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Big Think Editors

July 14, 2011, 12:00 AM

This idea was suggested by Big Think Delphi Fellow Dylan Taylor.

What's the Big Idea?

Recently, Colliers CEO Dylan Taylor reread a paper he coauthored ten years ago forecasting the strategic role of the physical office in 2010. “We got most of it wrong,” he says. But one idea still resonated: “If you offshore, if you telecommute, if you do anything to minimize your company's physical real estate, there are real consequences to its culture and cohesion.”

Telecommuting has been on the rise for decades, but more than half of businesses in the U.S. have banned workers from using social networking sites like Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn and MySpace. Taylor's argument is that on-the-job socializing is not just an important morale-booster; it's critical to a company's evolution. "Without it, there can be no shared value system. Creating a common identity [through conversation] is essential to the success of the modern enterprise.”

Which presents a problem for the world's fastest-growing multinational. Where do you find the money, space, and time to enable 15,000 workers across six continents to take one collective coffeebreak? According to Taylor, the next best thing to gathering around a box of Munchkins is meeting up at a "virtual water cooler" - an online network where employees are free to interact as meaninglessly, or purposefully, as they choose.

Colliers' web hangout is viewable only by Colliers employees. It was designed in-house and features real time text and video chat. (Keeping the conversation internal lessens the risk of over-sharing and the pressure to be discrete). But once the technology is in place, does anyone actually use it? Or does it slowly recede to the back burner, like the blog you always meant to return to when you had more time?

“It's like any other adoption curve," says Taylor. "You have the early adopters," and then you have everyone else. He estimates that it took about two full years for Colliers' system to catch on, but now 69% of employees participate. The trick is to start with the “connectors” in the organization: the people who bring people together, "influence mood, provide perspective on day to day events, and help create the common identity that people aspire to share.” Those people are not hard to identify - they've been on Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn for years, and are sending out invitations to Google's +1

Now, "we intentionally launch the best projects and information using these tools so that the virtual water cooler is the only way some of the information can be accessed. We have several people promoting it" - but ultimately, it is Taylor and his marketing team who are responsible.

What's the Significance?

Even the largest businesses are eager to decentralize as a way of getting back to their rootsThe Colliers website highlights its 1898 founding and a mission to combine the power of a global firm with "local equity and flexibility.” (This is a company that has completed more than 30 mergers and acquisitions in the Americas, Asia, and Europe.) And Taylor hosts a quarterly conference call for everyone from the most recent hire to the top executives. 

De-emphasizing hierarchy is more than good PR - it's a way of orienting a company around a vision that is both unified and adaptable. Taylor's advice: “Make sure you have a clear understanding of your values and intent, then use technology to enable that. What the tech wont do is compensate for a lack of strategy."



Big Think Editors

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