Team Member Engagement

How Social Bonds Drive Collaboration and Growth at Work

by robertr

January 16th, 2014
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How Social Bonds Drive Collaboration and Growth at Work
By Sarah Miller Caldicott

When we think of forging social connections in the workplace, we most often jump to ‘social networking’ as our primary tool of choice. However, in our digital world, networks like LinkedIn, Twitter, and Google+ do not shape the crucial social fabric that creates invisible bonds between employees. We need to tap a deeper source of social power in today’s organizations if we are to create an agile, adaptive workforce that can flex in response to market shifts – indeed, even lead these shifts.

Collaboration offers us a unique way to access this social power. Collaboration engages the complex linkages people have with one another – linkages that have no digital substitute. Collaboration offers us a method for not only engaging deep emotions like respect, trust, and admiration for the expertise of others, it also allows us to drive new modes of learning.

Here are two ways you can begin looking at collaboration as a learning tool that stretches beyond merely assembling teams, or launching division-wide projects. These tools allow you to build new agility and new forms of social connection that can accelerate innovation and revenue growth.

Social Bonds Boost Innovation Success
Months after writing his acclaimed book Game Changers, (then) CEO of Procter & Gamble A.G. Lafley commented that there was a ‘missing chapter.’ Lafley noted in an interview that he wished he’d written a chapter describing the intricate social system that underpins growth and innovation momentum in an organization.

Lafley says: “Our experience suggests that many of the failures of innovation are social failures. Promising ideas with real potential business value often get left behind during the development process. Some innovations are timed too early for their market; others are lost in execution. But often, the root cause is poor social interaction; the right people simply don’t engage in productive dialogue frequently enough.”

Lafley’s observation is a pivotal one for business leaders and employees today. Beyond the timetables, beyond the work plans, beyond the manufacturing schedules lie the actual social connections between team members themselves. When these social connections are operating in a healthy way, teams are in dialogue. They debate. They offer options and hypotheses. They proactively devise alternative solutions early in a project rather than waiting for the 11th hour.

When this type of collaborative dialogue is present, teams are building context rather than just ‘answering questions.’ They are stepping away from the ‘I’ll-just-do-my-part’ exchanges, and learning from the broader knowledge that resides within the team itself. True collaboration is not a series of transactions, but an ongoing learning continuum. By offering their best thinking as a project evolves rather than just at the moment their expertise is required, team members benefit both as individuals and as a group.

Renowned innovator Thomas Edison recognized this same form of accelerated learning through the collaborative culture he fostered in his laboratories. One of the tools Edison used to create social connection between workers became known as Midnight Lunch. A Midnight Lunch took place when Edison returned to the lab after dinner to check on his experiments. Edison made a point to speak with everyone who was also working after hours – typically about a dozen people on any given night.

Edison encouraged each person present to share insights about the experiments they were conducting. He also asked them to exchange notebooks, and comment on the assumptions that each person was making about their projects. After about 2 hours of these discussions, Edison ordered in sandwiches and beverages for everyone from a local tavern. The assembled crew took a break from their dialogue, rolled up their sleeves, sang songs, told stories, and shared a meal. Everybody ‘let their hair down’ and talked about other interests beyond work.

After about an hour or so, these social conversations shifted back to project endeavors. But something was different. Something had changed in their exchanges. Rather than functioning merely as teammates, employees became true colleagues. More than just an assembly of workers, by sharing opinions and insights with folks whom they might not even meet during a normal business day, they forged invisible bonds. Through mixing work time with social time, these unique Midnight Lunch gatherings transformed employees into colleagues.

This type of collegiality is the unseen social fabric A.G. Lafley was describing. The bonds that employees forge when they operate in an environment of exchange deepens their contributions. These social interactions form the ‘invisible glue’ that connect people together at work. Building a social fabric that encourage employees to roll up their sleeves together offers a new mode of learning that benefits leaders and employees alike.

Collaboration Accelerates Knowledge Transfer
A second form of learning also flows from collaboration. This second form positions collaboration as a kind of learning hub which impacts multiple facets of an operation. This form of learning positions collaboration as a multiplying force rather than a merely additive one.

Just as collegiality is created by creating social connections between workers, knowledge can also be transferred between employees using collaboration principles. In an era when Baby Boomers are aging and transitioning out of the workforce at an increasing rate, rapid learning through collaboration offers a crucial means for transferring knowledge capital. Workers that have been with a company for a decade or longer often possess expertise that is not recognized until an employee has already left an organization.

You can prevent the loss of employee knowledge by recognizing the social nature of collaboration in a shoulder-to-shoulder setting. Connecting seasoned workers on the same team with younger employees holds the key. Rather than relying on classroom training for passing on knowledge, collaboration can embed new capabilities and learning frameworks that operate day-to-day. Collaborative exchanges operate on a deeper level because they engage trust, respect, and a connection to forms of expertise that are challenging to replicate in other ways.

A recent workforce study conducted by John Zenger, Joseph Folkman, and Scott Edinger revealed that when collaboration was present on a team, it actually accelerated development of 5 other valuable capabilities:

1. Character and integrity
2. Operational expertise
3. Results orientation
4. Interpersonal communication
5. Leadership

In essence, by building greater social connection and collaboration within your work teams, you are also advancing a learning ecosystem that drives greater integrity, builds a stronger results orientation, deepens interpersonal communication skills, and accelerates leadership development. There are few other places we can turn to in generating a return on human capital which matches the depth that collaboration offers.

Collaboration became a powerful social mechanism for Thomas Edison to clone his unique work culture. By focusing on the benefits of collaboration as a learning tool, he developed teams that operated shoulder-to-shoulder in a way that none of his competitors could match. The deep social connections fostered by collaboration enabled Edison to rapidly shape and reshape the knowledge assets his teams created, driving billions in market value in Edison’s lifetime.

True collaboration goes much deeper than Twitter hashtags (#) or the number of ‘friends’ we have on Facebook. Collaboration is a social force that can drive new forms learning in your organization. Use collaboration to build shoulder-to-shoulder connections within your teams. Consider collaboration a driver of the social fabric that fosters collegiality and allows rapid knowledge exchange to take place. Rather than simply viewing your company as a collection of workers, use collaboration as a social tool to transform employees into colleagues.

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