Dennis D. McDonald (ddmcd@outlook.com) is an independent consultant located in Alexandria Virginia. His services and capabilities are described here. Application areas include project, program, and data management; market assessment, digital strategy, and program planning; change and content management; social media; and, technology adoption. Follow him on Google+. He also publishes on CTOvision.com and aNewDomain.

Five Realities of Enterprise Collaboration & Technology

By Dennis D. McDonald

Here are five things that people introducing new technology to help collaboration should think about:

  1. People in your organization already collaborate.
  2. Not everyone likes to share.
  3. Email is not going away.
  4. People need to collaborate outside as well as inside the enterprise.
  5. No single piece of technology will satisfy all types of collaboration.

1. People in your organization already collaborate.

In Defining and Measuring Enterprise Collaboration I defined “collaboration” like this:

Collaboration: people working together and sharing information to achieve a common objective.

No organization, whether government, for profit, or not-for-profit, can operate on a daily basis without collaboration, either among staff, or between staff and the people outside the organization.

It’s also wrong to think of technology driving collaboration. Technology acts as an enabler of current collaboration-supported processes or by making it easier to communicate and collaborate with people who might not otherwise be involved.

It makes sense when planning improved support for collaboration to give thought to the types of collaboration you want to encourage and to the actions you need to take to convince staff to use new collaborative technologies. That means you need to understand how people are already collaborating. This may call for the need for an assessment that distinguishes between enterprise level factors, for example, as discussed in this white paper developed for Jive Software.

2. Not Everyone Likes to Share.

Unfortunately, one corollary to “people already are collaborating” is “not everyone likes to share.” If you introduce tools to simplify document based collaboration, shared document creation, or work-related social networking, your organization’s existing silos, political rivalries, and privacy concerns will not disappear overnight. Attitudes and behavior take time to change.

Leadership examples and peer pressure will take time to take hold. Eventually there will probably still be some hold outs, even if certain business processes have been redesigned to take advantage of new collaboration tools. This is a management issue you need to be prepared for.

3. Email is not going away. 

In Social Media Engagement Tips: Don’t Give Up on Email Just Yet I noted that email is going to be with us for a long, long time, despite its being notoriously inefficient in certain collaboration situations. Examples are where the proliferation of emailed document attachments requiring coordinated review, editing, and discussion generates confusion, errors in updating, and wasted time. Also, the recent post Are Smartphones Bad for Collaboration? addresses the potentially false sense of efficiency that smartphone availability can generate around documents or complex business processes due to the limitations of small screens and slow web access.

Still, being able to send and receive email anytime and anywhere via smartphone, coupled with email’s serving as a “lowest common denominator interface” for interacting with remote applications and databases, suggests to me that attempting to completely stamp out email-based collaboration would be hopeless and counterproductive.

The implication for management is that we need to explain clearly when it makes sense to use specialized tools to collaborate, when it makes sense to use email, and how smartphone (and tablet) use need to be taken into account when managing processes requiring workplace collaboration.

4. People need to collaborate outside the enterprise.

It’s not enough to help staff collaborate with other staff members inside the firewall. They also need to work with non-employees. That’s true for groups you might not think of as having regular “customer relationship” or sale responsibilities.

For example, spend some time in Accounts Receivables and you’ll see what I mean if they get regular calls about billing issues. In fact, if you go through and identify all the “customer touch points” in your organization, you might be surprised at how often people outside designated customer service and support operations are in touch with customers and other outside groups, as discussed in Should Everyone in an Organization Have Customer Service Responsibilities? 

Make sure you have a realistic strategy for extending membership and usage of internal collaboration networks to include everyone your staff needs to collaborate with, especially if staff are already using public tools like Google Docs and Dropbox to collaborate on sensitive documents.

5. No single piece of technology will satisfy all collaboration needs.

Whether your collaboration involves managing documents, building social relationships, providing quick responses via real-time messaging, managing access to expertise, or all of the above, I doubt you’ll find one technical solution that does everything everybody wants, especially if you start adding in the requirement to integrate with existing and legacy systems. Not everyone is going to agree on all the requirements. The realities of why people collaborate may impact your developing a single set of tightly defined requirements. 

On the one hand, some collaboration could be tightly linked to very defined processes involving established rules and procedures that are stable and carry over a long period of time. Other types of collaboration might be more ephemeral, serendipitous, informal, or less well defined.

Even if you use the same tools to support both types of collaboration, you may find that training, support, and system integration requirements differ enough that the advantages of having a single technical architecture need to be balanced against the potential value of having separate governance and support operations.

Copyright (c) 2011 by Dennis D. McDonald. Dennis is an independent consultant in Alexandria Virginia. He can be reached via email at ddmcd@yahoo.com or via his office phone at 703-549-1030. His web site is located at http://www.ddmcd.com. His Twitter name is @ddmcd.

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