Understanding and Managing Entropy in Enterprise Collaboration Portals

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Entropy is defined as a measurement of disorder or randomness. Systems tend towards a state of higher entropy (hence more disorder and chaos) from one of lower entropy. It is widely believed that our universe is going from a state of lower entropy (Big Bang Event) to a state of higher entropy[i],when all stars would burn out and everything will be dust, leaving no structure behind. Whatever be the stage of this continuous devolution of the universe, we as human beings, cannot work in chaos. We might not be able to resist entropy, but we do the next best thing we adapt to it and manage to create new structures that allow us to be more productive. In fact, the more chaos we’re given to work with, the more beautiful structures we create.

With the advent of social media, our pristine world of top-down information within and outside of an enterprise has been thrown into a bit of disarray (see Social Entropy of Wikipedia[ii] ). Enterprises are now beginning to realize the benefits of this disarray. The chaos thrown up by social media is being channeled to increase collaboration and innovative thinking. However, until the higher entropy of community is reconciled with the lower entropy of a structured enterprise, collaboration between employees will remain one of the toughest challenges.

To confront and win over this challenge, enterprises will need to first make changes to their definition of order and answer questions around what is order and what is chaos. The higher entropy of social media comes from four key attributes. As you build your collaboration strategy, you will need to understand and manage these attributes as your levers.

  • Diversity: There is an inherent diversity in any community. How much of it should be allowed in and how much be left out is always good question to ask. For example, does it help or distract your employees if a usability expert creates a community for usability enthusiasts within your organization and gathers a sizable following? Diversity helps build strong capabilities for the future, so be mindful of stifling initiatives as you build your community strategy.
  • Disruption: Social community is disruptive to many of the current structures that are followed by enterprises. For example, linking the collaboration portal with the current employee review system may or may not be appropriate under the present structure. In most natural communities, not everyone is outspoken and extrovert and there will be people who are bound to be shy and quiet. In such places, try to encourage participation rather than penalize social shyness in order to use your community as a positive reinforcement. On the other hand, if you consider some of your teams to be in the business of being social (sales, customer support, mid-level managers), then it may be appropriate to integrate their performance reviews and community activity more closely.
  • Dynamism: With so many people contributing, many ideas in a community will seem half-baked. In fact, most ideas in a community are often seen as work-in-progress and not heading in any particular direction. People looking for ideas from a community need to be comfortable with this protracted uncertainty. Smart managers take the most interesting and valuable discussion threads and know when to bring them into the corporate fold.
  • Destruction: Last, and perhaps one of the most chaotic aspects of a community is the creative destruction that surrounds everything in it. There are discussion threads that get started and organically fizzle out and interest groups that become inactive. Things that get rejected in the communities are as valuable as the ones that succeed. They are the yin and yang of a community, and change the very definition of failure. So, evaluate the destruction carefully and let things play out well before reaching to conclusions about your people or their ideas.

Managing communities is about identifying new ideas and opportunities, and about improving the level of participation and sense of belonging. It is important to understand and accept the differing levels of entropy between enterprise and community systems. For each of the leverage points, you can start conservatively (with more control) or liberally (with more freedom), but no matter where you start, it is important to keep fine-tuning and to never take your eyes off the dashboard!

What tough questions are you facing in your organization while implementing collaboration strategy? Are you using any of these levers? Share your thoughts and questions in the Comments section below.

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