Collaboration • IT Operations

New and evolving technology has remarkably changed the nature of work in the last decade. We can now easily meet with colleagues across continents or in nearby cubicles using a combination of tools—messaging and conferencing apps, live polling, whiteboard tools, network drives, cloud storage, co-authoring capabilities, email and more. Today’s location-independent devices make collaboration even easier.

Despite the technological advances, enterprise collaboration is still a messy affair. Purposeful collaboration strategies are the exception—more often, the apps and approaches in use vary from company to company, department to department, team to team, and individual to individual.

Apps like Slack and projects like Microsoft’s GigJam are promising, and hint that there may even be revolution in the near future of collaboration.  But technology alone will not enable true collaboration. Business leaders need to determine a vision, and take steps to drive behavior change across the organization.

For now, however, business users can take positive steps by thinking differently about collaboration, and getting started on their own behavior change.

Working with Today’s Tools

Synchronous communication technology brings a multitude of benefits to business. It can eliminate geographical barriers, enabling people in different locations to collaborate in real time. Responses and feedback are immediate, and with web and video conferencing, participants can use body language and tone of voice.

It can lessen the enormous amount of time many workers spend waiting for document revisions, email responses and message board posts. It also helps to minimize time wasted due to miscommunication and enables people to steer conversations in the right direction before they stray too far.

Asynchronous communication tools enable users to collaborate without time or place constraints. While synchronous communication has been defined as “real-time,” asynchronous is sometimes referred to as “near-time.”  Examples of asynchronous collaboration include brainstorming in a Yammer group or using OneDrive for Business or SharePoint for document revisions.

Tools with asynchronous capabilities include email, blogs, wikis, social networks, content management systems and cloud storage services, and can provide a multitude of benefits to organizations, including:

Available any time, any place: For organizations with global offices or a large number of telecommuters, asynchronous tools can provide employees with the freedom to work according to their schedules.

Provide better documentation of the collaboration process: Documented interactions are searchable and reusable.

Is versatile: It’s suitable for one-to-one and one-to-many interactions.

Offer users more time for reflection: With asynchronous communication, immediate response is not usually expected or required. More careful consideration can result in higher-quality work.

Minimize language barriers: For employees whose first language is something other than the corporate standard (often English), asynchronous tools provide them with the time to clearly understand and respond to communications.

Changing Behaviors to Improve Collaboration

One of the most significant collaboration challenges for businesses today is convincing each and every participant, from the bottom to the top, to rethink how they work. This is a big task, but it can be accomplished with sustained effort and small actions taken by individual employees. For example, here’s an alternative to using attachments.

The confusion and waste that results from people working on different versions of the same document became a problem with the invention of the floppy disk. It has only become worse as the options for file proliferation have increased. Collaboration software can greatly reduce version control nightmares, but ingrained habits can make reaping the benefits of such technologies difficult. An effective step in the right direction is to establish a new best practice in using file names to indicate versions.

A current practice for editing and reviewing files is to append numbers to the end of filenames (for example, BigProjectBudget_V2.xlsx), then send the attachment for review. This practice is bound to cause problems when individuals make changes to different versions and the collation of comments becomes challenging and confusing. Knowing which file is the latest version can be difficult to determine. The good news is, it can be avoided.

A best practice is to keep the name of the latest version of the file the same. Everyone should always be working on BigProjectBudget.xlsx.  When a new version is created, the old version is renamed something like BigProjectBudget_Retired_04-01-2015.xlsx. This eliminates the need to send an update email, and everyone automatically opens the new version when they use links to the “old” or original file.

This practice not only helps prevent problems when working on old versions, but also nudges people toward changing habits and utilizing collaboration technologies more effectively.  Making small behavior changes like sending links instead of attachments brings people one step closer to better collaboration.

Finding Value in Enterprise Social Network Tools

Just a few years ago, using social networks was frowned upon in organizations.  But researchers are finding that enterprise use of social technologies is not a time-suck, but rather a significant productivity booster.  As a result, business leaders are rethinking their position.

Enterprise social networks like Yammer— which has been described as “Facebook for work”— encourage collaboration among employees from different departments and in separate locations who would otherwise never connect.  Social network tools can also enable workers to increase their efficiency and produce quality work in less time and with less effort.  
For example, with email, correspondence is essentially “trapped” in a person’s inbox, accessible only to the mailbox owner.  Collaborating via social platforms like Yammer, however, frees the information and makes it available (and searchable) to anyone on the team.

In a July 2012 McKinsey Global Institute report, researchers estimated that so-called “interaction workers”—which they define as managers, professionals, sales staff and others whose work requires frequent interpersonal interactions, independent judgment and access to knowledge—spend 28 percent of their workdays answering, writing or responding to email.  They also stated that these workers spend an additional 19 percent of their time trying to track down information, and 14 percent working with colleagues.

In an accompanying Harvard Business Review article, researchers noted that these are an organization’s most expensive workers, the ones who are relied upon to do more than routine work.  “They’re supposed to be innovating, figuring out how to improve business processes and generally building you a better mousetrap—not wading through email,” researchers wrote.

The researchers concluded that full adoption of social technologies could increase worker productivity by 20 to 25 percent. Using Yammer as an example, here are five ways business users can use social networks to improve efficiency and productivity:

1. Prevent a reply-all storm

When you are about to send an email to a distribution list and are dreading the Reply All storm, create a Yammer group instead.  View the discussion when you want, and add email alerts and bookmarks to ensure you don’t miss important conversations.

Action items: Create a new group in Yammer and change Yammer email notification settings.

2. Get input from the best company source, no matter your location

When you are looking for input on a topic but are unsure of whom to ask, search for Yammer groups related to your topic. Your search will help you identify colleagues who are actively engaged in the topic even if you have never met them, and it can also help you locate information that is already available.  If you cannot find information related to your topic, post a question in a group.

If you find a group relevant to your topic, take note of the tags used in posts. These can lead you to more information and groups.

Action item: Read up on Yammer search.

3. Find answers quickly without having to peer over the top of your cubicle

Instead of prairie-dogging over your cubicle wall to see who is available to answer a question, search Yammer. You can search by expertise, department, education, project experience and much more. Even if the people you find are not available at that moment, you can send direct messages to pose questions to individuals and groups. Your reach will extend beyond neighboring desks, but will still be targeted to people who are likely to have the information you need.

Action item: Set up your Yammer profile and add as much information as you can. Encourage colleagues to do the same.

4. Catch up and contribute on your own time

When you are trying to schedule a meeting, but participants are not available at the same time, create meeting-related content directly in Yammer with notes, links and attachments.  Participants can catch up and contribute when they are available.

Action items: Learn how to share conversations, notes and files in Yammer.

5. Make meetings meaningful

When you want to schedule a meeting that includes brainstorming, set it up ahead of time with Yammer. The idea exchange is not limited by time constraints, and your actual meeting will be shorter. Using Yammer can also improve your results, particularly when the group is larger and less outgoing people may tend to fade into the background. Other benefits include improved depth of thought as people have more time to develop their ideas, and a clearer understanding of ideas with the help of links and other background materials.

Action item: Learn how to set up and use Yammer groups.

Here are five best practices to get you started with Yammer:

Set up your profile and upload a picture. The more people know about your experience, expertise and interests, the more they will interact with you.  Also, profiles with pictures are more trusted.

In addition to following those you work most closely with, be sure to follow people you don’t know, but who have similar responsibilities at your company.

Set up your notification preferences. For some,Yammer’s default email notifications may be too frequent.

Don’t post just to hear yourself talk. Create conversations. Listen to what others have to say.

Talk about your work. What are you working on currently and what challenges have you faced? This encourages conversation.

The Future of Collaboration

There are many solutions aimed at solving the enterprise collaboration conundrum, from enterprise software veterans like Microsoft to startups like Slack.  This across-the-board focus on improving enterprise collaboration is not isolated, but rather part of the larger digital transformation happening in business today.  The driving force behind this shift is the customer, whose expectations have changed dramatically because of technology.  As a result, today’s business users need to deliver higher-quality work in less time.