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.

Introducing Collaboration Technologies to the Enterprise is a Challenge

By Dennis D. McDonald

One topic that came up several times at last week’s The New New Internet Conference in Northern Virginia was how challenging it is to introduce collaboration tools into an organization. For example, Harvard’s Andrew McAfee told stories where groups left on their own will “vote with their feet” and not use the tools.

I have personally documented situations like this in my own research. See, for example, the interview I conducted last Spring with a manager who had introduced a wiki into his organization as a tool for collaborative development of technical documentation; few people collaborated.

This topic has been very well reviewed by Shawn Callahan in the Anecdote web site post titled Why People Don’t Use Collaborative Tools. I recommend reading this; Callahan covers a wide range of issues and provides much to think about.

My own views to a great extent parallel Callahan’s.

Successful collaboration tool introduction is based less on the characteristics of the tool itself than on the motivation users have to use the tool, plus a heavy helping of Ease of Use. People who are already open to and involved in collaboration are more likely to adopt technological tools that support collaboration than people who aren’t already open to or involved with collaboration.

The tools also have to be simple enough to facilitate group discovery of the “tipping point” where people see that using the tool actually helps/makes easier/facilitates collaboration.That usually means someone has to lead by example.

If Management wants to change the culture of the organization to make it more collaborative and less siloed, should it view the tools (such as software with collaborative or relationship management features) as a way to strategically “disrupt” the status quo?

For top executives to attempt “disruption” without middle management support could be a recipe for failure. As someone who has been involved in studying or managing technology applications for more than two decades, I am finding that details of technology are much less interesting than the people who use it. Perhaps I’m just not as interested in technological  “bells and whistles” as I once was.

Nevertheless, one of the reasons why I am so excited about the “web 2.0” and “enterprise 2.0” movements is that they really do emphasize people and their relationships as facilitated by the technical architectures of how the technologies are developed (e.g., “perpetual” beta) and delivered (e.g., 100% browser based access).

Callahan’s Anecdote post also mentions adopter age related issues and the well-known hypotheses of the receptivity of the “MySpace Generation” to collaboration. The age issue is always taken as a given by many industry observers in the Web 2.0 community. They predict that technology-savvy young people will force enterprises to adopt Web 2.0 technologies internally.

While this makes a great deal of sense to me, I still have some questions. I have some personal experience in watching how young people enter into large organizations. I am fascinated with the amount of learning that has to take place as organizational practices and expectations are transferred to new entrants to the job force; this doesn’t happen overnight as young people learn to navigate the customs and procedures of the corporation.

I’m also periodically struck by how conservative some young people are concerning how organizations operate. Does experience with MySpace automatically translate, say, into willingness to participate in a wiki-based collaborative effort? Maybe it does, but I would like to see some research on this question before I draw any conclusions. (Perhaps the experiences of companies like Jobster with corporate acceptance by different user age groups can provide some insight here?)

Perhaps the single most iimportant factor that will drive the success of introducing collaboration tools into an organization is how the process is managed. That is, the process must be managed. Just making the tools available is only part of the battle. People have to adopt the tools and do productive and useful things with them. In some cases this will require much top down effort while in others steady encouragement of viral, bottom-up, or even “skunk works” approaches will be more appropriate.

The right approach will depend upon the organization and how receptive it is to change and how aggressively it wants to make collaboration tools part of the normal toolset. From this consultant’s perspective, the successful managed approach must address the traditional triumvirate of People, Processes, and Technology in a unified fashion that is simultaneously managed while at the same time taking into account the difficulty — and inappropriateness — of bludgeoning people into submission.

In other words, the successful introduction of collaboration tools into an organization requires a carefully managed campaign and project plan that incorporates multiple skills including marketing, sales, training, technology management, and good old fashioned leadership.

If all this can be accomplished in a subtle and pragmatic fashion while respecting individual initiative and privacy, we may find that the adoption and use of collaboration tools will become as natural and as widespread as spreadsheets and PowerPoint slides.

 

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