The Power of Unintentional Collaboration

How social media creates opportunities for collaboration.

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Social Business

Social business research and more recent thought leadership explore the challenges and opportunities presented by social media.
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A senior colleague recently asked me about the difference between communication and collaboration. It’s a great question with important implications for businesses that are adopting social tools. On one level, the difference between the two is clear: communication involves conveying information from one party to another. It may be one-directional, and it is not necessarily goal-oriented. In contrast, collaboration is a recursive interaction between two parties intended to accomplish a particular goal.

In social business, however, this difference becomes less distinct. Social media platforms offer transparency and accessibility of information through features such as trending topics, topical tags, keyword searches, personalized content feeds, or more sophisticated algorithms that identifies content relevant to the user. These platforms may be open to anyone, but they also may be more restricted, such as to employees, to designated partners, or to members of a certain workgroup. But even in restricted platforms, communication intended for one person or purpose might be “overheard” by others, who may choose either to respond, even though they were not the intended audience, or to use the communicated information for entirely different purposes.

In short, social media blurs the line separating communication and collaboration. All communication on social platforms becomes an opportunity for future collaboration, whether or not the communicator intends to collaborate.

For example, an executive communiqué regarding cutbacks at EMC Corporation led employees to brainstorm alternative cutbacks on the company’s internal social media platform that were more palatable to employees than those originally proposed by management.1 This potential for unintended collaboration is one of the key distinctions between social media and traditional communication technologies (e.g., telephone, email). It is also one of the sources of real value for social business.

Benefits of Unintentional Collaboration

The capability for unintentional collaboration creates opportunities for social business inside and outside the organization.

Two decades ago, companies were fixated on the idea of “knowledge management” — getting the right information to the right place at the right time so that it could be valuable for the organization. These efforts largely failed because it required additional effort by employees to actually share what they knew and categorize that knowledge, without any guarantee that others would benefit from it.

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Social Business

Social business research and more recent thought leadership explore the challenges and opportunities presented by social media.
More in this series


1. This example is presented in Chapter 9 of Davenport, T.H., Manville, B. Judgment Calls: Twelve Stories of Big Decisions and the Teams That Got Them Right, Cambridge, MA: Harvard Business Press, 2012.

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