Effective Collaboration Requires More Than Purchasing a Set of Tools
In this article
Leadership is often caught up in finding the "best collaboration software" or "what is everyone else using?" These are both important questions, but the key consideration should be:
In the past few years, especially since 2020, the word "collaboration" has been interchanged often with platforms such as Teams, Webex and Slack. I understand why… but to do so misses a key aspect. Collaboration is not a technology or software. It's how employees work together to produce something, and is a core element of what makes us human.
The way staff collaborate is interesting. In fact, if you spend any time with any organization - be it an enterprise, educational institution or government agency — you will notice subtle differences. Healthy organizations collaborate effectively; others get by, but collaboration really seems more transactional. Many organizations sit somewhere in-between.
Some organizations equate productivity with meeting attendance, resulting in full schedules and little time for productivity. Not a whole lot is achieved. For the end user, it's often difficult to focus in this environment. The promise of seamless digital connection just isn't fully realized.
On the opposite side, there's an endless flood of connectivity for employees, with constant likes, tags and multiple communication channels across tools. It's almost as if end users are too connected. With too many tools and little thought given to digital employee experience, staff quickly feel overwhelmed and burn out with risk to retention and quality.
Then there are the organizations who seem to be lost in endless cycles of legacy products and disjointed collaboration systems and workstreams. This was not problematic for organizations who centered all work inside the organization's walls. However in 2020, the legacy modality of in-person quickly showed its weaknesses as the work began to geographically diversify. In some respects, returning to the office will alleviate some of the issues but hybrid and remote workers will continue to feel somewhat ineffective in this workplace collaboration culture.
And of course, there is the ideal environment that provides the right amount of technologies, shared processes and IT support to foster a healthy mix of collaboration that is supported by a cohesive vision and backed by culture and management. Creativity is ideal, productivity is optimal and organizational objectives are being met.
Ideal collaboration differs depending on environment and role in an organization. For some, finding a good balance feels very natural, but in other environments it seems hampered constantly by everything from toxic workplace culture to overbearing regulatory requirements.
Before jumping to solutions, it's important to click down a level and demystify it. There are a variety of ways to break down collaboration. In the interest of keeping it simple, we've found it's helpful to look at collaboration from the active vs. passive collaboration modes. Both are important: facilitating the right active/passive collaboration balance is key to empower the organization's employees and ultimately meet business objectives.
Active collaboration is intentional. It can be as simple as an @message, a virtual team call or even in-person conference meeting. Ideally, your staff are able to work together productively. This can vary from team to team, but when the organizational status quo struggles with this, it is often a symptom of issues rooted in cultural, environment, or technology design. Many organizations performed adequately here before 2020. It's a bit of a mix now moving forward, with results varying depending on many variables such as job role, culture, technology and workspace.
Alternatively, passive collaboration is somewhat organic. Think of the water cooler. Have you ever happened to hear of a conversation nearby, only to have realized you might be able to contribute? A polite interruption and a quick bit of conversation seems to have provided valuable information.
In an online environment, facilitating this type of spontaneous collaboration can be somewhat difficult without experience design and orchestration. Putting too much information in front of an employee can be somewhat overwhelming. The human brain can only process a finite amount of information before it becomes overwhelmed.
How do you find the right balance and build a fit for purpose collaboration experience? Start with understanding organizational culture, its users and what is needed to provide a good, productive experience that meets organizational goals and objectives. Also understand this is not static; just as organization and culture are regularly evolving, so are the collaboration needs. Often, the decisions made around a collaboration experience or set of tools that will impact tens of thousands of users, are made by a handful of people. To understand the needs of the users, it's important to work off a data-driven dynamic persona framework that maintains live KPIs on the actual needs of the end user base. This can also be utilized to maintain alignment with the business or organization for joint decision-making.
Once a data-driven persona framework is in place, trends will be uncovered and a collaboration baseline for each employee can be formed. How are employees working today, what are their current challenges, what access requirements, capabilities or integrations do they need to be successful, productive and collaborate effectively? Are remote or hybrid workers able to both collaborate actively and passively with on-premise teammates?
Armed with this information, this can be translated into a strategy that accounts for collaboration and communications within the confines of organizational culture, environments and of course, technology. A common pitfall here is failing to build the strategy tactically across from vision to enablement, execution, adoption and operations. Unfortunately, we do not live in a world where "if you build it, they will come." The business or organization needs to be aligned with technology, and employees need to feel ownership of their journey. Without effective engagement, employees will not be excited and feel empowered to adopt or improve their collaboration inside new tools. Engagement and adoption efforts should also address key collaboration challenges, targeting key areas where users struggle to be productive traditionally to ensure they are not bringing legacy, ineffective assumptions on how to collaborate.
Often, you will see the word adoption become interchangeable with the word training. This is not only inaccurate, but it can diminish your ability to drive change and increase adoption if you are only looking at it through the lens of training. Training teaches someone how to do something, successful adoption means that they are actually collaborating more effectively.
As users begin to adopt, it's important to measure progress and productivity using KPIs. More than just a survey, measuring KPIs is key to understanding where to apply the right pressure and to which personas. Using the persona collaboration baselines (established earlier through a Dynamic Persona Assessment), struggling personas can be targeted with the right services. This can take time, especially for those with significant technology debt and cultural blocks. However, the real ROI will pay back dividends for organizations that make the journey, and their users begin to collaborate more effectively.