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

“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 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.

As illustrated on the right, 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.

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.

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Martha Garvey

Super right on.

My short version of this is: “People don’t use technology. They send pictures to their grandmas.” Sara Kiesler of Carnegie Mellon was analyzing technology adoption in 1981 (!) by looking at early Pittsburgh telephone directories, and when the phone became ubiquitous. The original assumption was that it would be a business tool first and foremost. Well, that certainly changed, the minute you wanted to call your grandma. Or call your boyfriend about your cat.

She was also studying spamming, flaming, and asynchronous conversations. I repeat: in 1981. Clay Shirky was still in college then, planning to be a theater geek. (http://www.cs.cmu.edu/~kiesler/

And Kathy Sierra seconds your emotion, too, Steve:

Avatar photo Bill Brantley

Back when the hot new office technology was the manual typewriter, managers tried to stop employee conversations around the water cooler in a mistaken attempt to boost productivity. It took the groundbreaking research around the Xerox copier repairpersons to realize that employees were engaged in highly productive disguised as idle chatter (http://www.palgrave-journals.com/kmrp/journal/v5/n1/full/8500118a.html).

In today’s work environment, you never know where the next innovative idea will come from. Even LOLCats can spark the next great idea.

Paul Alberti

Congress did not want to put phones in every office because they felt members and staff would spend all day talking to friends, family and doing anything but work. Why is it people are so afraid of other people not working? It sounds rather Scrougish – the mean taskmaster boss doling out meager bits of coal to barely heat the office and half-filled oil lamps to save money. Who wants to work in an environment like that? Generally I believe people know what they need to get done and if sending out an LOLcat or NFL fantasy email helps them refocus so what – is the work getting done?
Great post!

Faye Newsham

@Martha – WOOT, finally someone who recognizes the roots of social media as much deeper than most give credit. I was using office technology, computers, etc. “way back” in the 80s while in school but was aware of an even older culture of it then. THANKS!

@all – I love the graphic, it really highlights the stream of action whether someone makes it all the way to the spawning point (ok, so it isn’t a perfect analogy, but you do see the fish jumping up the rapids image too, right?) or not, the progression describes the reality and the potential for success. Kudos.

Spencer W. Clark

You make a great point. When we formed the Emerging Leaders Network at EPA, the primary objective was to foster professional development and collaboration across the agency. However, the Social Crew has always been one of our most active parts, and a key to the organization’s success. I hadn’t ever stopped to reflect on this point before, but looking back, I don’t think we’d be where we are today if we had kept things “all business”.

Particularly as there is a greater shift toward teleworking, I feel more and more that internal social spaces like Yammer will be crucial in helping compensate for the loss of water cooler conversations and other non-business interactions. Agencies that aren’t implementing those tools and allowing free and reasonable off-topic discussion are probably doing themselves (and their employees) a disservice.

Joe Flood

Very true, especially the line about getting people to create something leads to greater involvement in everything. The key is for management to provide the tools and step back. Nothing is worse than an organization’s “approved” social media platform, where everything gets vetted by lawyers. There’s no incentive for people to participate so they don’t. But most people will contribute their knowledge and help their coworkers, if they’re provided a friendly platform to do so.

Andrew Krzmarzick

To bring a perspective from architecture and to touch on something I think represents an innate (sacred) attribute of humans: think about the design of a church. Whether modern or ancient, they typically include an atrium or gathering space – a place where people are greeted, where they talk to one another both before and after the service. The building is designed to facilitate worship (i.e. the “work” of the people). But it is also designed to connect the congregants socially – to build trust and a sense of support, a bond as fellow believers. They get to really know each other in the atrium.

Isn’t this what happens in our workplaces when we start our day with conversation about the weekend or the kid’s soccer game or the ailing grandmother? Isn’t this what is happening on social media when we talk to co-workers about the stuff that is the “why” which stands behind our motivation to be better employees (or the personal challenges that prevent us from performing up to par)? We create atriums – real and virtual – to connect and build trust and to support each other.

Imagine a church (or a workplace) where the people come and leave without talking to each other. They exist. And they’re dying.

Without that social element, we’re really just machines – we squelch the human spirit and we lose something of the passion and sense of purpose that comes from gathering with like-minded people to accomplish a common vision.

– Your Local GovLoop Pastor and Evangelist 😉

Steve Radick

I’m loving the conversation that’s developing here guys – this is one of the most fun, rewarding, important posts I’ve written in a while because it’s something I feel so strongly about. People who have fun at work, who enjoy talking with the people they work, who develop friendships at work, are so much more productive and effective that people who focus solely on what they do. Have you ever talked with someone who talks about nothing but work? How often do you talk to that guy?

@Peter – if all you want to do is create LOLCats and you have no intention of doing more, then by all means, have at it. Every network has a guy like that and believe it or not, they play a valuable role too. You balance out those guys who will do nothing but talk about work. There has to be someone to help bring levity to these communities. The key is balance – too many people just goofing off will obviously hinder the growth of the community, but so will too many people doing nothing but work.

Steve Radick

@Andy – love the reference to old school architecture too. As the folks who pointed out the fears when we started putting telephones on people’s desks, this isn’t new guys. Why do we continue to make the same mistakes over and over and over again. I’m sure someone was telling 13th century architects that if they put an open atrium in the front of the church, no one will sit down and listen to Mass! They’ll all just stand back there talking the whole time!!!

Martha Garvey

@All: I am grooving on this dialogue as well. I wonder if we could turn it into a discussion/panel. Wonderful metaphors. More research about socialization and its benefits here–and it does talk about digital connections as well. 🙂


@Faye–I also work in the theater when I am not being a govnerd, so I would be happy to go back to Shakespeare and Sophocles…but I won’t. 🙂

Faye Newsham

OK, and just because I can (former Art History major who considered becoming an architect):

You can consider the flying buttresses of some of the most beautiful churches that afforded a larger atrium (the desire being to have the largest span possible) in our analogy to be a supportive business model that advances that ability to congregate and socialize even further. Be that flying buttress!

@Martha did you see this recent article http://www.economist.com/node/21541719 about how Martin Luther (the 1500’s one) was a social media guru? I love it when I can point out that social media is not really something new, just the tools we use to accomplish it are.

On a side note, I was a theatre geek in high school and almost went into theatrical drafting!

Andrew Krzmarzick

Hey – I hope I don’t take us off track too much with that church metaphor. Let me ground it in GovLoop philosophy:

– When people join our community, we have a group of volunteer greeters that write on each new member’s Comment Wall. Those greeters review the person’s profile and invite them to check out content that might be important to them. It’s social – person to person – vs. a random exploration (which they can also do).

– We also invite brand new members to “Introduce Yourself.” It’s an easy action…and isn’t that the way we begin all of our relationships?

– There are several groups on GovLoop dedicate to more personal conversations – (LOL?)cats, dogs, geeks, books, food lovers, mac lovers, music and gov tv/movie lovers, travelers, cyclists, etc. – not our largest, but among our more active…because these are the things that folks have in common!

I could give more examples, but the key here is that serious comes with social…and we actively strive to encourage both….after all, you can’t have one without the other.

Dorothy Ramienski Amatucci

Love this post. The best way to get someone comfortable with a social network, IMHO, is to let them talk about what they want to talk about first!

Megan E. Springate

Thanks for this. I’m in the early stages of a collaborative research project trying to engage the public. I’ll be thinking about applying these ideas; maybe this week’s blog post will be about the local noms…

Michelle G. Rosenbloom

I love this and totally agree. I recently posted a statistic that workers who engage in workplace Internet leisure browsing are 9 percent more productive than those who don’t according to the Department of Management and Marketing at the University of Melbourne. I believe it too – and I’m guilty as charged. I find that if I can leisurely browse while I work – I don’t get burned out or need to take an hour and half lunch break to free my mind. Instead, I take 2 minutes here, 5 minutes there to update my status or look for a cute pair of shoes. I find myself able to sit at my desk longer and accomplish more work in the long run.

We have to remember that employee engagement is crucial in the workplace. The true definition of employee engagement is having employees’ goals and strategies match the company’s goals and strategies — and putting forth the effort to meet those goals. Engagement can be achieved in many ways – but I think a crucial component of employee engagement is offering an innovative, fun, and exciting place to work. This can be accomplished by none other than… SOCIAL media and other interactions 🙂