Why is it that when you bring up the topic of “collaboration” with people, that the conversation goes in every which direction? You’d think that by now we would have pared down the language by which we describe collaboration activities, or possibly whittled away at the sub-categories and come up with a classification system for the sub-genres within. Depending on who you ask, collaboration might be described as a neo-knowledge management platform, a real-time communication or meeting platform, or even be applied to various email tools. Some of that confusion was covered in this month’s CMSWire tweetjam, which was held online (of course) using the #socbizchat hashtag. While we’re waiting for a summary of the tweetjam to be posted, I thought I’d rehash the questions asked of the panel, of which I was a participant. Here are the questions we discussed, and some of my thoughts around each:
- Why does the success rate for collaboration fluctuate so much?
In my experience, the primary reason is that most people treat collaboration as a technology deployment rather than a people/culture enablement. The organizations that most consistently deliver on the goals of their collaboration efforts are those who begin with the user experience, talk with users throughout the process, and end with the user experience. I’ve seen many systems and tools that were expertly designed, built, and deployed save only that they did not properly engage with the end users, and then find failure because the users did not embrace them. Sadly, I’ve been at the helm of some of those projects, and so I’ve learned first-hand that even sub-par technology can be successful if end users are proactively involved, and the solution provides value to current processes.
- Name three conditions in the enterprise that need to be in place for collaboration to be successful.
I’m trying to remember exactly what I shared during the tweetjam, but I believe it was 1) executive vision, 2) proper business alignment, and 3) having the correct cultural fit (or some variation on that). Of course, these three are on top of what I just mentioned – you must have your end users involved throughout. That’s the glue that binds everything else together. But for these three points, let’s get a bit more detailed: you hear over and over again how you must have executive support to find success, but the reality is more than that: you need support at every level. It reminds me of some of the management training I went through while at Microsoft, as part of the former Management Excellence Community (MEC) program, some of which was built around Barry Oshry’s systems model, and his power and systems model that defines the unique pressures and values of people at the top, middle, and bottom of each organizational situation. Similarly, the success of any collaboration initiative may put you at the top (leading the project), middle (managing your executive’s inputs, as well as end user requirements), and bottom (you’re part of a cross-functional team, but far down the ladder), each with its own pressures. And I know I’m going sideways (which is why this is a blog post, not a formal article I’m submitting). The point is that without executive vision of what you are trying to accomplish on behalf of the business, competing pressures from any (all) part of the system could derail your project. The vision is what keeps people focused, holding to that iron rod (yes, I went there). Having proper business alignment is also HUGE. At the end of the day, are you deploying your platform for fun? Because you had extra funds to burn through? No, your intent was to improve the speed, efficiency, quality of certain business workloads. KNOW WHAT THEY ARE, and whether your collaboration platform is improving them. And finally, cultural fit. So so so so so so important, because, you know, that end user adoption thing.
- How will the increasingly distributed nature of companies affect collaboration in the enterprise?
I think our expectations are finally catching up to where the technology has been going for many years. Back in 2001 when I went to work for a startup as a senior product manager, helping design and deliver a hosted collaboration platform, I thought it was odd that we spent our days and nights building this really cool technology to enable geographically dispersed teams to collaborate remotely….and yet we were required to drive into the office every day to work. That’s right, we had a very strict policy against working remotely. Nobody seemed to see the hypocrisy in that. But it was a different era. For one, broadband makes much of this early vision possible. If anything, the increasingly distributed nature of teams will only speed the rate of innovation around collaboration technologies. Here I am working for a Silicon Valley company with offices in Barcelona, Madrid, and Amsterdam, with me working out of Seattle. We accomplish most of our work online, in synchronous and asynchronous collaboration, across many different platforms – some within the Microsoft ecosystem, many outside of it, but all accessible via the browser. That’s how the world increasingly works.
- With an ever-growing number of collaboration tools used in a single workplace, what can businesses do to avoid collaborative silos?
This really goes back to my previous answer of executive vision: its about having collaboration with purpose. We’ve proven again and again that purchasing a tool, adding user profiles, and then stepping back and letting people figure it out on their own DOES NOT WORK. It just doesn’t, not in a business setting where you’re trying to drive specific behaviors, certain workloads, in a monitored and measured way. The danger is to let your organization get bullied into allowing every tool, every device to access the system without understanding the goal, the business objective, and the IMPACT of your decisions. You’re using SharePoint and Yammer, and your end users are unsatisfied with how these tools integrate? So they start using Slack without discussing the impact with IT, and suddenly project data is being shared on an unmonitored, unmanaged tool, and important business value and intellectual property walks out the door. The answer is not necessarily to turn it all off, lock down your systems and tools, but to understand WHY users are unsatisfied, and then to deliver a user experience that meets their needs WHILE meeting your business objectives. That’s how you avoid the silos – be proactive about what your end users are doing, and put their needs at the front.
- Why does the collaboration conversation usually put so much emphasis on technology without considering the impact on people?
I think I’ve covered this one, but it basically because its easier. Many executives would rather roll out a tool, just like they’d rather evaluate someone’s performance by looking at a spreadsheet, rather than do the harder thing: talking to people. Finding the right cultural fit, the right user experience, for your organization means engaging with people, and that’s really hard. But doing the hard thing is often the fastest path to delivering business value.
We ran out of time before question #6 about whether we’ll be having this same conversation in five or ten years, but I would say yes, definitely. Why? Because these fundamentals will not change – only the technology we use will change around us. In twenty years we’ll be complaining that too much AI and holographic stimulation has caused us to generate too much data within our cybernetic data repositories, and that the constant bio connection to Skynet and our Cyberdyne Systems home terminals makes collaboration with our fellow human counterparts more difficult. The message to our cyborg masters in the future is quite simple: don’t forget the user experience. If you don’t keep the masses happy, you might have a revolt on your hands. #imjustsaying
Ok, that one went totally sideways. But you know I meant well…