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.

Social media platforms eliminate these barriers, making knowledge accessible to others without extra effort and without having to pre-define its uses.

Unintentional collaboration also creates opportunities for engaging with customers. Until recently, the burden for collaborating was largely on the customer. Customers needed to initiate contact with an organization for help resolving a problem. On social media platforms, however, customer communication creates an opportunity for the company to initiate collaboration with the customer, even if they are not actively seeking it.

For example, several years ago, my son’s Xbox 360 suffered a fatal failure after many years of solid use. I simply commented (not complained) about the problem on Twitter. Within minutes, Microsoft’s customer support team has reached out to me to ask if there was anything they could do to help solve the problem. Microsoft turned an offhanded comment on social media into an opportunity to collaborate with its customers to help solve problems.

… And Meta-Collaboration

Perhaps the greatest opportunity for unintentional collaboration, however, results from analyzing and engaging social media communication on a larger scale. If employees use social media platforms for intra-organizational communication, these communications can be used to help managers collaborate with employees as a whole to help improve the organization.

For example, employees’ communication activity can be used to develop network maps that enable managers to visualize how the organization is collaborating without violating the privacy of any individual employee communication. Managers can use these visualizations to identify opportunities for improvement, design interventions to realize these improvements, and assess the efficacy of these interventions.

Companies can also collaborate, in similar ways, with customers about their communications on social media platforms. For example, some airlines monitor Twitter traffic as an advance indicator of potential service disruptions. While employees spend their time attempting to resolve the problem, delayed customers often have little else to do with their time and are often more than happy to inform the world of their delayed flight. The customers’ primary intention may be to complain about the service, and the company may engage the customer at the individual level to resolve this complaint. Nevertheless, the airline can also repurpose that communication at a higher level to help identify and resolve the disruption when it happens.

Implications for Social Business

While communication and collaboration may be distinct acts in traditional business, social media allows communication to become the raw materials for future collaboration. Recognizing the potential benefits of unintentional collaboration has two important implications for social business.

First, it means the benefits and use cases of social business may not be obvious at the outset of a social business initiative. Managers should remain attentive to unintended uses of social media initiatives and be prepared to champion and guide these emergent use cases.

Second, the benefits of unintended collaboration may make it more challenging to encourage employees to adopt social media tools, because the benefits may be more difficult to articulate. Highlighting the unintended benefits of employee use of social business tools may be an important part of a strategy to cultivate employee adoption of and participation in a social business initiative.


Social Business

Social business research and more recent thought leadership explore the challenges and opportunities presented by social media.
See All Articles in This Section


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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