Collaborative platforms are the new social networks

Collaborative platforms are the new social networks


  • Communicating in networks using online group chat, on social media or in a business context, has become utterly normal, familiar, and accelerated during the pandemic.
  • Community platforms mostly follow the same group chat paradigm of social or business networks, possibly due to their familiarity. So they can fall short of meaningfully turning talk into action.
  • Cross-sector, purpose-driven collaboration at scale is a different kind of problem to chat wall-based content-sharing. It requires an evolution of digital platforms to service this growing demand.
  • Big tech has a range of new ideas, from Business Ecosystems to DAOs (Distributed Autonomous Organisations) to Generative AI (such as ChatGPT), but they are in their early days.
  • Understanding knowledge architectures, complexity, human dynamics, incentives and processes, and converting that into software and consulting, is at the core of this next wave of platform evolution.

We all know group chat

The last few years have seen social networks, enabled by digital platforms, shifting dramatically… in demographic profile, content format and even political persuasion. At the same time, the idea of networks and group chat has solidified as a standard way of communicating and doing business, pushed to a new level by the COVID19 pandemic and Zoom.

Inevitably, because conversation at scale has become so normal, we’re seeing an increase in communities using platforms for purpose-driven collaboration. People want to participate in meaningful activity, and the world is a bit of a mess and needs fixing. So it’s a small step to use Slack to manage a community… instead of it just being used for software developers. And it’s quick to get chatting on Mighty Networks or Discord or Circle or Hivebrite or Facebook Groups, which have better group management, events features, and simple interfaces. The ‘group chat’ paradigm is currently prevalent.

Solving cross-sector problems

But what happens when the chat settles, and the best ideas and content are lost deep in the threads? And what if you need to collaborate at a whole-industry level, or partner to address the Sustainable Development Goals, or bring multi-disciplinary and cross-sector groups together to work on systemic problems? These are very different kinds of problems to informal chat threads and exchanging files.

So, as the 2020’s progress, at Shapeable we’re expecting to see more platforms and networks breaking out of the chat paradigm and progressing towards the ‘collaborative action’ paradigm. That’s not just because our customers are doing that with us… it’s that the pieces of that future are here to be seen. Something is in the air.

Enter big money, big tech, and big ideas

Within the big tech and venture capital world it’s obvious that big ideas lead to the next unicorn company. And big ideas are innovation opportunities for the CEOs who attend Davos. We’re seeing many patterns coming together in this collaborative trend. They include, in no order of priority:

  • Self-organising talent. Smart contracts will create new types of companies as DAOs
    • Distributed Autonomous Organizations. Perhaps unsurprisingly, successful DAOs have talented teams. It’s the people not the blockchain. Yet, one day, the processes, practices, voting on what to do, and incentive mechanisms will become a platform protocol at scale, beyond the hype.
  • dApps and decentralised ownership. It’s unlikely that the Web3 ideal of a fully decentralised web will materialise, complete with users owning their own data in their own vault. But progress will be made, and there will be Web3 platform corporates and well-funded startups. Marc Andreesen’s A16Z and Tim Berners Lee’s Inrupt (no Blockchain required) are just a couple of the key players.
  • Collective Intelligence. It’s not just the wisdom of the crowd. Humans and machines will augment each other, at scale. Whilst the concept started at MIT, it will change how we think about actionable knowledge infrastructure and the future of work.
  • Business ecosystems. New forms of value creation and collaborative inter-dependency are underway, to rethink the company as a network, not just as a supply chain.
  • Generative AI. Whilst ChatGPT seems like magic, this kind of augmentation of human understanding and communication has only just begun. VCs are suggesting that startups get busy to build Generative AI into their products.
  • Narrative Markets. Through Social Media we’re now used to campaigns, movements, missions, political persuasion, disinformation, or business trends at a global scale. At Shapeable we think of them as Narrative Markets… the competition for the real estate of ideas. Examples include Mariana Mazzucato pushing for UK industry-wide missions that move markets, data-driven behavioural economics coming out of the Kahneman school of judgement and decision-making, and P&G repositioning shame into intimacy for age care.
  • Collaboration Jobs. It’s not a coincidence that we’ve seen the arrival of a new C-suite role, the Chief Community Officer and others related to network analytics.
  • Creator Economy. Although opinion is now everywhere, and expertise is somewhat harder to spot, it’s undeniable that microlearning is here to stay, and niche educators will increasingly be in demand to help networks of collaborators to flourish.
  • The Heterarchy. There’s a movement away from siloed information and hierarchical control to a heterarchy of shared leadership with centralised knowledge. The multi-stakeholder thesis popularised by the World Economic Forum is now commonplace, but it’s starting to take on a decentralised flavour.

Collaboration is the New Competition

The idea of zero-sum competition that has been prevalent for 40 years, and which has led to large-scale inequalities, seems to be entering a phase change. Competition increasingly seems to require collaboration, possibly changing its nature. Problem solving via multiple perspectives, distributed innovation, resource sharing, and time-to-market, all require a network… or business ecosystem with orchestration strategy.

A key truth is that maintaining the momentum of collaboration is really hard. That includes coordinating incentives, sharing knowledge and best practices, defining what to do and how, building in governance, measuring impact, and addressing ownership and credit for the outcomes. Beyond that, the complexity of aligning people with each other and compensating for their shortfalls are usually amongst the problems yet to be solved.

As this movement towards collaborative platforms makes progress, it’s good to see leading figures like Melinda French Gates at the forefront, advocating for new forms of collaborative action.

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