5/23/12

The Anthropological Argument for Workplace Social Networks

Since we're on the topic of Social Networks in a Law Firm...

A good friend recently asked me about my "thoughts on what social means in the context of project management?"  I replied with the following:
Social (small s) collaboration is the lifeblood of any project undertaken by human beings.   We have evolved to collaborate with our peers to achieve goals greater than any one of us could possibly achieve on our own.  We naturally band together in groups to distribute work load, to take advantage of individuals strengths and to limit the burden of individual weaknesses.  This is true whether we’re banding together to take down a mastodon with spears, building a barn, or managing a business project.  Whereas, historically, most human teams have formed for a specific purpose at a specific time and place, the modern business project team is often dispersed geographically and chronologically.  We work in different offices, we have different schedules, and we are usually working on multiple projects simultaneously.
 There are 3 key elements of group work which are easily lost in the modern environment. These are the elements that Social Collaboration tools attempt to address. 
·         Member Bonding
·         Multi-Party Communication
·         Real-time analysis and reaction                         
It’s cheesy, but if we look at these three elements in terms of a prehistoric tribe hunting big game, you can see where our modern environment breaks down.  The group of hunters leave the village together early in the morning with a single goal of bringing home protein for the entire village. They walk for miles together looking for signs of large game.  Along the way, they talk about the task at hand, but they also talk about their families, their concerns, their ideas.  When they find their prey, they kneel in the dirt and draw up their plan of attack, team members ask questions and others share stories of earlier experiences to find solutions.  When they’re ready to enact their plan, they spread out, staying within line of sight and communicating via hand signals and gestures.  If the animal responds unexpectedly, they react immediately and call out to the others to enact an alternate plan, or to improvise based on the new situation.  At the end of the day they return with their kill or they don’t, but either way they have shared experience and knowledge. When they leave the village the next morning, they will be a stronger team than they were the day before.  
Managing a legal project team should not be any more difficult than hunting a mammoth.  Unfortunately, we aren’t in the same location at the same time and we have varying degrees of interest and commitment to the task at hand.  We have very little opportunity to get to know the other team members on an extra-project basis.  We spend an inordinate amount of time trying to determine what’s being done by whom, and whether our contribution is comparable to other team members.  If the original circumstances change, we may not even be aware of the change, let alone in a position to react in a timely manner. And when the project is complete, successfully or not, we disperse to our individual careers and go about our business, until the next time we’re pulled into a new team with no experience, comprised of people we hardly know.
Social (big s) collaboration tools are a regressive technology, in that they allow us to use our instinctive social toolbox to tackle modern projects in a modern environment, and they allow an exploded project team to work as if they are in the same room at the same time, regardless of their individual locations or schedules.  Social tools will not ensure successful projects, but if used well, they should at the very least ensure efficient failures which build stronger teams to tackle future projects.
After several hours with no response, I followed up with my friend.
Me: Did I miss the point of your question?
Friend: Yes, but that would be a great blog post.
 Moral of the story:  Be careful asking me open ended questions.

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