Work with one of my clients at the moment is focused on the use and adoption of collaborative tools – social networks within the organisation. This is a path down which I have travelled a number of times over the years, but I’m realising this time around that something is now fundamentally different. Before, questions would be around “What are you trying to do?” to try to elicit needs to specify an approach that would be appropriate.

Today, with the near ubiquity of the Internet, and powerful devices nestling in most people’s pockets, the better question is “What’s stopping you?”.

Tools to be able to collaborate are two a penny on the Internet. Actually, they’re often cheaper than that. Whether it’s the “Facebook for business” services like Yammer, collaborative workspaces like Trello, or new emerging services (and there’s a new one every minute it seems), people are spoilt for choice.

What may be stopping them? Well, there might be technical reasons getting in the way – whether down to bandwidth, security configurations or browser versions. A smartphone can jump most of those hurdles, but then there might be reticence to blur the boundaries of work and not-work (interestingly it seems as prevalent amongst the Gen-Z and Millennials entering the workforce as within older age groups).

There might be organisational issues at play – particularly around policies of technology use at work which (in turn) can be reinforced through technology constraints. Almost all of the above can also be circumvented by the age-old method of “forwarding to a Hotmail account”.

The final set of reasons, however, are much more fundamental. “I can’t”, “I don’t want to”, “I’m not allowed to” – the cultural and attitudinal stuff that means that people don’t go down routes to find out how technology and behaviour change might work hand-in-hand to deliver new ways of working. None of this stuff is magic – but years of computing being portrayed as near witchcraft haven’t helped the majority to feel empowered in their ability to choose which technologies to use.

In turn, and patriarchal approach by business IT (“We know best. Here’s what you should use.”) has further emasculated some people into thinking that they don’t have the necessary skills or expertise to make decisions about technology. It’s something that happens to them.

There’s another element here, though, which is just mild disinterest. Want to get a group of people working together, and doing so via technology? Beware the 90/9/1 rule of thumb – that in any social or collaborative environment, 1% of people will be really active, 9% will occasionally contribute, and the vast majority will sign up, occasionally glance, but mostly do nothing. Encouraging greater participation isn’t a matter of new or better tools – it’s a matter of engaging people to see why working better together is important, and why they should engage. And that might well be something best done outside of the realms of a business social network.

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