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Project managers, embrace your social side!

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“The only irreplaceable capital an organisation possesses is the knowledge and ability of its people. The productivity of that capital depends on how effectively people share their competence with those who can use it.” Andrew Carnegie, 1835 - 1919

Wise words indeed. A worthy objective that many organisations have hunted for, and some are finally grasping the benefits.

Social collaboration (known also as enterprise social or enterprise social collaboration) has been silently transforming the way employees interact and work across organisations. For those organisations who’ve delivered on a considered social collaboration strategy, they’ve benefited from reshaping the way work gets done, by embedding social collaboration into the day- to-day work flow, they’ve fundamentally transformed conventional business processes, enabling a more productive and more enjoyable working environment. One that brings out the brilliance of their workforce. It’s no wonder there has been a surge in the uptake of social collaboration over the last five years.

What is social collaboration?
It is a fresh way of working, one that harnesses the power of human networks as a means to get employees working together better. It delivers the ideals of personal social networks (connecting and interacting with others, information sharing, and discovery) and extends this with group-centric features, empowering people to work together to achieve common goals.

Why has social collaboration finally happened?
Unsurprisingly there have been technological advances in the social collaboration platforms, but these haven’t been significant success factors. Surprisingly it’s the people that have permitted social collaboration to succeed. Employees, accustomed to using social networking in their personal lives, have become more accommodating in adopting social and collaborative approaches in their working lives. This relaxed employee attitude has finally permitted organisations to adopt innovative social collaboration approaches. Additionally, with the realisation by senior management, that top-down directives don’t work for social implementations, better outcomes are achieved when these are compelled by their employees.

How is this relevant to programme and project managers?
In a nutshell, adopting social collaboration in a programme or project environment results in more effective collaboration between the team members (and stakeholders/partners if you extend it out to them), knowledge sharing (especially with virtual teams) and speedier communication channels, altogether leading to more successful project teams.

Imagine if you were given an environment that enabled your team members to get projects completed efficiently and promptly, assisting them to rapidly find the information they need, when they need it; straightforwardly sharing knowledge, experience and skills; communicating spontaneously, and seamlessly work together across geographies to achieve common business objectives of the project. Now extend this out to those difficult stakeholders you need to handle warily on a day to day basis; If they could participate in a collaborative manner would they be easier to deal with? Could you leverage this approachable engagement to overcome challenges and speed up project delivery?

What does this mean to the programme and project manager role?
It’s changing the way we work. Many in project management are still shying away from taking the plunge because social collaboration may seem overwhelming. But with the right strategies, tools and engagement, social collaboration can be a remarkable way to improve outcomes for your programmes and projects.

In a project environment, social collaboration has proven to improve communications, work management, knowledge management, cross-project interchange and innovation.

  • Project communication - Effective communication is a critical differentiator on whether a project is a success or not, in an environment where 50% or more of a project manager’s time is consumed by communication. Communication challenge only increases as the complexity increases in a programme environment. Social collaboration extends traditional communication channels (that are often direct and restricted, such as email) to encourage more inclusive engagement and collaboration, across organisational and geographical boundaries. It also enables virtual relationship building and discovery of people who can add contextual value to your project.
  • Personal work management – Enabling the project team to do the right thing, at the right time, with access to the right resources or rapidly discover people that can assist.
  • Skill and knowledge management – Encourages sharing, capturing knowledge, experience and skills, often on an open informal basis. It enables ramping up of skills, speeding up on-boarding of team members, and lessons learned for project initiation. Even providing local expertise to over-all knowledge capture. Locating individuals with expertise, social collaboration provides an ideal way for a project manager to find new and untapped talent within the organisation.
  • Cross-project interchange – Enabling an exchange of ideas, problem solving and insight across interrelated projects and programmes. Improves relationships with management and teams delivering these initiatives. This may also extend outside the organisational boundaries to partners.
  • Innovation – The ability to combine, capture and develop numerous perspectives has proven to facilitate problem solving, idea development, and innovation. Finding people with others with shared interests to help them solve large problems. Organisations have nurtured this insight through communities of practice, wikis, micro-blogs, etc. means that knowledge is retained and can evolve over time, benefitting future projects.

For many programme and project manager that have been tasked to deliver these social change projects, they have begrudgingly entered unfamiliar territory. One where collaboration is a key outcome of the project, as well as a prerequisite enabling it.

Experience has taught me that it is best to adopt an “eating one’s own dog food” approach to delivering these social collaboration endeavours. One where the project team utilises the social collaboration platform and adopts collaborative behaviours. Whilst this technique helps develop and test the social collaboration “product”, it also enables lessons to be learnt in a “safe” environment and empowers the team to explore more innovative outcomes.

The APM’s Programme Management Specific Interest Group (SIG) adopted an “eating one’s own dog food” approach four years ago with the adoption of Projectplace. As a committee member on the Programme Management SIG, it’s incredibly beneficial that Projectplace enables the virtual team (of leaders on programme management) to collaboratively create plans and documents, organise team work (even collaborate and visualise progress via Kanban boards), easy identification of personal tasks and commitments and real-time communication. 

Finally, social collaboration seeks to get people working together better, using this as a foundation we can ultimately end up with stronger business relationships with healthier engagement for the optimum outcomes for our programmes or projects. As leaders we do need to be more “socially savvy”; not only inspiring those around us to work in a collaborative manner but transforming the way we work personally.

This post is part of our upcoming Programme Management Specific Interest Group (SIG) Conference “Equipping Programme Managers for Global Success” on 10th March, we are digging deeper into the world of the social enterprise and how it impacts the delivery of programmes and projects.


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  1. Julian Smith
    Julian Smith 17 February 2016, 03:37 PM

    Neil, thanks for this blog which makes a powerful case. I agree with you. An organisation is losing out if it doesn't encourage and enable its employees to interact in common pursuit of objectives.There is a caveat to social collaboration in that it depends on sufficient alignment of people's interests and their willingness to be, well, sociable. Conventional, safety-first thinking can supercede the spark of an idea from a maverick thinker. And deference to the powerful can still remain, even in a social setting. Getting this right is not impossible, but it's tough.I recall a Harvard Business review podcast with Leigh Thompson, professor at Kellogg School of Management and author of Creative Conspiracy: The New Rules of Breakthrough Collaboration (edited by me for brevity):"Distrust works in two ways. On the one hand, a distrustful team member might be very reluctant to share ideas in social settings. Maybe you're going to use something against me, so I'm going to be very careful and being careful, I'm going to edit and self-censor, and then that's going to decrease creativity. "On the other hand, what these researchers are arguing is that at a cognitive level our brain starts to process information in a way that's maybe not even deliberate is that we start quickly thinking of non-obvious solutions to a problem. So if I'm distrustful or suspicious, I might start thinking about alternatives to potentially deceptive appearances, how I can craft the situation."On the one hand, conflict can bring a team to its knees with back biting and excessive argumentation, and back stabbing. And that's kind of referred to as the bad type of conflict. Some people call it personality conflict where you attack the person. "The good type of conflict is what's known as cognitive conflict, and that's in some sense what scientists should be doing. So they debate ideas fiercely, but they don't attack the intentions or personality of the person. There's a lot of research in the management science literature that says the only way you avoid group think and excessive like-mindedness is to have some kind of conflict in a team or group. And we found the same thing in negotiations."The uneven communication problem. It's also been known to be called the lumpy participation problem. And the idea is that within any group, there's going to be certain people who are just more verbally dominant than others. And it creates a self-reinforcing, self-perpetuating effect. In other words, the talkative people will say, well, I'm saying something because all these other people are being duds. And then the people who are being very quiet are saying, look, I gave up a long time ago. Nobody ever listen to me. I get interrupted.Brain writing is the simultaneous generation of written ideas by people in a group. I will pass out index cards where I will ask for one idea per card, preferably one sentence. And so that means that people can be simultaneously generating ideas. And let's say a shy person, a new person, a young person, they don't have to worry that they're going to get interrupted. When I do brain writing, I have two rules, no guessing and no confessions. So I don't want anybody to sign their name on a card. Because the next thing we're going to do, is we're going to vote with post-it notes, or stickers, or whatever is fun.And it should really be a meritocracy of ideas. In other words, I shouldn't be voting for CMO's idea. I should be voting for an idea that I really think is going to be exciting for our company or organization. "So the uneven communication problem, it's tempting to try to solve that by telling people to shush, or telling people, please speak up. But that oftentimes doesn't really work because dominant people keep talking, and quiet people feel like they're being pressured. So brain writing is just a really nice strategy that, in some sense, solves both problems."Julian Smith, Head of External Affairs, APM @apm_xaFollow our President @apm_president.