If You Want a Culture of Collaboration, You Need to Accept the LOLCats Too

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This post originally appeared on my blog, "Social Media Strategery."

"Even with the sacred printing press, we got erotic novels 150 years before we got scientific journals."

- Clay Shirky at TED Cannes in June 2010

This is one of my favorite quotes from one of my favorite people in the business, Clay Shirky. I particularly like it because it illustrates the period many organizations find themselves in when trying to integrate social media internally.  Before wikis were used by the Intelligence Community to develop reports on IEDs, people were creating user badges to show off their favorite NFL teams. Before my own company's Intranet won any awards, we had people talking about how they enjoy skinny dipping on their profile. Before our VPs starting using Yammer to communicate with the workforce, we had groups of Android geeks and fitness gurus.I'm telling you this because if you're implementing any type of social media behind your organizational firewall, you should prepare yourself, your colleagues, your bosses, your senior leadership for this one inexorable truth.

If you will freak out when you see this on your Intranet, you're probably not ready for a social intranetIf you want to create a vibrant culture of collaboration, you need to be OK with pictures of LOLCats, posts about the NFL playoffs, arguments about Apple and Android, and criticism of company policies.

Accept and embrace this fact now and your communities have a much better chance at succeeding. Or, continue thinking that things like this are a waste of a time and are unprofessional, and get ready to pay a lot of money for a system that ultimately no one uses unless they absolutely have to.

Unfortunately, "social" seems to have become almost a dirty word in the workplace, conjuring up images of employees whittling away their time on Facebook, talking to their boyfriend on the phone, or taking a three hour lunch break.  Let's all agree now to stop trying to take the social out of social media. "Social" interactions not only needs to be OK, they need to be encouraged and rewarded. Shirky explains why at the 5:33 mark of the below TED video:

 

Shirky says:

The gap is between doing anything and doing nothing. And someone who makes a LOLcat has already crossed over that gap. Now it’s tempting to want to get the Ushahidis without the LOLcats, right, to get the serious stuff without the throwaway stuff. But media abundance never works that way. Freedom to experiment means freedom to experiment with anything.

The same principle holds true when talking about social media and the business world. There's this tendency on the part of senior leadership to want to skip the blogs about company policy workarounds and the wiki pages detailing where to get the best burritos near the office and move right to co-creating methodologies with cross-functional teams and crowdsourcing initiatives that save millions of dollars. It doesn't work like that. Collaborative communities don't just start innovating because you build a website and send a memo. Just like we had to experience erotic novels before scientific journals and LOLCats before sites like Ushahidi, we will also have to accept the fact that your employees will be talking about fantasy football and what they're doing over the holidays before they're going to be ready to use those tools to conduct "real" work. 

This makes intuitive sense though, doesn't it? Isn't posting about fantasy football or your favorite lunch spot a lot easier (and less frightening) than uploading that report you've been working on for three weeks? If someone doesn't like your favorite restaurant, who cares? If, however, someone criticizes the report you've spent weeks writing, that's a little more intimidating.  Once you've taken that step - that step from doing nothing to doing something - it's a lot easier to take the next step and the step after that. After engaging in that conversation about your favorite burrito, it's suddenly easier to join the conversation about the new IT policy. Then, maybe you upload a portion of the report you're struggling with to see if anyone can help. Viewed from this perspective, even the stupidest posts and most worthless conversations have value, because they provide a safe, low risk means for people to dip their toe in the water and take that first step. 

So embrace the LOLCats, the fantasy football threads, the lunch discussions, and the custom avatars - at least your employees will be creating and sharing something with someone else. Because what will follow is that these stupid, silly, foolish discussions will lead to relationships, questions, answers, and finally, very cool innovations, products, and solutions that will save you money, win you awards, and really and truly create a social business.

It takes time for employees to feel comfortable using these social tools at work. If you give them the ability to grow and learn together at their own pace, your community will become much more scalable and sustainable.CAPTION: It takes time for employees to feel comfortable using these social tools at work. If you give them the ability to grow and learn together at their own pace, your community will become much more scalable and sustainable.

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Comments

David Deschere

It's Not Just Technology

I think this is a great article about the *psychology* behind successful deployment of technology. It reminded me why I left Solitaire on the machines as we deployed Windows 3.1 (over some management protests): it lowered the bar to engaging the technology. Thank you for solid material to present to my organization to enhance our collaborative culture. "Don't fear LOLcats! You can't be hurt by their cuteness!"

Dave Deschere
Kraton Polymers
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Steve Radick

Re: It's Not Just Technology

I'm glad you liked it Dave and I hope others in your organization appreciate the thoughts as well! I think the key is establishing a balance between LOLCats and fantasy football and "real" work. A community cannot and should not be about just one or the other. It has to have a healthy mix of both.
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Patricia Winners

Great article & amazing video; hard sell in the corporation

I loved the distinction between intrinsic value and social value as shown in the Daycare scenario in the video; something very hard to measure and plan for.

I believe you are on the right track for adoption of social tools in the workplace, that there needs to be an easy in, but it will be a very tough sell to the business.

One of the speakers for the AIIM conference, Bert Sandie, and the related case study on the internally-created FB-style tool, had a pretty good in-between strategy for implementing something not quite as out there as LOLCats, but not quite standard operating procedures for business. (See links below.)

Conference Speaker blurb
http://www.aiimconference.com/Conference/agenda/sandie-engage

White Paper
http://www.microsoft.com/casestudies/Case_Study_Detail.aspx?casestudyid=4000004267
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Steve Radick

Re: Great article & amazing video; hard sell in the corporation

Love Bert Sandie!

As I mentioned in the above comment (and my colleague Don Burke, rightly pointed out to me), there has to be a good balance between the two. Clay illustrates the problem corporations have very nicely in the video - he says there's a tendency to want the Ushahidis without the LOLcats, just like the bigwigs tend to want the collaboration success stories without the football talk. It just doesn't work that way. It's not a buffet where you can pick and choose. When you're dealing with people (which social media is about), it's always going to be a little messy. You can either accept a little LOLCat sharing and trust that will evolve to real work, or you can block out ALL non-work related conversation and watch your online community flounder and ultimately fail. That's where your community come into play - they're there to ensure that balance.
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Daniel O'Leary

I love this post more than I love Caturday

Steve dude, you nailed it. The tools can and should be used for fun in addition to serious and boring business purposes. I think one of the reasons email is so successful is because people could forward jokes and pictures.
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Steve Radick

RE: I love this post more than I love Caturday

Thanks Daniel - I remember when I first got email back in high school and that's all anyone did for the longest time. It wasn't until we had it for a couple years until students and teachers started using it for actual work.
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Bryant Duhon

Email? Work?

Like you two, I've never not had email during my working career (the year at Domino's excluded). But, man, yeah, I still have an archive of hundreds of jokes, somewhere, from the first two years of having email.

Found that the jokes and personal stories told using both email and IM enhanced working relationships and made them so much smoother in the long run. Much easier to get something accomplished with someone you like rather than that humorless schmuck who never smiles.
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This post and comment(s) reflect the personal perspectives of community members, and not necessarily those of their employers or of AIIM International