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Understanding the Dual Nature of Collaboration

Strategy

Revolutionary innovation is easy to spot: it can be disruptive, it can make us uncomfortable while at the same time open our minds to new possibilities, and it can change the way we think of a product category, a method, or an industry. Revolutionary innovation can create entirely new ecosystems of products and services to surround and support the new paradigm. On the other hand, evolutionary innovation is not so easy to identify, with most advances happening in such tiny and incremental steps as to go completely unnoticed by the masses. And yet the span of time can help us look back and provide perspective on what would otherwise be an equally dramatic impact on society through ecosystem creation and expansion.

Collaboration technology — in its broadest definition — includes both revolutionary and evolutionary innovation, impacting both the IT organization as well as the front office. The impact may be large or small depending on a number of factors — from the scope and role of your collaboration infrastructure (the tools and platforms you use) to the maturity (level of engagement) of your end users.

Most of the collaboration solutions we implement today are not new — from web meetings to instant messaging to peer-to-peer wiki editing, these technologies have been part of a slow but continuous evolution over the past 20 years or more. What has changed has been the general availability and widespread adoption of high speed internet, the rapidly decreasing costs of infrastructure and storage costs and advances in software and mobile technologies that allow organizations to distribute complex workloads across local and cloud-based environments, leaving little to no complexity at the front-end and enabling the end user to simply format and consume.

Collaboration is a story of the duality of innovation — meaning that optimization of your collaboration platform maybe viewed from either of two perspectives: the IT perspective, and the business perspective. From an IT standpoint, it has been a slow and steady march toward ubiquitous connectedness. From a business user perspective, collaboration has become more flexible and personalized.

In my 20-year career working with engineering, product, and program management teams, the weekly status meeting has moved from using toll-free conference lines to audio-only voice-over-IP (VoIP) to free audio and video web meetings that can support hundreds, if not thousands, of participants. In the early 1990′s, I helped convert hundreds of support documents from paper-based (all collected and stored in binders) into HTML-based online documents, readily available to the entire company from within our portal. Those documents and our portal went from a locked down, centrally-controlled portal to a team-based site model, and then to a real-time enterprise social collaboration hub. None of the underlying technologies really fall into the definition of revolutionary innovation — but the combination of technologies, the speed of delivery, and the quality of service provided have, upon reflection of the last 20 years, changed the way we work and connect and communicate quite dramatically.

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Consumerization of IT and the Bring Your Own Device (BYOD) phenomenon have increased the speed at which we’re seeing these evolutionary changes — and they may inspire other revolutionary changes. The consumerization of IT is the process of taking very complex activities and workloads and reducing them into easily consumable solutions. BYOD, on the other hand, is about unlocking those key workloads and accessing the content you need using the tools you are most comfortable.

But here again we see the duality of these collaboration technologies, with end users looking for easier ways to quickly share information with their peers, customers and partners, and with IT trying to ensure that sensitive data and activities are happening within the organization’s defined governance and compliance standards. There is a need for visibility, while also maintaining order. Consumerization and BYOD are driving change, because people want flexibility and usability. At the same time, businesses require some modicum of control. CIO’s must ensure that security and compliance standards are being met, that the right people can access the right content in the right way. It is the most common clash of the modern organization — the business users on one side who are trying to find new ways to optimize productivity and their IT counterparts who are trying to keep everything running.

To successfully navigate the dual nature of your collaboration platforms, and ensure that you have maximum input from stakeholders across your organization, there are four fundamental steps you can take:

  • Detailed use case analysis
    Unlike most requirements gathering efforts, the goal of use case analysis is to focus on the work activities to be accomplished from end-to-end, so that all stakeholders understand the specific business outcome, as well as the technology and business processes necessary to achieve that business outcome.
  • Risk assessment of each use case and requirement
    Once your use cases have been documented, you can then begin to discuss the risks inherent with each scenario, which will help you better understand technical fit for the solutions you investigate. Notice that technology has not yet come into play — the goal of your business is not to roll out cool new technologies (unless you’re a technology product company) but to solve workload and productivity problems. If you include your technology discussions too early, the use case discussion and risk assessment may get foggy and the end result may then miss the mark.
  • Careful prioritization of requirements
    Clearly, you want to go into any technology decision with eyes wide open. If you understand your key use cases, and the risks involved with each scenario, you are then prepared to discuss the business impact and prioritization of those use cases — and then make business decisions as to your path forward. In a perfect world, you have all the time, money, and resources you need to pursue every use case. The reality is that you have limited time, money, and resources, so prioritization is necessary.
  • Experiment often, and pilot your functionality
    As you build, the most successful organizations test out their collaboration functionality regularly, running through key scenarios and working with your formal test organization and power users to get honest feedback. Make sure that ample test time is built into your plans — and don’t just run through your use cases and scenarios from a technical perspective, but also observe and adjust based on cultural fit. Time and time again teams release what appear to be tools and features that, on paper, meet the needs of their organization, but if it does not match the way that the team works, or if it requires too much training or change, adoption will be low. Consider this within your testing plans, as well.

These fundamentals will help you along the path of reducing the complexity of the decisions you have to make and help you to bridge the duality gap between IT and your business users. Unfortunately, there is no easy button (yet). To manage the duality of your organizational needs and requirements, it requires a close alignment of priorities and a shared understanding of what the business is trying to accomplish.

Comments on this Article: 2

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  1. Really great insight. I really appreciate understanding of collaboration technologies needing flexibility, visibility and order. This is a immense challenge, and we think we are close to solving it at Handshakez with our cross-firewall collaboration and analytics platform for sales folk, but recognize the fine line we must walk in meeting needs of the front and back office.

    What has been your experience in trying to get new organizations to consider alternative workflows when presenting new tools?

  2. With most organizations I speak with, whether not they embrace collaboration tools depends entirely on their cultural maturity, not their technical capability. For many, getting them to consider alternatives begins with a conversation around key use cases and scenarios, and showing them how their current methods (mostly manual processes) can be improved upon with tools. But the key is to begin with an understand of the business needs, and suggest solutions that enhance rather than completely disrupt.

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