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Looking at the Psychology of Team Collaboration Adoption

From the outset, one of the foibles of team collaboration tools is that achieving the desired outcome wholly depends on adoption by team members. The big challenge is getting knowledge workers to dump the mechanisms they’ve been successfully using to organize and manage collaborative projects (typically email chains), and adopt this new tool to store and coordinate all of the documentation and project communications.
Unfortunately, team collaboration presents a particularly challenging marketing problem. With team collaboration, we’re essentially telling smart, motivated people -- many with decades of experience in their particular specialties (and often at pay grades far above our own) -- that they don’t know how to do their jobs. Or if they’re doing them, they’re not doing them the right way. You can add to that the fact that many IT departments don’t have a lot of team collaboration success stories to reference.
The initial presentations I watched on team collaboration seemed to either ignore the marketing question entirely or blithely assume everyone miraculously leaps on the bandwagon. That’s why I only chuckled when industry exec  Rowan Trollop, back in his days as head of Cisco’s Collaboration Group, used to expound on how successfully the company had been in driving down email use. Of course, Trollope was a unique case; as the boss, he could mandate that everyone use this thing… or else… and knew his minions would dutifully fall into line.
In the rest of the world, however, edicts from on high are rarely greeted with enthusiasm. It should be no surprise that smart, ambitious people people don’t like to be told what to do, particularly when what they’re doing appears to be working. “Persuading seasoned workers to add new gears to machinery that already works can be a tough sell,” as Sue Shellenbarger, “Work & Family” columnist for The Wall Street Journal, pointed out in her recent piece, “Do You Resist New Tech at the Office?”
I’d written about the importance of 100% adoption in team collaboration in a No Jitter post five years ago, for No Jitter but that WSJ piece got me thinking about it again. What particularly hit me was this passage: “Technological change in the workplace sparks tension between resistors who grumble and drag their feet and co-workers who rush to embrace new tools. One Luddite can hobble the work of an entire team.” That pretty much sums up the team collaboration adoption challenge.
In the article, attorney Paul Cannon described his difficulties in getting his officemates to accept a new billing system to replace the hopelessly antiquated solution in use. “One thing I learned from all this is that a lot of people are afraid of change, because they’re afraid of making a mistake. They know how to do their jobs under the old system. Even if it’s cumbersome and inefficient, it’s comfortable. And comfort equals security,” he told the WSJ.
The big revelation for me was that we’re treating team collaboration user adoption as a technical obstacle, but what we might really be dealing with has more to do with psychology. It’s not so much that users object to the technology, as it is they just don’t want to look stupid or incompetent.
Applying this idea to team collaboration adoption, it appears we need to look at a two-step process:
  1. First, we have to convince people that this team collaboration thing is a plus, and if nothing else, they should at least give it a try. When they do take that plunge, we’d better be there to support them in how to use it most efficiently and effectively. That would include coaching them on how to organize “rooms” (or whatever the tool’s organization principle is) around their work, showing them how to employ shortcuts, and, most importantly, reinforcing the message that all “official” communications regarding a project must be posted in the tool’s designated workspace for it.
  2. Once we have the hook in them, then we have to pounce. That means we have to give them the ability to be more competent with it. You need people wanting to be team collaboration masters, motivated to shepherd the laggards into the fold. I’ve been amazed how my wife (a former “Luddite”) takes great pride in mastering her iPhone to the point that she’s teaching me and most of her girlfriends tricks none of us know.
Everything is right with team collaboration; we just need the stars to align. We have smart, motivated workers who are striving to excel. We have team collaboration tools that offer these people much more efficient and effective ways to organize collaborative work than traditional methods. Moreover, the solution is fully in sync with how those people have adopted technology in their personal lives. In short, we want the motivated to be motivated about this.
If we’re going to be successful in this effort, we need to be selling the importance of gaining fluency with this tool without introducing the unsettling bogeymen of incompetence and discomfort.
All too often in the technical fields we tend to see things as black and white and ignore the nuances of human feelings, motivations, and discomforts. With team collaboration, we’re looking at a much bigger impact than simply dropping a phone on someone’s desk and making dial tone come out of it. Spurring big changes like that means addressing concerns of all types.
IT folks often hide from these concerns, thinking that all we have to do is come up with the right feature mix and users will flock to our invention. There’ll always be a need for technical competence in our field, but if we intend to do more than just put phones on desks, we also need to develop empathy for users. After all, we’re human, too.
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Michael is writing as a member of BCStrategies, an industry resource for enterprises, vendors, system integrators, and anyone interested in the growing business communications arena. A supplier of objective information on business communications, BCStrategies is supported by an alliance of leading communication industry advisors, analysts, and consultants who have worked in the various segments of the dynamic business communications market.