. There are long-term cultural and structural norms that are being challenged right now to allow digital (and AI after it) to see it's full potential. Challenges that appear to threaten of the executive's traditional power-base. Some are adapting, distributing knowledge down-to and among the decision makers closest to the problems. Others are centralizing power further through business intelligence tools, deep-analytics and the application of industrial-age thinking to modern knowledge workers.

Time will only tell what mix of the two styles will influence the successful companies of the future, but I think Social Collaboration tools are here to stay in some form or another. Whether it is corporate cultures or national ones, I think the key skill isn't going to be how to use the software, but rather how tolerant we are about others breaching what we consider to be our social norms.

UPDATE: After a challenge on twitter by Stewart MacLeod from State Trustees, I thought I should clarify things for the academics among us. When I refer to culture as the "emergent sum of the many individual’s beliefs and behaviours" I don't mean a simple addition. This concept takes in to account the embedded and embodied impacts of both the environment and artefacts that influence each of the individuals involved, like Org structure, technologies and a plethora of other factors that are both moulded by and in turn mould the evolution of the local sub-culture. For more of my thoughts about culture check out these articles here and here. For a really deep treatment of the subject, my nine part series on Knowledge Cultures is guaranteed to put you to sleep :)  I love Hannerz' quote when talking about culture:  "The term 'complex' may in itself be about as intellectually attractive as the word 'messy,' but one of its virtues in this context is precisely its sober insistence that we should think twice before accepting any simple characterization of the cultures in question in terms of a single essence."