What’s the difference between using social media tools and collaborating? If I’m using social media to the maximum extent, am I suddenly also being collaborative?

Lately, it appears “using social media” is equivalent to “collaboration.” I hear this erroneous collapsing of genres particularly inthe realm of open innovation and crowdsourcing (check out this great article from Business Week for more.). Have you noticed the subtle media meld across these worlds?

While much can be applied from social media to yield a more enlightened approach to collaboration, the two are not synonymous. Considering them equivalent can create traps and send us down unproductive pathways that waste time and resources.

In reality, no amount of social media will fix underlying problems in designing collaborative teams. The best intentioned social media can be off track if its usage within a collaborative context is not aligned to the work of the team, brand, or client itself.

In our haste as high-impact marketers and innovators, we sometimes apply the wrong social media vehicles at the wrong time. We lay on too much complexity when the team (client) – or situation – can’t handle it. A deeper understanding of the four phases of collaboration can offer us a solid view of how to better link social media as a complement to collaboration rather than a vehicle which distracts a team from its broader mission.

Here is a look at what research reveals to be true about collaboration itself. By placing social media into the various facets and phases of collaboration, it can offer us a valuable guide to how much social media is too much and how much is just right.

Four Phases of Collaboration

Research suggests that there are four facets of team design which are necessary for collaboration to progress successfully from an early phase – where interactions are relatively focused – to a later phase, where they are intense yet far-reaching. By identifying how your teams align with these four phases, you can determine which tools within social media are most valuable for each one.

Phase 1: Capacity – While it is seductive to want to set large teams in motion at the start of a project, studies showthatat the front end of any effort, nimble teams of two to eight people are optimal. Ideally, members of these small teams are drawn from diverse disciplines, representing both generalists and specialists. Research from the Complexity in Action Network at Northwestern University as well as studies conducted by the Boston Consulting Group bear out the value of these factors.

Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos in a now famous 2004 Fast Company interview revealed a core success formula for Amazon’s teams in coining the phrase “two pizza teams.” Bezos believes if you need more than two pizzas to feed a team, it’s too big. Note to self: For teams or clients operating in Phase 1 of the collaboration process, social media works powerfully as an accelerator of internal team communication.

Phase 2: Context – Few teams are ever made aware of the broader context for their efforts. Often direction is given which locks down and makes highly discrete the efforts of each individual team rather than understanding the whole. Rarely are teams offered the big picture where they can better understand how their efforts align with other activities taking place in real-time around them.

While it’s valuable to keep teams on track with timelines and milestones, we see how big projects like the Boeing 787 Dreamliner have gotten off track by lacking context. Individual work teams lacked a broader context for their efforts, preventing them from making adjustments in work flow and materials management. Note to self: Social media can be valuably employed to create broader project context, generating insights plus an understanding of what else is happening in real-time from team to team.

Phase 3: Coherence – If a project effort is ultimately going to fail but hasn’t gone off the rails in Phase 2, the Coherence phase often yields the biggest sticking point. If an inspirational leader is lacking, there are few mechanisms to rally a team when it hits roadblocks. Ideally, an inspirational leader emerges organically from within the team. But – as often happens – if a team is thrown together in Phase 1 without actually being diverse, or if it lacks the communications skills crucial for success, social media can be a way for an external source of inspiration to save the day.

Recent examples of social media offering inspiration and direction from outside an individual can be drawn from social innovation initiatives – both in the US (Occupy Wall Street) and abroad (Tunisia, Egypt) – where groups of people are sometimes operating in an information vacuum or possess minimal experience working in a collaborative environment. While it is not optimal to operate this way, social media can provide crucial “connective tissue” in times of group crisis.

Phase 4: Complexity – When the first three phases of collaboration savvy have been fulfilled, the team is ready to expand in scope and move on to a more complex environment, addressing more complex challenges. The fourth phase of collaboration offers a big spotlight and is typically the place where the rewards are visible and very public.

Unfortunately, the complexity phase of collaboration is where many teams not only spend the most time but also are generally least prepared to navigate. This is because rather than tackling complexity as Phase 4, teams are often forced to tackle it as Phase 1. Most managers send teams directly to the complexity phase…rather than developing the first three collaborative skill sets first. A double whammy occurs when teams that are ill-prepared to handle complexity are also ill-prepared to leverage social media.

Insights on Navigating Complexity: Dunbar’s Number

In Chapter Five of Malcolm Gladwell’s best-selling book Tipping Point, he addresses many of the above ideas. He describes why context is an increasingly crucial part of collaboration and decision making and why it’s important to progressively expand our ability to address complexity.

He also reminds us that, in part, the human brain evolved because humans were required to interact with increasing numbers of other tribes to survive. Humans are able to hold higher numbers of social relationships than other primates due to brain size and the processing power of the human neocortex.

But, in a world where we can “friend” literally hundreds of people on Facebook or send e-blasts to thousands from a smartphone, at what point does this form of collaborative communication collapse under its own weight? When do social media hold diminishing returns? Or detract from our innovation power?

In addressing “how big is too big,” Gladwell turns to a discussion of Dunbar’s Number, a theory developed by Robin Dunbar as he examined the optimal size of large collaborative groups seeking to work together effectively whether in business or on the battlefield.

Dunbar’s conclusion? The best and deepest results are yielded if collaborations hover at about 150, with an upper max of about 230. Why? If team size gets larger than this upper bound, “you don’t have enough work in common” and the group fails to have enough common context to hold them together as a coherent unit.

Does this mean you can actually have too many friends on Facebook? No…it simply suggests that the power of a collaborative team to drive results has an upper limit. It’s crucial to consider social media as a tool that sharpens a team’s collaborative power while also building an awareness of how it impacts collaboration within brands, divisions, and companies.

World changing innovator Thomas Edison followed the four phases of collaboration quite closely. Although Edison didn’t have access to digital communication tools, he did create collaboration teams which followed the four phases noted above. By infusing collaboration as a core cultural practice within his organizations, he created connective tissue that allowed his companies to progress from tackling simple challenges to highly complex ones. Today, it’s likely he would be an advocate for social media as a way to strengthen this connective tissue.

As marketers and innovators today, leverage social media whenever possible. Using social media can be a driver of collaboration but won’t ever be a substitute for it. Don’t overlook the four phases of collaboration when implementing your programs. Your results will be maximized as a result!