Seizing Advantage: How Tacit Assumptions Rob Traditionalists and Innovators


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Collaboration and Social Business are powerful concept with huge potential but realizing this potential is far from business-as-usual. Both traditional business and social business evangelists must challenge their assumptions—and then doing something different.

The rise of the social web now sets the context for business, cannot be ignored. Customers rely on it to make decisions and they have expectations of the companies with which they do business. Companies of all sizes have launched initiatives with a goal to foster greater co-operation, collaboration and more meaningful relationships inside their companies and with customers.

It is safe to say that the results are mixed. We are in a transitional period, like the wash between two waves—the forces of the old and new waves are at work and impacting results.

One of the deep-seated assumptions that undermine collaboration initiatives is the belief that people are motivated to act in their self-interest, especially for material rewards. Executive who hold this belief might be able to intellectually grasp the purpose and potential of collaboration and other social-based business activities. However, very often they are unable to see how they’re leadership or the organizational practices they manage can interfere with the desired behavior. Entrenched practices can define and enforce what is acceptable behavior in employees. They can also set the tone for interactions with customers.

In contrast, advocates of social media often enthusiastically embrace the potential and operate under a tacit assumption that everyone is inherently social. Over 700 million people on Facebook is pretty convincing evidence. But a counterargument is that in most social networks a small percentage of people do most of the sharing and influencing. Similarly, adoption of social software in organizations is far from universal. This assumption also undermines the potential of collaboration.

Most traditional business executives do want the agility and engagement that collaboration promises. Social business evangelists want the full potential of social initiatives to be unleashed. Both need new operating assumptions and principles to direct their actions. But it is hard to challenge tacit assumptions, that is, unless one gains a greater understanding of the dynamics involved and uses these insights to shape action.

What framework or principles will make a difference in this situation? First, while there is growing evidence for a biological basis for collaboration and sharing, we are not equal in how readily we engage in it. Second, the prevailing conditions or circumstances can skew the propensity. Competitive environments reinforce self-interest. Deliberately cultivating (HBR) an environment of cooperation can shift even those who are predisposed towards self-interest in their behavior.

With these principles in mind, traditionalists should be better able to spot and counter-act the negative impact of internal competition on collaboration. After recognizing that openness is perceived as risky to some until demonstrated otherwise and that participation has rewards, social media evangelists should see the need to focus on broad-spectrum participation.

While overriding tacit assumptions is not easy, the change and uncertainty in the business environment makes the ability to do so a critical business acumen. For more on this topic see Mindshifts in a Nutshell and Mental Nimbleness for Executives and How to Enhance It.

John Todor
John I. Todor, Ph.D. is the Managing Partner of the MindShift Innovation, a firm that helps executives confront the volatility and complexity of the marketplace. We engage executives in a process that tackles two critical challenges: envisioning new possibilities for creating and delivering value to customers and, fostering employee engagement in the innovation and alignment of business practices to deliver on the new possibilities. Follow me on Twitter @johntodor


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