Whilst the words are often used interchangeably, there are fundamental differences between collaborative team work and participation in a social network


I’ve been asked a few times now, isn’t ‘social business’ just ‘collaborative working’ re-badged in a way that needs a new set of technologies to be deployed.

Oh! The cynicism…

But actually no, they are two fundamentally different concepts. Each valuable, each usually having room for improvement in most organisations I visit. And yes, each benefiting from different technologies although there is also some overlap. That’s why the likes of Microsoft and IBM have been hoovering (love how the old brand names still work) up social media tools to place on top of their more traditional content platforms.

Part of the challenge is that the phrase ‘social business’ is not a good one. Business, by its very definition, is social – it involves two or more people interacting, trading something for something else. Social networks was always the better phrase but you have to go with the buzzwords people hear the most.


In the (vastly over-simplified) diagrams above, on the left is a collaborative team, and on the right is part of the wider social network of the organisation. A collaborative team is a small group of people working together directly towards a specific outcome, something that can’t be achieved, or can’t be achieved as well, by one person alone. A social network represents connections between people, both strong and weak ties. A social network will often indirectly assist individuals and groups in achieving their outcomes, usually spontaneously and in unplanned ways. ‘Help!’  Groups also form in social networks, but they are not about collaborative working. They are political – shared aspirations, knowledge, interests and viewpoints. We tend to gather with like-minded people.

So in our simple little examples above, the red dot is the leader of the collaborative group. The black dots are members of the collaborative team who are closely connected within the wider social network, i.e. they are all part of the same political group. The purple dot is a member of the collaborative team but not closely connected to them in the social network. Why? Could simply be a new hire who they haven’t worked with before. Could be a strategic move by a stakeholder. The blue dots shown in the collaborative team are indirectly involved in the outcome, they helped get something done. The team consulted their network for advice.

So how do the technologies differ between collaborative teams and social networks? It is in the style of activity.


A collaborative team is working towards a specific goal. If they are using an information system, then that goal involves some form of content, whether it is documents, forms, reports, web pages, programming code or media files. Whatever. There is a ‘file’ of some sort that needs managing. Often with version control so that people know they are working with the latest updates. Security is usually involved to determine who can see what content whilst it is being worked on. There may be workflows managing the process, performance indicators charting progress. Which leads to the other aspect technology helps with – communications. Communicating with each other and with the content. But it is all about ensuring the outcome is achieved in a fashion better than would occur without the technology.

A social network is not working towards any specific goal. It is a pot of profiles (look at me!) and conversations (‘like’ you!). Be they random or focused. Conversations sharing and talking about the news, discussing collaborative projects, brainstorming, playing with ideas that may prove so popular they grow into new projects… Technology can help by discovering new connections outside your political group – the strength in ‘weak ties’. And also in organising the conversations. Who said what and when, what files were shared and ‘liked’ the most, which groups are the most active, what are the most popular topics etc. Content is often involved. ‘Help, I need some information about XYZ’, ‘Here’s a great summary I found’. Attachment uploaded… However it is not managed. To even try to would break the spontaneity of the conversation.

And that’s the technical dilemma.


Back to our very simple diagrams. Collaborative technologies help pull everyone together around a single outcome, usually involving a web-based team site. The content is managed so that everyone can contribute effectively. Social networking technologies encourage people to share, share, share. Copies of the same content may be uploaded multiple times to different conversations, or ‘activity streams’. Tools can help uncover duplicates but then what? Replace it with a link to just one copy? That means storing the document somewhere all the different groups, and all possible future groups, can access. What if the document wasn’t supposed to be shared quite so openly?

Enterprise social networks that include tools to share content will give compliance and records managers grey hairs… those that weren’t already lost due to Sarbannes-Oxley and friends in the past.

The choices are not simple. Content management that works well in a small collaborative team can kill conversations in social networks. Without having a direct stake in an outcome, people will default to easier alternatives. Every large project I have worked on over the past 2 years to evaluate problems with internal document management systems has uncovered groups using Google Docs to collaborate because internal compliance and classification rules were too inconvenient to get their work done. You can argue they shouldn’t have. But it’s nothing new. Just the modern, more convenient, version of emailing documents around to circumvent corporate rules.

And if you hadn’t figured out why Microsoft bought Yammer last year. Now you know 🙂 The technologies needed each other. The challenge Microsoft faces is how to integrate the two products. SharePoint serves the collaborative team. Yammer serves the social network. Most demo’s attempting to bring SharePoint’s control to a Yammer conversation look clunky. It’s to be expected in the current release – there hasn’t been time to fully integrate the two technologies. But that’s not going to be easy without losing the value in the conversation…

This has been a very simplified look at social networks to help show why they are not the same as collaborative teams and benefit from different technologies. And I haven’t even touched upon social networks beyond organisational walls and how they are disrupting most business processes…

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Join the conversation! 3 Comments

  1. […] Yammer spread out over Sharepoint sites is a good example. The enterprise use-cases of social business implementation offered by Ray Wang support Dion’s assertion. Indeed, one of the recent findings by The Community Roundtable offered in their 2013 State of Community Management report is indicative. The report observes that community managers are most often “hubs” and, further, that: […]

  2. […] post from last year by Sharon Richardson (Collaboration is not the same as Social) has inspired to the revisit some terms and clarify what I think are the differences and overlap […]

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