Ask most people if they have a collaboration strategy, and the response you’ll get is generally a puzzled look. While few organizations might have a formal, documented strategy for improving collaboration, the reality is that most have unstated goals. Leaders and executives want their teams to work better together, and for individuals to find the content and expertise they need to be effective in their roles. “Collaboration” is a broad, generic term that defines an activity, process, or set of tools that enable two or more individuals to connect, share, and create a dialog. Collaboration includes things we know and use every day, such as email, web meetings, instant messaging, wikis, and various other online and offline, synchronous and asynchronous communication methods. What companies need to do is to make an effort to figure out what is lacking within their own organizations, and to develop a strategy for improving those communication methods.
Clearly, enterprises need better collaboration. Too much knowledge is lost through inefficient systems and processes. Specifically, enterprises need to develop a strategy that closely matches their culture, their end user needs, and their business requirements. Far too few companies have taken the first steps toward defining their strategy, and instead have let the waves of collaboration change wash over them. End users seek out the tools they need (and sometimes don’t need, but that look cool) and don’t think about security, support, or scalability. Without a strategy, however, those waves will erode and damage, if not destroy, all of the structure companies have built around their secure, compliant, and structured environments. It’s not sufficient to “lock down” your system against these consumer-based tools without first understanding why your users are flocking toward them – and how you can provide the tools your users need, but in a managed (i.e. responsible) way.
Enterprises are becoming more “social”
Enterprise applications — from your customer relationship management (CRM) platform, to your online payroll system — have been slowly rolling out collaboration features, from presence awareness to real-time chat. Change is happening so quickly, you may not even notice some of them — you just expect those features to be there, and always available. For example, almost every online vendor provides tools for you to instantly chat with a live representative rather than go through a phone tree or painful online maze of documentation. Where we once thought automation and self-serve content and tools were the key to productivity and efficiency, companies now understand that strengthening the social interactions between users, teams, customers and partners is the key.
Every website and application seems to be adding a “social” layer — and it can be very confusing. It is important to understand the distinction between social in the consumer world versus the enterprise. While the underlying technology may be the same (presence, instant messaging, web conferencing, social tagging), how they are used — and who uses them — may differ greatly between consumer and enterprise models.
Social for the consumer is about the democratization of ideas and conversation. Provide a way for me to share my ideas and content, and let everyone consume them, comment, tag it, and share with others.
Social for the enterprise, on the other hand, is about enriching structure, process, and content within the boundaries defined by the idea or content owner (it’s more of a Republic than a Democracy). Provide a way for me to share my content and ideas within the boundaries that I set, so that comments and sharing happening within a controlled environment, allowing me to be compliant, secure, and measurable.
The benefits of enterprise collaboration
Collaboration platforms provide many valuable business benefits around how your employees connect, and share information, content, and expertise. Some of the benefits for which companies seek to gain or improve through collaboration include:
- Creating a “single version of the truth” around their content
- Centralizing knowledge sharing, so that patterns can be determined and best practices made more visible
- Leveraging expertise outside of business unit silos
- Focusing less on the platform, and more on the needs of the information worker
- Building out communities of practice, centers of excellence
- Connecting people, ideas, and content in automated and dynamic ways
- Movement toward mobile, helping highlight those workloads which can be improved by, or moved to, mobile devices
Within most collaboration platforms, artifacts are often created. For many companies, we’re talking about content — intake forms, project plans, customer profiles, white papers, and so forth. But increasingly, the content being created is less about a printable, tangible document and more about the real-time conversation between people, between teams, consisting of lists and tags and social interactions on internal community sites. A search result may return a document or a website link, but also a community site conversation, a series of user profiles of people who are actively discussing the search topic, or several list items that may make mention of your topic. One of the benefits of developing a managed collaboration strategy for your organization is to help connect people in ways that allow them to get the information they need faster – and in context to their role, their team, and their location within your website or company portal, which makes them more productive.
Collaboration needs to be personalized
The hard part is that no single method for collaboration fits within any single organization. A company may strive to build out a certain collaboration culture and tools, but the more controls a company puts on collaboration, the less likely people are to use that platform. What makes collaboration complex is the desire to keeps things flexible, dynamic, and allow for different collaboration needs — while allowing companies to also manage their needs around permissions, reporting, auditing and compliance.
There is always a balancing act between what your end users want, and the things which will encourage them to be more collaborative, and the requirements of the business.
Developing your social strategy
Understanding the different collaboration options available to organizations ensures you find the right fit for your culture and for your business requirements. A company with paper-based files systems looking to update and automate may not be the ideal candidate for a complex social networking platform — the jump may be too extreme for end users and for the process maturity of the organization. However, the company may very well bloom with access to a more modernized enterprise collaboration management platform focusing on structured, process-centric functionality that allow them to automate many of their activities while helping end users to better connect.
Central to your strategy should be search. For the enterprise, how and where your artifacts are created, shared, and consumed are the drivers of much of the collaboration requirements — project plans, for example, may have a number of keywords or tags associated to them by default (usually referred to as a ‘content type’), and a project plan created within the marketing team might have different keywords associated with it than a project plan created in engineering. Many business decisions are defined by the information architecture, while social helps your organization to refine, extend, and improve that information architecture by allowing people to see it, talk about it, like it, rate it, use it, and come up with ways to improve it. Taxonomy, automation, and governance are equal drivers within the social enterprise.
How to get started integrating social tools:
- Understand your culture. First and foremost, you need to find out what your people are using today, and why. Review the tools and services that seem to be filling the collaboration gaps, and why they are working. If you do this, you’ll better understand the cultural aspect of how your users work, and better plan for future systems because what you deliver will be a cultural fit.
- Build your requirements thoughtfully. Social is not about “chatting” — understand exactly what you are trying to enable and improve through collaborative features. Social is about improving communication and unlocking untapped knowledge. Make sure your requirements focus on the business benefits to be delivered, and not on the individual features of the tools and products you review.
- Figure out your measurements and success metrics. How do you know your social efforts are being successful? How do you know they are having the intended effect of improving collaboration? While measuring qualitative improvements to any system can be difficult, tracking weekly or monthly trending data around ‘Number of Likes’ or ‘Number of Comments’ or ‘Number of Times Shared’ will provide rich data that will help you determine whether the solutions you’ve implemented are taking hold.
- Benchmark your activities. Draw a line in the sand, and then take action. No plan will be perfect – do your best, and let end users get their hands on the new solutions. Come back in 30 days and review — and be sure to ask employees for feedback. Ensure your requirements are being met, and where they are not, make adjustments, and iterate on your model.
- Be willing to experiment. Unless your organization has been using social tools for years, and your reporting and metrics are somewhat mature, you will need to make adjustments as you try to find the right cultural fit. As you review the data from your success metrics, be willing to make changes based on what you see.
There is no right or wrong way to extend the social capabilities of your organization. While there are a number of vendors who will attempt to win you over to their “comprehensive platform” and claim to meet all of your collaboration needs, the first and fundamental step is to meet the needs of the people who will be using the platform — your end users. If you have them involved at the beginning, you will understand the culture, your requirements, and the measurements for success much more quickly than without them.
Building your social strategy should not be done in a vacuum — that would be anti-social.