The Soft Stuff is the Hard Stuff to Collaborate

Think of your best group experience. One in which you were proud of what the group you were a part of accomplished. Now contrast that with your worst group experience. Chances are that you developed a high affinity for all the members of the best group experience but not for all the members of the worst group experience. In the latter case, you may have developed a high affinity with others in the group that were as frustrated as you were with how poorly things were going. This affinity is the ‘soft stuff’ of a group experience.

It is often the ‘soft stuff’ or the emotional dimensions of a group experience that will determine if it will be successful or not. A successful group experience is one that results in high performance of the group. A shared understanding of the group goal and how to achieve the group goal is critical to high performance. It is this shared understanding that provides the basis for collaboration to achieve challenging goals. Shared understanding results from addressing both the cognitive (the ‘hard stuf’) and the emotional (the ‘soft stuff’) engagement of group members. It is the soft stuff that is the hard stuff of collaborating. If we could get the soft stuff right, then collaboration would be rampant in our society and organizations. Just imagine the possibilities!

In the Information Technology world, social networking falls under the category of collaboration technologies. Ironically, the technologies designed to enable collaboration may be doing just the opposite. For example, it could be argued that social media is eroding our collaboration skills by eroding our interpersonal skills. Massachusetts Institute of Technology social psychologist Sherry Turkle, PhD explains it this way:

People today are more connected to one another than ever before in human history, thanks to Internet-based social networking sites and text messaging…. The most dramatic change is our ability to be ‘elsewhere’ at any point in time, to sidestep what is difficult, what is hard in a personal interaction and go to another place where it does not have to be dealt with…. There is, however, another trend in which people “friend” people they don’t know or where they are unsure of the nature of their connection. We Facebook-friend people who do not know their commitment to us and similarly, we are unsure of what commitment we have to them. They can, in fact, be more like “fans” than friends. But their presence can sustain us and distract us and make it less likely for us to look beyond them to other social encounters. They can provide the illusion of companionship without the demands of friendship, without the demands of intimacy.

All the technology now available to help us communicate faster and easier is creating a need to get back to the basics of what really underpins collaboration, the soft stuff. Information Technology can support the cognitive dimensions of collaboration; the sharing of information, knowledge, and wisdom. Information Technology does not support the affective or emotional dimensions of collaboration, and, in fact, may be eroding the emotional dimensions of collaboration if we are not careful. The shared understanding needed to collaborate cannot be achieved through cognitive sharing alone.

Cognitive sharing becomes collaboration when it is combined with excellent relationship skills and there is a shared commitment by two or more people to address a problem or make a decision that produces value of importance to the participants. A skilled facilitator can greatly accelerate and optimize the process of collaboration by focusing the cognitive sharing to the primary purpose and exercising interpersonal skills to manage the engagement in a way that takes into account the emotional needs of participants.

Excellent relationship skills are also known as interpersonal skills. Interpersonal skills include both communication and relationship skills. Interpersonal communication skills include active listening, oral communication, written communication, assertive communication, and non-verbal communication. Interpersonal relationship skills include cooperation and coordination, trust, intercultural sensitivity, service orientation, self presentation, social influence, and conflict resolution and negotiation. These interpersonal skills are described further in the Assessing 21st Century Skills Summary of a Workshop (recorded by Judith Anderson Koenig, printed by The National Academies Press in 2011, Table 3.1 on pages 43-44).

While texting with our cell phones and using social networking sites are great ways to stay connected and communicate, they are not going to replace the demands needed to solve tough and important challenges. Collaboration is the tried and true way to solve tough and important challenges. Effective collaboration involves intellectual demands, emotional demands, and workload demands. Texting and sharing information through social networking sites are examples of communication without collaboration. Collaboration is creating something of value as the result of sharing responsibility for problem-solving and decision-making to inform action on an important challenge or initiative.

Collaboration harnesses the power of human connection to tackle any challenge. Contact Valerie at 412-742-9675 or to learn more.