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On Collaboration: Thinking Beyond the Tools

As the industry's pundits converge at Enterprise Connect 2015 to talk about what's next for UC&C, the big thinkers at Harvard Business Review published a set of related articles, "On Collaboration." After reading the collection and reflecting on what businesspeople think of collaboration, it reinforces that technology advances are tertiary to people and process when it comes to what business decision makers think. Has our industry taken a self-centered view?

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Ask any industry person for a definition of collaboration and he or she will probably describe technology that facilitates meetings or shares files and ideas. But after reading HBR's 10 "definitive articles" on collaborating effectively, I'm struck by how differently business pundits think of the term, and how shortsighted our industry's approach may be.

Just two of HBR's 10 must-reads mentioned collaboration as we think of it. Before I get to the content I was most eager to read, some of the other articles had compelling commentary in their own right.

  • One focused on conflict management, suggesting organizations put frameworks in place that dictate how to resolve issues, rather than always escalate to busy executives to make decisive but misinformed decisions that may exacerbate the problem.
  • One focused on leadership styles to encourage collaboration, explaining how soft skills need to catch up with technical know-how in the C-suite.
  • One defined instances in which collaboration between two groups is actually disadvantageous (citing Daimler/Chrysler and others).
  • One article flummoxed me, as the write spent a lot of time describing an optimal organizational structure for collaboration, but then described how it was nearly impossible to transition to or maintain such a structure!
  • One focused on conflict management, suggesting organizations put frameworks in place that dictate how to resolve issues, rather than always escalate to busy executives to make decisive but misinformed decisions that may exacerbate the problem.
  • One focused on leadership styles to encourage collaboration, explaining how soft skills need to catch up with technical know-how in the C-suite.
  • One defined instances in which collaboration between two groups is actually disadvantageous (citing Daimler/Chrysler and others).
  • One article flummoxed me, as the write spent a lot of time describing an optimal organizational structure for collaboration, but then described how it was nearly impossible to transition to or maintain such a structure!
  • Eight of 10 articles mentioned nothing about technology, nothing about software, nothing about tools. Getting the idea? Businesspeople think collaboration is more about the process of working together, resolving problems, and optimally organizing people to do so. This is consistent with the message I'll be delivering today during the panel session, "How to Drive End User Adoption of UC," at the Enterprise Connect 2015 conference in Orlando. Other panelists and myself will be talking about how some organizations get UC&C to go viral and get the greatest ROI from the tools.

    And now for the other 20%... what did HBR's brightest minds have to say about what we do?

    The most relevant article, "Harnessing Your Staff's Informal Networks," is an older but still relevant endorsement for loosely managed "communities of practice" within an organization. But not too loose. Optimally, communities meet in person occasionally and are highly respected by informed executive sponsors, who help to set tangible goals and give feedback, wrote consultants Richard McDermott, president of McDermott Consulting, and Douglas Archibald, currently director of Whole Education. At Schlumberger and other large multifunctional organizations, they noted: "The community leader is the highest technical authority in the company." To harness these teams, simple tools are helpful (think Yammer, Jive, Project Squared). However, the tools aren't enough without the human systems -- focus, goals, and management attention -- to integrate them into the organization.

    The other relevant article, also on older piece, is "Shattering the Myths of Enterprise 2.0." Here Andrew McAfee, co-director of MIT's Initiative on the Digital Economy and a principal research scientist at the MIT Sloan School of Management, contrasts the necessary flexibility of enterprise social software against the rigidity of enterprise resource planning systems, saying that what he called Enterprise 2.0 requires management to "let people create and refine content as equals and with few preconditions." This advice flies in the face of several other articles, which encourage organizational structure. By extension, it's easy to see why not every organization adapts UC&C and social software all that well. As McAfee asserts, "more big successes are possible only if companies would learn to use the tools well."

    If only! It's an important statement for the UC&C industry to consider... if having to use the tools "well" is a prerequisite for success, we'd better make the tools so intuitive to use that people needn't have training, or we need to get really good at training. This partly can explain Lync's rapid success, since it's doing the best job at embedding the functionality of the new "tool" within more familiar software like Outlook.

    So what's self-centered about the way our industry's been approaching collaboration? With rare exception (some being the authors here at No Jitter), the industry focuses a lot on plumbing, software, features, and bundles. Business leaders are more concerned about organizational structures, busting silos, social intelligence, and solving conflict. As one of the HBR authors said, "The wrong question for executives to ask is: How can we get people to collaborate better? But instead it should be: Will collaborating better on this project create value?" We'd be well served keeping that in mind when creating our message and solutions for business decision-makers.

    As for the book report... in summary, reading this blog will save you 80% of your time, but "Shattering the Myths about Enterprise 2.0" and especially "Harnessing Your Staff's Informal Networks" will be worth your 20 minutes or so. See you at Enterprise Connect!

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