The water cooler phenomenon

Dan Somers, collaboration expert and managing director of vc-net, discusses the challenges faced by organisations in keeping the collaborative spirit of a company thriving in the virtual age.


Every company has two organisational structures. First, there’s the formal structure. This is the one everyone talks about and that can be seen on official organisation charts. It shows who reports to whom, who is responsible for what and how everyone is supposed to communicate with each other.

But then there’s another organisation that few talk about but is at least equally important and driven by the 'water cooler' phenomenon. It’s the informal organisation within the company. It’s the structure people follow when they don’t have the time to do it the right way. It’s based on who knows what, who gets things done, who has influence and power, who must agree before an idea can be effectively implemented.

The water cooler phenomenon refers to those spontaneous conversations around the water cooler or in the company cafeteria or corridor that are important for generating new ideas or approaching old problems in new ways. Although some of the talk will be about sports and TV shows, most water cooler conversation focuses on work: people ask about current projects; they bounce ideas off one another; they get advice on how to solve problems.

Informal interactions of the water cooler type foster the development of a sense of community: shared values, norms, and “war stories” that make the organisation unique and facilitate collaboration among its members.

The challenge of going virtual

As businesses and their teams become more virtual the organisation uses electronic networks to link people, assets, and ideas to create and distribute products and services without being limited to traditional organisational boundaries or physical location. People in virtual organisations come together electronically for short periods of time to accomplish a specific task and then as the task is completed; the individuals join other task forces.

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