How social software can turn anyone into an A-Team*

Of all the blockbusters that were supposed to do boffo box office this summer, one that seemed to come and go surprisingly early to me was the A-Team.

I didn’t even get a chance to see the film (not that I get out to see many these days, with two children under the age of three at home), but I had been excited about this particular remake. In fact, as I recently helped organize and host an event on collaboration and “social” software, I realized that the group dynamic that attracted me to the A-Team TV show in the 1980s contains three major traits that are characteristic of almost all the other teams we tend to celebrate and mythologize in our popular culture, whether it’s the Avengers, the X-Men or something even more (or less) supernatural.

Such teams, I realized, tend to be vigilantes. They operate outside the ordinary rules and laws of men. In many cases they make up their own rules as they go along, and this puts them into great conflict with more established powers, even when, in theory, they’re all working on the same side, for the same cause (in the case of movies, usually some form of justice).

The individual members of such teams, meanwhile, tend to be idiosyncratic, almost fiercely so. It is in the eccentricities of characters like the A-Team’s Hannibal, Faceman and others that we get some kind of insight or clue into the strengths and weaknesses of these people, and why working together creates a strange kind of alchemy that leads to success. Even when they possess unnatural abilities, they are the opposite of superhuman. It is their unique humanity that makes them vital to the team.

Finally, the teams we see onscreen tend to thrive on risk and challenge. The more dangerous the mission, the more unprecedented the scale of the task set before them, the more deeply they are engaged, and eager to apply their particular talents. Watching them overcome the near-impossible is why we watch them.

Now contrast that with the kind of teams that enterprise organizations tend to cultivate and develop. Far from being rebels, companies want teams that adhere strictly to policy and procedure. There should be consultation, or at least communication, on all major decisions. Idiosyncrasies? Not to celebrated, and sometimes barely tolerated. I won’t go so far as to use the word “groupthink,” but there’s a sense that we want to focus on the personality of the team rather than each member. As far risks and challenges, well, risks are to be mitigated or (better yet) avoided entirely, and challenges are just too bloody expensive. No one should relish those kinds of assignments.

Of course I generalize, but I don’t think we would see action movies become such popular escapist fantasy if there wasn’t that disconnect. It’s even more apparent in the technology split between the home and office. We started with the personal computer, which evolved into the “MyFiles” and “MyPrograms” style of personal applications in our personal lives. At work, however, we were stuck with the far more rigid and inflexible applications for expression and collaboration that often gathers dust once it’s implemented. This is why so many corporate intranets have become data graveyards, and why the vendors we work with ignore the supplier portals in favour of continuing to chase people down by telephone.

As the consumerization of enterprise IT continues apace, we’re seeing the gap more clearly. People can work in much more liberating ways through Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIN than they can with traditional tools. As the vendors see that, they’re slowly trying to evolve the tools to integrate a sense of that feature set and functionality, to encourage similar behavior patterns with work-related information. Emulation alone will not suffice here, however. There are still too many tools that look like business rip-offs of Facebook and Twitter, rather than innovative UIs and capabilities that make such tools even more attractive than what we can use for free in our “real” lives. That should be the design goal.  

As for IT departments, deployment is only stage one. We need to do more to figure out what social skills are required to make social software sustainable. What are the leadership qualities associated with usage? How does IT contribute to empowerment rather than mere policy enforcement? These are the batteries that aren’t included in the social or collaborative software being pitched to the enterprise today. If someone else won’t help supply them, IT managers may have to figure it out for themselves.
*adapted from some opening remarks I gave at one of our ComputerWorld Canada Technology Insights events: IT Strategies That Create Winning Teams.

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