Understanding Different Collaboration Styles

One of the sure-fire ways to boost adoption of any collaboration platform is to match the technology to the culture and requirements of your imageorganization – because no two organizations are alike, and even within one company, different teams will be comfortable with different “modalities” of collaboration. During the Unity Connect Online event last week, I led a panel (with 5 of my closest friends in the SharePoint community, no less) that tackled the topic of the different "modalities" of collaboration available within the Office 365 platform, and how they can all coincide within your organizational ecosystem.

The panel included Naomi Moneypenny (@nmoneypenny), Eric Riz (@rizinsights), Michele Caldwell (@shellecaldwell), Benjamin Niaulin (@bniaulin), and Marc Anderson (@sympmarc). I'm not going to attempt to summarize what others said during the panel (which you can watch online through ITUnity), but wanted to share some of my thoughts on the questions discussed.

Q: How important is culture and "fit" to collaboration?

A: I think it's an imperative. Some many technology deployments fail when there is not a culture fit — or, more common is that there is never an attempt to identify the cultural fit. What do I mean by culture and fit? I've worked on teams and in environments that were very much face-to-face cultures when people would share content and ideas electronically, but then come together to discuss and disseminate. Forcing this kind of culture to automate and depersonalize their collaborative interactions would drastically alter the way they worked. And even more common scenario is an overly-enthusiastic CEO wanting to roll out the latest and greatest social features – to an organization that does not use social, not even personal tools like Facebook. Know your users, and provide tools that are a match to their collaboration style and needs.

Q: Can you be successful if the technology does NOT fit your organizational or team culture?

A: If you have some really strong leaders within your organization who are advocates for the technology, then I do believe you can find some degree of success with capabilities that are otherwise not a cultural fit. It's the old "square peg in a round hole" adage. Yes, you could force-fit a solution, but at what cost? It's going to take longer, cost more, and cause some kind of damage. Every collaboration technology initiative begins with a business analysis phase during which you are assessing not just features, but also talking with your end users about how the tools align with existing business processes and methods.

Q: How much can you shift/push your team to fit the technology and still expect to see adoption?

A: Again, square peg – round hole. The problem is that you may see strong numbers during the first month or so, but adoption and engagement will drop off dramatically soon after.

Q: Where does individual productivity versus team productivity come into play?

A: That's a great question. People have personal preferences, and many of us will tolerate a lot of change to existing methods and tools if we are working on our own. For example, I am not a fan of some of the internal project management capabilities, and as a "list guy" I was an early adopter of the kanban list management tool, Trello. The tool fit my personal needs, and I use it often to help me organize complex activities. However, I've had very little success in getting my team to use the tool. Instead, we discussed the needs of the larger organization and decided to go with Jira, which has some similar kanban capability. There are a number of important reasons for going with Jira over Trello — namely, integration with our dev activities and customer support systems.

My personal feeling is not to make this into a battle. Jira provides most of what I like about Trello, but it better fits with the organizational requirements. However, nobody is stopping me from using Trello. If I see value, but am still participating on the shared platform, no problems.

Q: Microsoft has talked about supporting many different "modalities of collaboration." What does that mean?

A: I'm one of the few people in the community that describes it as "modalities of collaboration," which I make a point to do because it was how a couple Microsoft people described the style differences between collaboration methods. Email is one mode of collaboration. Social is another. And other teams are very process and workflow-centric, or even document-centric, all of which falls under the banner of SharePoint. I'm sure you could make the case for other modalities, but these are the three primary styles. This entire discussion point came out of some community confusion around whether Outlook Groups were displacing Yammer and/or Team Sites, to which Microsoft responded by saying no, we support different modalities.

Microsoft has a long and storied past of creating and supporting tools that had some degree of overlap. While that may be true, I think it's a good thing that Microsoft continues to support this overlap. Some organizations prefer using email, and the new Outlook Groups capabilities may be a fit for their culture. For others, they may prefer building social communities with threaded discussions. What makes this multi-modality issue problematic is when different teams, or even different users on the same team, want to use differing tools. While I'd like to say that all of these tools are well-integrated and it doesn't matter which tool you use, it does matter. Honestly, that's one of the things that keeps my company, Beezy, in business — a poor UX in SharePoint, and the need for a UX that can connect-the-dots between all of Microsoft's many tools and features. That's what Beezy does. We get pushed into the "social collaboration" category, but truthfully we extend and enhance Microsoft's broader collaboration story.

Q: When you talk with customers about collaboration, do you talk SharePoint, Groups, or Yammer? All of them? Do you not even bring up product or features?

A: I find that most customers enter the discussion with specific tools in mind. I'm a SharePoint guy, so most of them come to the table with questions about SharePoint, obviously. It's no small task to walk some of these customer backward, to think first about the business problems they are trying to solve BEFORE they make decisions on tools and features. So when I talk about collaboration, I try to move the direction toward technology-agnostic questions so that I can better understand what they are trying to achieve — and how much of that can be solved with or without technology.

Q: What are your thoughts on the roadmap of Microsoft's different modalities of collaboration? Are there gaps you think they need to fill within their approach, or do we just need to have patience?

A: I just wrote an article about the improved integrations with the Microsoft Office suite (Word, Excel, PowerPoint), which is a HUGE plus for SharePoint and Office 365 users, because these productivity apps are the backbone of most of our information worker activities. I have some definite opinions about some of the other things Microsoft is pursuing — some of them good, in my opinion, others not so great. Overall, I think they're moving in the right direction, and I am genuinely excited about what I've seen so far and what I've heard about (on and off the record).

Clearly, there is much more I could say on this topic. I'd love to field any questions from readers, so don’t be shy. Let me know what you think, and whether you have any questions I can attempt to answer, or at least share an opinion on. Thanks!

Christian Buckley

Christian is a Microsoft Regional Director and Office Servers and Services MVP, the Founder & CEO of CollabTalk LLC, an independent research and technical marketing services firm based in Salt Lake City, Utah, and CMO of revealit.io, a blockchain-based video technology company.