Dennis D. McDonald ( consults from Alexandria Virginia. His services include writing & research, proposal development, and project management.

Collaboration Can Be Messy

By Dennis D. McDonald

Collaboration can be messy. Convincing a diverse group of people to work together to accomplish a common objective, especially when the group contains many people that don’t know each other, requires artful leadership.

Fortunately, collaboration can be helped by technology of many kinds ranging from basic phone and email service to more sophisticated web conferencing, screen and content sharing, and collaborative content creation.

One problem with a technology-centric collaboration approach is that successful collaboration also involves luck and serendipity. More importantly,  it’s not always clear how much relative emphasis management should place on improving collaboration processes versus managing to improve the hoped for outcomes of those collaboration processes.

Sometimes that distinction between the two is hard to make. Knowledge sharing and discovery, when appropriately facilitated and measured, can lead to faster problem resolution and less reinvention of the wheel. But at the end of the day will the results of a process where collaboration and information sharing actually occur necessarily lead to better outcomes of those processes? Isn’t it also possible the improved ability to generate and share information actually promote more inefficiency because it’s now easier to pursue blind alleys or to engage in unproductive work?

Since I’ve spent the bulk of my professional career helping people use technology to improve how information is created, managed, and shared, I’m definitely biased towards making collaboration and information sharing easier in order to support an organization’s business objectives. Today’s mobile, cloud based collaboration, and social networking technologies support this. One problem, though, is that in many organizations there is still a distinction made between how technology is managed and how the businesses operate. Collaboration can be supported by the implementation and use of appropriate technology, but who is responsible for changing and managing the business processes that the new technology is intended to support? The IT department? Or the business unit whose processes may have to change significantly — and expensively — in order to take full advantage of the new technology?

It’s not unusual for project managers to experience situations where the costs of implementing and using new software based tools have been underestimated due to a failure to adequately assess how much process change will be required to take advantage of a new tool. Yes, new software tools are implemented, training occurs, and technical support is provided as a matter of course. But how will the use of the tools really and truly be integrated into the business, and will everyone be able to take advantage of them?

Anyone who has ever attempted to shift from an email based collaboration and information sharing to a more structured approach built around tools such as blogs, wikis, or collaborative document management solutions will understand the challenges.

Which gets us back to the title of this piece: Collaboration Can Be Messy. Making a new tool available is easy. Helping people learn how to use it effectively in situations where knowledge management and information sharing are based on habits learned over many years is hard. Add to this the frustration modern workers feel when hardware and software tools available in their workplace don’t have the ease of use and simplicity of the tools and mobile devices they use day in and day out with friends outside the office, and you may see additional challenges to transitioning to a more collaborative and secure work environment. 

Part of the solution is realizing that the IT department cannot go it alone in situations where business process change will be closely linked with successful use of new technologies. The business must be involved and lead the charge. Just as the IT department of the organization needs to understand the business, so too should the business units understand  what’s involved in implementing and using new technologies. This collaboration between business and IT has to occur right from the time a business goal is first being articulated through the time a technology becomes the subject of regular training, support and upgrades.

This is nothing new, of course; the need for “alignment” between business and IT has been realized for decades. Given the ongoing democratization of workplace technology and the ease with which people expect to be able to communicate and share information within and outside an organization, this alignment is more important than ever before. What’s different about collaboration, though, is that it can be messy and, like sharing and communication in the “real world” outside the enterprise, it’s not always possible to predict the outcome of how new technologies will be used.

Which is not necessarily a bad thing. If an organization is so risk averse that it is unwilling to experiment with new ideas and ways of working, it’s probably doomed to be bypassed by younger, leaner, and more agile competitors anyway. Either way, though, management needs to be involved in managing the transition to new work habits and that may very well involve using the new tools in the process.

Copyright (c) 2012 by Dennis D. McDonald

Toward a Definition of Enterprise Mobility, Part 2: Key Questions

Peer Review in Scientific Journals Isn't Perfect - So What Else Is New?

Peer Review in Scientific Journals Isn't Perfect - So What Else Is New?