• 09.14.10

Blue Collar Collaboration

People on the front lines, doing nitty-gritty manual work, can teach us plenty about real collaboration.

Blue Collar Collaboration

Two men walk into a bar… Even if they both wear muddy work boots and heavy jeans, you’d think one of them might use a smart phone to alert someone to his location. Perhaps he checked in on Foursquare or Twitter, too. You can picture it happened, can’t you? It happens every day.


Then why, jokes aside, is there so little attention paid to social media use between people outside the knowledge-worker ranks? I live in rural America where “doing” jobs outnumber “thinking” jobs by a wide margin. Warehouse work is big. So is manufacturing and farming. And yet almost everyone has a smart phone, connecting with friends, family, and co-workers whenever they can. We had a fire on our land, and the volunteer firefighters took breaks to cool down and check in. They sat on the ground or leaned against brush trucks, typing with rugged thumbs, asking questions of people back at the station or to see if a daughter’s 4H meeting was rescheduled.

The social media phenomenon, with people learning from one another across space and time, isn’t somehow roped off for the desk-jockey crowd. Is the lack of attention because doers are too busy doing to be interviewed by the press? Are those at desks social media snobs? Where are the case studies, the best practices, and the reports showing working-class employers that they have a big opportunity too? Social media has jumped the shark, the chasm, and the job site. It’s time to consider what this means. People on the front lines, doing nitty-gritty manual work, allowing the rest of us to keep clean, can teach us plenty about real collaboration. They are working together, often side-by-side, day in and day out. Here are some examples of out-of-the-office practices.

Show, Don’t Tell. TELUS, the Vancouver, Canada-headquartered telecommunications company, has issued handheld flipcams and mobile computers to several technicians in the field. From atop a telephone pole or in a cable trench, workers can capture the view of their surroundings and upload video to an internal social network, asking for colleagues’ help with difficult situations as if they were nearby. These workers need quick information nuggets, accessible from their trucks while on site with customers, to learn quickly as they change routers, set up home phone systems, and perform custom installations they may never have done before. By equipping people with a media mindset and a culture of collaboration, the 35,000 people employed by TELUS around the world share responsibility for educating one another and giving each person an opportunity to seek focused assistance from their peers. “The opportunity to connect people doing manual work is equal to, if not greater, than those already sitting together,” says Dan Pontefract, director of learning & collaboration at TELUS.

Dig Down Deep. As one of North America’s largest producers of lime, Graymont operates facilities on sites that have been in operation for 200 years. To “transcend the continent” and get far-flung employees working together as if they were just around the corner from one another, the company created myGraymont, a collaborative environment for every employee (using Thoughtfarmer technology)–especially those who come to work in steel-toed boots and only occasionally sit at a computer. “But the big value comes when a person in Pennsylvania, say, connects with someone in Alberta and shows him something he’s done that saves the company $10,000 (or $20,000); or when an informal discussion group is established amongst maintenance workers or kiln operators across borders and geography,” says Ron Ogilvy who directs IT at Graymont. Just using myGraymont to interact more personally with distant colleagues can also be an end in itself. “If it helps create a new relationship, the value of that relationship will be the payback.”

Hold on Tight. Disaster Operations Volunteer Escapees (DOVE) are people who live on the road to help the Red Cross in times of disaster. Louise Horner and her husband Sean Welsh are retired computer experts who have sought out a life outdoors, often in the rain. They were recently in Greensboro, NC, ready to deal with any damage caused by hurricane Earl. They spent twelve weeks living in their RV in Baton Rouge after hurricane Katrina. While some DOVEs put down sandbags, rebuild houses, or clean up the muck, the team Louise and Sean volunteer with is responsible for ordering the technical equipment, setting up computers, cell phones and technology needed from start to finish during a disaster. Increasingly that technology has included social media. It’s used to monitor the social and mobile Web, listening for people reaching out any way they can after being trapped within their vehicles or homes. It’s used to alert people in neighboring areas to pack up. It’s used to save lives. Wendy Harman also publishes a blog specifically for people on the scene, giving the public a real role in disaster response and providing better situation awareness.”

John Seely Brown, visiting scholar at the University of Southern California and former chief scientist at Xerox, and Douglas Thomas, who teaches at USC’s Annenberg School for Communication, say, “This kind of learning is radically different from what we traditionally think of as learning: the accumulation of facts or acquisition of knowledge. They involve the experience of acting together to overcome obstacles, managing skills, talents, and relationships, and they create contexts in which social awareness, reflection, and joint coordinated action become an essential part of the experience, providing the basis for a networked imagination.”


No matter the color (or fabric) of your shirt, the type of dirt under your nails, or where you breathe the air–each of these organizations sees clear payback. Hyper connectedness can enable dramatic improvements in outcomes as social media encourages people to learn from one another everyday. Easier access to information and tools makes people more productive, and less frustrated, and also reduces the management burden for putting good practices into action.

Photo by Pat Jarrett

About the author

Marcia Conner works with ordinary people doing ingenious work and mediocre organizations realizing their employees can work in inspiring ways. She features stories of both in her upcoming book on ingenuity.