What digital collaboration culture and social intranet projects have in common with modern science

Sir Isaac Newton, father of modern science (1)

Though it’s possible that Isaac Newton was not the most likeable fellow, he certainly was one of the most brilliant minds in human history and the father of modern science. His greatest achievement is the first comprehensive mathematical formula to describe gravity. (Although Newton’s Law of Universal Gravitation was“merely” a special case, as Einstein later demonstrated, it nonetheless remains a revolutionary achievement.)

At this point, however, we will focus on his research on classical mechanics, some of which we might still remember from our physics classes.

Newton’s second law of motion, also known as the principle of least action, is: F = ma. Force is equal to mass times acceleration.  When we rearrange this equation, it becomes clear that we need a lot of force if we want to accelerate a large mass; the larger the mass, the more force is needed.

In his highly recommended book Leaders Eat Last, Simon Sinek has applied this law to change in businesses:

“If we wish to change the direction of a large company or solve a large problem, we need to apply a huge force.”  And this is often what we do. We have a big repositioning or a big reorganization. The trouble with applying large force to anything, however, it rattles us. We fear it may cause more harm than good. It undermines the Circle of Safety. […]

However, there is another variable that we often neglect. The ‚a‘ for acceleration. Who says the change has to be sudden or instantaneous. Citing many successful leaders who did not march in with new theories and start dismantling their organizations. They experimented.”

I would like to go a step further and apply this to the user acceptance of software systems like wikis and social intranets and the establishment of real digital collaboration processes in businesses, for this involves a major organizational and cultural shift in the company as well as the expenditure of force, resources and effort on the part of the leaders, trailblazers and pioneers, who are dedicated to the success of both the system and the new, modern collaboration methods.

Only after the launch of the intranet does this team’s main task really begin, especially in the context of a large and rather traditionally organized business. The larger the business is and the more employees it has, the more force will be necessary to propel and accelerate it in a new direction.

Here, we have frequently discussed which tasks this team now has and which questions it must provide practical answers to: How do we get the employees to engage with the new system? How can we encourage use of the system? How can we combat the fear of sharing knowledge?

Theories need evidence and so do employees

Let’s stick with the analogy of science. It’s the same there as it is in businesses. New theories and concepts do not take hold overnight. They are rarely welcomed. Instead, they are far more often faced with skepticism and even hostility.

When the term “big bang” was coined by Fred Hoyle, a bitter opponent of the Big Bang Theory, it was meant in a derogatory and derisive way. Other sciences also offer similar examples: Alfred Wegener’s ideas about continental drift were at first described as feverish fantasy. Georg Cantor, for his observations about mathematical infinities, was demonized mercilessly until he became mentally deranged (John Barrow: The Infinite Book). Or let’s consider Darwin and the reception he received for his theory of evolution.

In order to grow out of the hypothesis stage and to mature into a scientific theory, there must be evidence and observations which suggest that it describes reality better than the established theory does. Only then will it finally be widely accepted. Evidence is strongest when the theory generates a prediction which is eventually observed – such as Eddington’s solar eclipse experiment, when the humble Einstein made it into world headlines, to become the first global science celebrity overnight.

A new business software suite faces a similar challenge. It must “prove” that work is better with it than with an alternative system. Only then will the employees accept it and willingly use it.

There’s no point to the  project team talking about all the things the new intranet can do and everything that will get better through the new collaboration method. Practical observations count. The project team needs to give practical support, demonstrate use cases, solve specific problems, demonstrate how much simpler meetings can be conducted and documented, draw up templates and create helpful content. Findings from the theory of diffusion of innovations can be helpful with this.

The actual benefit will be recognized by employees only once they themselves work in the system together with their colleagues. Each user’s little wins, like being able to do something on the intranet better and faster than before, are strong  “evidence”. Try it and see, it works!

Paradigm shifts need time

COBE: Initial evidence gained through modern satellite technologies led to a paradigm shift regarding the origin of the universe. (2)

Many scientific theories which are today accepted as true, and which have been repeatedly confirmed through experiments, observations and fulfilled predictions, have taken decades to gain acceptance.  It took nearly a century and a myriad of refinements and mountains of evidence before the Big Bang Theory was accepted. Paradigm shifts take place gradually.

The reasons for this might be many and varied. Perhaps they lie in the nature of the business of science, which is not known for radically adopting new positions overnight. In other cases, a theory – notwithstanding a growing quantity of proof – has perhaps at first been regarded as too audacious to be true.

It’s a similar situation in businesses, which each have their own strongly established cultural and organizational features, and continue to be characterized by hierarchical thinking,  instruction-oriented culture and management decisions. A team that suddenly comes up with something as strange as independent digital collaboration without any instruction to do so, will need time to persuade, provide initial evidence and gather support for “letting employees off the leash”.

Successful intranet pilot projects and use cases help to win the backing of management and influential supporters. However,  organizational and cultural shifts do not occur overnight in any business, least of all in organizations with a thousand employees or more.

We have covered this in more depth in other posts:

In a nutshell: softly does it! The stamina of the social intranet team is important. Success might not come until later.

Flukes and experiments

Sometimes it takes a lucky accident for scientific theories to arise, . Everyone knows the anecdote of the apple which supposedly fell on Newton’s head and gave him the idea of gravitation. Or the “Eureka!” of Archimedes when he discovered the principle which is now named after him.

And there’s also a need for experiments with unforeseen outcomes. When Michelson and Morley, the proponents of the  light-ether hypothesis, did  their famous experiment, the last thing they had in mind was to  pave the way for acceptance of a constant speed of light which would become a central building block in Einstein’s reflections on the special relativity theory. Penzias and Wilson initially thought the strange slight signal noise was caused by pigeon droppings on the radio telescope.  While others might perhaps have ignored it, the two researchers instead proved the existence of cosmic background radiation  – one of the most significant discoveries in the history of cosmology and one of the most convincing pieces of evidence supporting the Big Bang Theory.

Likewise in an intranet, people also need to be allowed to experiment, try things out and gain experience.  How else are they to learn to use it effectively, efficiently and productively? In this context, functional restrictions and strict authorization management are toxic.

The intranet team must also experiment, introduce things and then remove them again, and iterate quickly, moving step-by-step toward solving their employees’ problems.

Coincidences are also important. Ideas that have the potential to propel the project will certainly come from many areas within the organization and throughout the hierarchy. There might be a student employee, working on his thesis, poring over something small or specific, which could be valuable to the entire intranet implementation project. The project team should canvas ideas from throughout the company with their eyes peeled. Start documenting everything in a social intranet, thereby making it “official” – this is good start miss fewer coincidences and good ideas.

Change comes about in the team

Werner Heisenberg, just one of many fathers of Quantum Theory (3)

In physics, there are outliers who, by virtue of their spirit, have single-handedly revolutionized science. But there are not many of them. Einstein was one such genius, Newton another, and then one has to go all the way back to Galilei, Kepler and Copernicus to find someone similar. And even the brilliant Newton played down his own significance:

“If I have seen further, it is by standing on the shoulders of giants”.

Modern science was and is a team sport. We owe quantum mechanics not only to Heisenberg and Schroedinger but also to Niels Bohr, Max Born, Wolfgang Pauli, Paul Dirac and a multitude of other physicists.  The Big Bang Theory was contributed to by dozens or, more likely, hundreds of researchers throughout generations – from Lemaitre with his early idea of an exploding  primal atom to Hubble and his discovery of red shift through to the COBE Team, which in 1992  proved the existence of the tiny oscillations in cosmic background radiation  , predicted by that theory, thus facilitating the ultimate rise of the Big Bang Theory.

In big business too, there is rarely a single person who re-jigs everything for the better, or who is even able to do it alone. In a corporation with 20,000 people, no one individual can establish a new collaboration culture and intranet on such a large scale.

Change does require leadership, but the true leader in this context rarely the one at the very top. Real change toward a digital collaboration culture is not driven by mandated instructions and similar business dramatics, but from the lower ranks and from the middle, from a team with stakeholders from as many areas of the business as possible. If there are also external partners who have successfully been involved with such changes multiple times – all the better.

If multiple people from various areas of the business are of the opinion that things are not running perfectly, it is probably quite simple to find colleagues and form a team to help propel a grass-roots project.  There will presumably also be someone who will ensure that productivity increases, that the costs of internal projects decrease, that such a thing as – magic word! – ‘knowledge management’ is implemented. These people are not difficult to identify, and in a group of like-minded people, they will gladly contribute to and drive change for the benefit of all and for the good of the organization.

Theories are never final, and neither are intranets

Even Einstein’s Theory of Relativity has its limits. (4)

A mathematical proof, once made, is ultimately valid – anywhere and everywhere in the universe and until the end of time. Can a scientific theory also be final and ultimate ? No, because of its very nature. A theory, though it might be backed by a massive amount of evidence, cannot be absolutely proven, and will remain forever refutable: One single observation contradicting its predictions an bring about its (at least partial) downfall.

Einstein demonstrated that Newton’s theory of gravitation does present a good model of one segment of physical reality but not in all cases – Newton’s theory wasn’t general enough. Relativity theory and quantum mechanics are like cat and dog and, which resist being consistently reconciled – both theories have their limits and do not describe the entirety of physical reality. (One day, there might exist a Theory of Everything  – the most prominent attempts are String Theory and loop quantum gravity – but scientists are still a long way off.)

That is no less true of the social intranet. It is only definitive and ultimate if it is dead and nobody uses it any more. A healthy intranet changes constantly, beyond the purely content-related components and the user-generated content, just as it should.

It is true that change itself is not a virtue – there are a great many changes for the worse. But even in businesses, many people are keen not to put up with the status quo. In light of the increasingly more complex world of business, any other attitude would be dangerous.

Through experiments, technical and organizational iterations, newly delivered functions, new integrated products etc., an intranet is in perpetual motion. When I look back over the evolution of our own intranet at //SEIBERT/MEDIA, a few things come to mind which I did not like, and which were done away with.  But all in all, the system today is more valuable and useful than it was two or four years ago. And I strongly believe that in two or four years it will be even more helpful.


The one or two readers who have persisted to this point might now ask what ought to be the core statement of this long post.  It is essentially trivial: nobody can say with a clear conscience that you will solve all your problems the moment you roll out a modern social intranet. Change, in the sense of improving collaboration, is a never-ending project. The proposition and the initial impetus require a great deal of force – especially in very large organizations.  It takes tenacity – driven by the desire to make (work)life easier for all.

The existence of so-called gravitation waves was a conclusion drawn by Einstein in 1916 from his general theory of relativity. These were not directly measured until 99 years later; an achievement honored with the 2017 Nobel Prize in Physics (in German). We do not want to impose such time spans on spacetime.  But it does take time to set great things in motion. The effort will be worth the while.

Further information

Linchpin – social intranet based on Confluence
Video – Linchpin social intranets in 150 seconds
Intranet projects and customers that we are proud of

Recommendations if you are interested in science

Brian Greene – The Fabric of the Cosmos
Simon Singh – Big Bang: The Origin of the Universe
Lee Smolin – The Future of Physics

Image credits

1) Portrait of Sir Isaac Newton (portrait by Sir James Thorntree, Public Domain)
2) Artist’s concept of the Cosmic Background Explorer spacecraft (by NASA, Public Domain)
3) Prof. Dr. phil Werner Kar. Heisenberg (From the German Federal Archive, CC-BY-SA 3.0)
4) Albert Einstein during a lecture in Vienna in 1921 (By Ferdinand Schmutzer,  Public Domain)