Collaboration • IT Strategy

In the last few years, everyone from software giants to ambitious startups have created applications and other systems in an attempt to solve the enterprise collaboration conundrum.  This across-the-board focus on 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.

There’s little debate that collaboration-focused solutions are making it easier to work with colleagues.1  There’s also increasing evidence of the enormous value collaboration technology can bring to an organization.2  However, organizations that want to realize the benefits of true collaboration—innovation, creativity and engagement—need to do more than provide access to the latest technology and instruction on how to use it effectively.  They need to change user behavior by developing and communicating a clear vision.

It will require significant effort, for sure, but it’s the same for any business transformation.  Providing end-users with the right tools and expert instruction goes a long way, but if leadership is not on board with a vision, the effort will probably fail.3

It’s the vision, the buy-in from management that drives behavior change and, ultimately, adoption of technology.  Business leaders who participate in the effort, who use the tools and approaches themselves, will lead by example and inspire others to think differently, and to cooperate and compromise.  Management must make improving collaboration a real priority, not simply a
stated one.

Finding Inspiration

In an April 2015 Harvard Business Review article, author Ron Ashkenas acknowledges the challenges businesses face when attempting to improve collaboration.  According to Ashkenas, getting people from different business units who are focused on their own departmental goals to work together for a larger organizational purpose is much harder in practice than it is in theory.

He also notes a distinction between true collaboration and simple cooperation: “It takes much more than people being willing to get together, share information and cooperate.  It more importantly involves making tough decisions and trade-offs about what to do and what not to do, in order to adjust workloads across areas with different priorities and bosses.  And despite all the well-meaning cooperative behaviors, this is often where interdepartmental collaboration breaks down,” he writes.  Ashkenas suggests a solution in two steps:

First, when embarking on a project, think about your end goal and identify what will be needed to achieve it.  Map out the deliverables desired from each team, and include details like timing and sequence.  Ashkenas suggests creating an explicit framework that will serve as a collaboration contract.

“When people know what’s needed, in what form, and by when, they can then tell you whether it’s possible or not, and then you can have a real dialogue about what can be done,” he writes.

The second step is to set up a working session with all of the required collaborators to review, revise and commit to the collaboration “contract.”  Ashkenas stresses the importance of getting everyone together as early as possible.  It gives participants time to work through the plans, to find ways to share resources and align incentives, and enables them to avoid time-consuming, costly delays.  “One of the biggest mistakes that managers make is trying to foster what we might call ’serial collaboration’—for example, going from one function to the next and trying to cobble together an agreement. Not only is this time-consuming, but it rarely works since each change affects the next,” he writes.

Business leaders may also find inspiration in how some IT departments have adopted collaborative approaches to support.  Two in particular, intelligent swarming and knowledge centered support, have been gaining attention in recent years.

Intelligent swarming is a collaborative methodology that prioritizes the customer experience.  According to the Consortium for Service Innovation, a nonprofit alliance of service organizations that focuses on finding new ways to address customer service and support challenges, the intelligent swarming model discards the traditional tiers of support and relies instead on the collective expertise of a “swarm” of support technicians.

When a technician at the current level cannot resolve an issue, instead of escalating it, the technician consults the swarm for guidance but owns the issue through resolution.  This means the customer interacts with only one person, which reduces customer effort and increases technician involvement.

Knowledge-centered support (KCS) is a set of practices for capturing and maintaining knowledge in a support environment.  Here’s how it works: when a customer calls the help desk with an issue, a support tech can search the knowledge base to quickly find a resolution if the question or issue has already been solved.  This reduces the number of escalations and the amount of time it takes to solve issues that have already been resolved and documented in the knowledge base (commonly referred to as “known” issues).  KCS is not a new concept—the Consortium for Service Innovation started developing the approach more than 20 years ago—but it has been gaining attention in recent years because of IT’s increasing focus on the customer.

Although the two approaches differ—intelligent swarming is used for handling “new” issues, while KCS is most effective for resolving “known” issues—they both rely on collaboration to increase support desk efficiency and customer satisfaction.

Realizing Collaboration’s Benefits

According to Robert J. Thomas, companies today need to recognize that the ability to collaborate is the most valuable, intangible asset. In a 2011 article for Harvard Business Review, Thomas explains that it’s the “willingness on the part of people to work together to solve problems when they could just as easily pass them along to someone else that forms the core of most things we call collaboration. It’s the decision that someone makes to share an idea or to spend the extra hour helping out—not the regulation or contract that requires it—that usually means the difference between ‘good enough’ and ‘outstanding.’”

Statistics back up his sentiments.  A July 2012 McKinsey Global Institute report estimated that full adoption of social technologies, which includes collaboration, could increase knowledge worker productivity by 20 to 25 percent.

Improving enterprise collaboration requires across-the-board commitment, but perhaps most importantly from management, who must make it a priority in order to compete in digital business.  Considering the potential gains—increased efficiency and productivity for individuals, and the company as a whole—it’s an undertaking that’s well worth it.

1. One could argue that technology advances are actually making collaboration more difficult.  A 2013 McKinsey report titled “Enabling Enterprise Collaboration” notes that the increase in collaboration tools and approaches is making it difficult for companies to build holistic strategies.

In many organizations, the responsibility for collaboration tools is spread across departments, teams and business units.  As a result, “IT departments are contending with a proliferation of collaboration tools often deployed on an ad-hoc basis.  Small teams often use consumer or web-based collaboration tools for their work activities, or business units select and implement their own collaboration tools and only then ask IT to support them,” the report states.

2. A July 2012 McKinsey Global Institute report estimated that full adoption of social technologies (which includes collaboration) could increase knowledge worker productivity by 20 percent to 25 percent.

3. In a 2014 report, Gartner predicted that “digital business incompetence,” or failure to formulate a holistic response to the affect consumerization trends have on the workplace, will cause 25 percent of businesses to lose competitive ranking by 2017.