The Visualist Blog

Social Engineering for Collaboration in the Workplace

I’ve always been interested in the sociology and science of creativity in the workplace. After being lucky enough to be part of early efforts at the National Science Foundation in 2007  to establish the creative computing program I have followed both commercial and academic efforts to understand and foster creativity in the workplace.  After the launch of Solstice and its focus on enabling collaboration in the conference room, I’ve become obsessed with looking at how companies foster collaboration in the conference room.

Everyone, at some level, understands that creativity and collaboration are important to innovative companies but developing techniques to encourage it, especially after your company grows past 50-60 employees is far more difficult.  As far as I can tell, there are really only two ways to actively encourage collaboration in your company:

  1. Develop careful social engineering programs that work at a subconscious or conscious level to manipulate your employees into collaborative encounters (admittedly a bit creepy).
  2. Leverage technology that supports our natural desire to work together.

On the social engineering side – there is no lack of real research and anecdotal reports of companies that work to architect spaces, manufacture accidental events, and position their employees for high probabilities of chance encounters.  Most of the things I hear from colleagues in this area aren’t surprising, move employees closers together – they collaborate more, paint one particularly well lit, area with pleasant colors, stock it with comfortable chairs – and it becomes a natural area of congregation and collaboration.

Although I find this mix of sociology and architecture interesting, there is always something a bit 1984 about these efforts (why wouldn’t an employees everyday space be bathed in natural light and have comfortable furniture, and crowding employees together can have negative effects as well). But, if you are interested in these sorts of things – a conning a example is what Google is doing as it builds out its new headquarters.  Take a look a the Wall Street journal coverage of Google’s social engineering approaches.

I am more excited by developing technologies that directly support the collaborative spirit that I believe is already innate in almost everyone.  Much like curiosity, creativity and collaboration are part of the human imperative, it’s just that often times, people are presented with environments that do not support them.  This is why, in part,  FacebookTwitter, and Instagram have all had such great success. They simply provided a technological scaffolding for something that is already high on this list of human experiences – sharing and working together.

Next time you walk into a conference room, watch how long it takes for the presenter to get started : search for the video cable, get their computer to send a single to the display, and finally start presenting.  Now look at the faces of the people who aren’t connecting the cable to the display. Probably not too happy.

The very fact that the display in your conference room only accepts a single video signal means that the use model for that room has already been defined as a single user / lecturer model. With Solstice we decided to rethink that, allowing anyone in the room to post to the display, to control, what is seen and when, and to contribute. By allowing our engineering team, for example, to share media in a meeting with one another I’ve seen the team excitement level and creativity grow.  Even in something as tactical as a bug review, members are thinking about new approaches to the architecture, solving problems, and sharing them on the fly.

Social Engineering for Collaboration in the Workplace

How does your business encourage collaboration in the workplace? Is it more social engineering programs or using technology that supports our natural desire to work together?

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