The Digital Water Cooler (or Digital Hallway if You Prefer)

March 3, 2009 CollabNet VersionOne

There has been a ton of information (both positive and negative) written on the concept & theory of the ‘Digital Water Cooler.’ You can check Google for the proof of that. What I think is interesting from a business perspective is how some companies are capitalizing on the positive aspects of this phenomenon through effective use of social media, while others subscribe doggedly to Taylorist management principles, which suggest that all such activity must be frivolous because it can’t be measured.

Although I’m involved in community management, I still consider myself an engineer (or, at least I haven’t lost my engineering mindset completely). I like data and measurements as much as the next linear thinker. However, I’ve experienced first-hand how utilizing social media in proper amounts has benefited cycle times, increased worker productivity, and generally moved projects along in a more efficient fashion. The problem is, it’s usually difficult to measure the actual effect using these technologies has had on the work. That may still be the case, but recently, Matthew Hodgson wrote an excellent article on ‘The ROI of being social at work.’

In this post, he cites research from MIT (full text available in Harvard Business Review) that showed “40% of creative teams’ productivity is directly explained by the amount of communication they have with others to discover, gather, and internalise information. In other MIT studies, research shows that employees with the most extensive digital networks are 7% more productive than their colleagues.” The study showed some interesting traits and differences between what are termed ‘creative teams’ (marketing, PR, etc.) and ‘implementation teams’ (engineering, IT). It isn’t too surprising that teams charged primarily with implementation focus less on social interaction than do their creative team counterparts. However, from personal experience, I’ve found there are people who have to live between these two realms. Sometimes they are called project managers, technical marketing, pre-sales, or services. Now that I live in this space in my current role, I can see much more clearly how judicious use of ‘Digital Water Cooler/Hallway’ technologies like Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, and FriendFeed help provide a competitive advantage (if used properly) in the enterprise.

The potential for abuse of these tools is always there – I remember a time not too long ago in my career when I would factor in whether a company had open email, web, and Usenet feeds (wow, I’m showing my age there) before determining whether to take a job. A lot of these things were banned or severely limited not long ago, but now, access to these kinds of tools is taken for granted, and I believe most progressive companies realize you have to put some guidelines in place for use of social media, but at the end of the day, you have to trust that you’ve hired professionals who will use the tools wisely.

What’s next for social media? Who knows, but I think it is critical that collaboration tool providers (such as CollabNet) determine how to integrate the data provided by such tools into their own platforms. The company that can figure out the most comprehensive way to coalesce all of this information into an easily synthesizeable format is going to have a large competitive advantage in providing enterprise users who fall into the middle ground between ‘creative’ and ‘implementation’ teams with access to tools that increase their productivity and ROI.

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