I’ve recently attended Switch, a great conference with many inspiring talks. Among them, there was one that particularly struck me, because it touched a subject that I’ve been thinking and researching a lot in the last year or so. Ana Silva talked about Serendipity, that magic thing that fosters so many human interactions, where spontaneity and genuineness abound, and great results simply happen.
She gave some examples of serendipity:
- Searching for something and finding something else
- Browsing randomly and stumbling upon interesting things
- Hearing someone talking about something apparently irrelevant that somehow turns into highly valuable information some years later (the post-it story)
I think everyone of us can relate to situations like those, specially in the dense social contexts that Internet provide us (twitter, facebook, …). However, most interesting is thinking on how we can encourage serendipity within enterprises, to improve collaboration and information sharing. Bringing social software to the enterprise (the so called enterprise 2.0) is a step towards serendipity – after all it seems to work on our personal lifes, why not in business? Also, as Ana referred in the presentation, designing physical spaces where co-workers can get together informally is another approach to this. These two techniques make sense because they provide a place (either virtual or real) for serendipity to happen. But I’m not sure this is enough.
For example, conferences are serendipitous places by nature because people go there with a predisposition to engage in social relations. Browsing the search results of a twitter hashtag also presupposes an openness to be surprised. But in a company, people can (and should) socialize but they are not there to socialize. They have clear tasks and goals which have nothing to do with searching or having a nice chat over the coffee machine.
Suppose you have to write a report about something and you work in a cool modern company, with an internal wiki, blogs, a micro-blogging app like yammer, etc. You could search for people or information related to that report before actually starting the task, but in most cases you won’t. First, you think you will able to do the task by yourself (after all, that’s why you are being paid, right?). Only if it goes wrong or you run into an obstacle, you will consider asking for help. Except for the fact that you may not know if it’s going wrong or not…And don’t forget that searching for the right person/data may require a lot of effort. Effort that you should be directing to complete the task.
Here’s an example from my daily work. I lead software development teams, and one of my tasks is to walk around trying to spot problems that (younger) developers may be missing. Sometimes, some of them start talking loud about something and I overhear the conversation. And once in while, some sentences catch my attention and I enter the discussion. This is serendipity in its most pure form. My colleagues are not searching nor socializing, they are just trying to fulfill their tasks the best they can. And I can help them, but neither of us know when or how. The current crop of social software doesn’t work in these cases. Unless you narrate everything you do in some micro-blogging tool (requiring lots of effort and stealing time from actually doing your job) you are out of luck.
I strongly believe serendipity is a highly relevant topic for effective enterprise collaboration (and will become even more so in the years to come) but current social enterprise tools are not there yet, because they provide a kind of parallel-to-work serendipity. The great challenge will be to provide a seamless integration between work and serendipity, the “overhearing” effect you can feel in a open-space, and the reason why war rooms work so well…If that’s not magic, I don’t know what it is…
You can see Ana’s full presentation here.