Not long ago, Ilya Pozin at Inc Magazine blogged that collaboration often fails and is not always a good thing. He quoted Steve Wozniak in a 2012 NY Times article ("The Rise of the New Groupthink") by Susan Cain, the famous introvert, as saying:
I’m going to give you some advice that might be hard to take. That advice is: Work alone... Not on a committee. Not on a team.
But Wozniak was also active in the Homebrew Computer Club and in fact stated that “without computer clubs there would probably be no Apple computers.” So how can we reconcile these two views from the same person? I think it’s the subtle difference between collaborating and sharing. Collaboration implies a certain amount of give-and-take between multiple parties, but sharing is simply offering up something without necessarily expecting anything in return.
I've talked about working out loud a lot here in the Jive Community and also in other places. It’s the idea that you make your work observable as you are doing it. Certainly many great collaborations came out of computer clubs, but the clubs themselves weren't so much about collaborating as they were about sharing. Lone wolves often tinkered in their garages, then came to the clubs to show what they had done and see what others were doing.
In the physical world, companies have long recognized that cafeterias, coffee machines, and water coolers can be magnets for the sharing of ideas within an organization. Steve Jobs famously obsessed over bathroom locations at Pixar in order to maximize the opportunity for “serendipitous personal encounters.” So it’s surprising to see how many companies recoil at the notion of having a virtual Water Cooler on their employee social platforms, a place where employees can feel free to talk about whatever they want.
On the surface, it’s easy to understand why. A virtual Water Cooler can look like a giant, highly visible, ever-growing waste of time and resources that keeps employees from being productive. Collaboration software vendors and consultants will often counter this perception by arguing that having a Water Cooler increases employee engagement and speeds adoption by creating a fun way for employees to become familiar with the tool’s features, thus developing skills which then can transfer over to more productive collaborative efforts.
I wholeheartedly agree with these benefits, but I want to point out two other often overlooked ways in which a Water Cooler can add real value at a much more strategic, organizational level. We’ve had a Water Cooler operating in our Jive internal platform for three years and have noticed a couple of interesting things.
First, a vibrant, active Water Cooler contains a ready audience that is a microcosm of the entire organization. Because anyone can talk about anything, readership is drawn from all areas of the business. Our Water Cooler regularly draws in about 25% of our employee base as readers in a given month. The charts below show the distribution of Water Cooler visitors by business area and by geographical region as compared to the distribution of the total employee base (labels have been removed for confidentiality purposes).
As you can see, the Water Cooler readership mirrors overall employee distribution reasonably well, meaning that there’s a good chance that when you post something there, your readership represents the company at large.
Here’s an example of how that becomes beneficial. One of our product development teams was deliberating on several different design options for a new product feature. They posted their ideas to the Water Cooler and asked for comments. In less than two days they had over 40 comments from multiple countries and from employees in roles they would have never thought to include, and the result was actually a hybrid design that was better than the ones they had been considering. This kind of innovation and productivity was able to occur because the audience was already there for other reasons, some of them non-business related.
The second way that a Water Cooler can provide strategic value is by surfacing patterns of interest. It’s a good idea to periodically review and categorize the posts that are made there to see if such patterns exist. For example, we found in our case that:
- questions about how to get something done in the company (where the poster didn’t know where else to ask), and
- discussions of new technologies
each comprised about 10-15% of the total discussions in our Water Cooler (I’m happy to say that it was our CEO who first noticed these!). So we recently revamped the design of our home page to encourage and put more focus on these two types and to ensure that questions about work are promptly answered.
Casual conversations at work will always happen, whether at the physical water cooler or the virtual one. I don’t think having a virtual Water Cooler increases non-business conversation, it only makes what was already going on more visible. But it does create a larger space for more of Jobs’ “serendipitous personal encounters” to occur, and smart companies will recognize that as an asset, not a liability.
So I say to all you companies who are on the fence, embrace your inner Water Cooler! It's not only cool and refreshing, but can be awesomely strategic as well.