How Collaboration Generates Business Value

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Here we are once again at the early stage of another major SharePoint release, which always causes organizations to take a pause and reflect on the latest Microsoft messaging, licensing offers, and the array of competing marketing out there trying to draw them away. It’s incredible to think that I’ve been formally in this space since 2005 (although I did some research on SharePoint and made some recommendations to Microsoft via this blog back in early 2004) and here we are getting ready to go through another cycle — as well as being fully invested in the evergreen model of Office 365. But things have changed quite a bit from those heady days of SharePoint Portal Server.

Information workers have entered the social collaboration era. According to the January edition of the Harvard Business Review, as organizations grow “silos are breaking down, connectivity is increasing, and teamwork is seen as a key to organizational success.” (Collaborative Overload)

Customers are recognizing that using social collaboration tools can dramatically improve adoption and engagement on their SharePoint environments — and that a higher rate of engagement is a competitive advantage. It makes sense, doesn’t it? If more people within your organization are using SharePoint, you’ll share more, you’ll talk more, more intellectual property will be created, more ideas discussed, more links between seemingly unrelated projects or people or research efforts will be connected to generate something new. That, my friends, is business value in the making.

With all the industry buzz and vendors luring organizations toward social platforms, many CIOs are still reluctant to fully embrace these tools — even as improved collaboration could give them distinct competitive advantages. Which is simply crazy. I was just online today with the Sears service rep, chatting away using their online instant messaging tool, with the rep pulling up my file and sharing details of my last service. THAT was a social collaboration (and miraculously, they are able to send someone to fix my dryer tomorrow, which, if you know anything about these appliance repair companies, is almost unheard of. I was expecting a week without a dryer)

But let’s look at social collaboration in the Microsoft space. I’ve said it again and again — there is now no single “modality” for social collaboration that will meet the needs of everyone in your organization, with Microsoft supporting multiple features and tools that sometimes overlap or seemingly conflict, but that provide more options to customers than ever before. Within the partner ecosystem, many Strategic Integrators (SIs) have developed expertise in helping customers quickly map out their cultural and technological needs, and build out the modern digital workplace.

The focus of all of this effort is adoption, engagement, and productivity. But what they’re really providing is competitive advantage. Companies that are better at collaborating will identify and solve customer issues more quickly, and they’ll innovate faster.

As far as driving competitive advantage — it takes more than an out-of-the-box deployment to achieve that measurable benefit of improved productivity. It takes thoughtful planning, alignment with business requirements, and an understanding of how the technology fits within an organization’s cultural norms. One of the major concerns is that many social tools do not come with the same controls as with document management systems, like SharePoint. It is that lack of control that many CIOs fear. Fear comes from not knowing — and not knowing is the result of a lack of planning.

How do we tap into the advantages of social collaboration, leveraging them for competitive advantage, without increasing business risk? Some of the areas that should be included in your social strategy:

Understand your business use cases.

While sales messaging can be very compelling, most enterprise solutions need to be refined for your specific business needs. Take the time to understand what it is you are trying to achieve with this new technology, and which aspects of your business would benefit the most. For example, using social collaboration tools to more quickly disseminate corporate communications, and get a higher rate of response and engagement from employees. Also remember that compliance and governance controls across many social platforms can be very limited, so be as clear as possible on what you are trying to achieve by using these social features, and how your security, auditing, and other governance requirements will be met.

Map out the limitations of the technology.

There are things your product of choice can do (which is why you were sold on it in the first place) and cannot do (or it may take configuration or customization). If you have taken the time to clearly map out your core use cases, then review the technology through them one by one. My guidance is to not base your plans around promises for a future road map if there is no value in what is available today. If your basic functional requirements cannot be met, and especially if your security, compliance, and reporting requirements cannot be supported, be aware of the trade-offs that you are making.

Define your measurements of success.

For each defined use case, how will you define success? For example, a cross-functional community of practice for project management will likely have different measurements of success than the corporate communication example mentioned above.

Decide on how to move forward.

You have your plan, you’ve outlined your use cases, and you understand the limitations and how you’ll measure success. Based on these, you have some decisions to make about how to move forward with the social collaboration tools you’ve selected. Weigh the benefits of increased user adoption and increased communication against real (or perceived) shortcomings in control and management, and figure out your strategy.

Experiment with the help of your internal influencers, and iterate on your strategy.

One final — and important recommendation: find your influencers. Social collaboration tools are a wonderful resource for helping an organization to figure out where your internal communities and collaboration are thriving — and hurting. Each community generally contains people who go above and beyond to help their community run. Tap into your influencers and try to better understand what makes them tick, and see what can be replicated from their successes.

At the corporate level, you may not yet be thinking about social collaboration — but undoubtedly, your employees are already using them, whether supported or not. Tools like Slack, HipChat, Trello and others are finding their way into our environments. Rather than fight the change, organizations need to understand why their employees are using them. The fact is that the underlying technology of our enterprise content management (ECM) customer relationship management (CRM), and enterprise resource planning ERP) platforms are quickly incorporating these social features. If Sears is leveraging this capability to help with service tickets, what is your competitor doing with this technology?

Social collaboration improves communication and sharing — and when teams are talking and sharing, it sparks innovation. Whether or not you have a social strategy in place today,
you will need to have one in place soon enough.

Now excuse me while I go hang some wet clothes on furniture so that they can dry…

Christian Buckley

Christian is a Microsoft Regional Director and Office Apps & Services MVP, and the Founder & CEO of CollabTalk LLC, an independent research and technical marketing services firm based in Lehi, Utah, through which he provides fractional-CMO for partners in the Microsoft ecosystem.