Demilitarizing Collaboration: Designing Rules of Engagement

Summary:The reality of working with companies to help unlock the value of collaboration is that you are typically working behind their firewalls, unable to connect with the outside world. I've just spent a great deal of time last week working in Europe in the locked down environments of global companies, talking to various constituents exploring how and where collaborative strategies will add value to their international business cultures.

The reality of working with companies to help unlock the value of collaboration is that you are typically working behind their firewalls, unable to connect with the outside world. I've just spent a great deal of time last week working in Europe in the locked down environments of global companies, talking to various constituents exploring how and where collaborative strategies will add value to their international business cultures.

A standard IT security construct is a 'DMZ', a 'demilitarized zone' that secures local area networks.

Most computers on a LAN run behind a DMZ firewall connected to the public Internet. One or more computers are also placed to run outside the firewall, in the area called the DMZ. These 'outside' computers intercept all traffic and broker requests for the rest of the LAN, protecting the computers behind the firewall.

The Wikipedia description of a physical 'demilitarized zone', such as the no go area between North and South Korea:

In military terms, a demilitarized zone (DMZ) is an area, usually the frontier or boundary between two or more military powers (or alliances), where military activity is not permitted, usually by peace treaty, armistice, or other bilateral or multilateral agreement. Often the demilitarized zone lies upon a line of control and forms a de-facto international border.

Successful collaborative environments are typically a power vacuum: a demilitarized zone. If they are at the core of the way a company works they are an important pawn on the career advancement chessboard, perceived as a valuable asset to control for those with career aspirations.

It's pretty simple these days, thanks to the innovations and advances of software vendors, to throw up an enterprise 2.0 collaborative environment with a flavor that appears to serve your current needs. What can get lost all to easily over time is intent, and who is running it and why.

Setting up an online space where people are to work together requires finding level ground for the 'playing field' in an appropriate location within the company that's not biased towards a silo or rival business unit agenda.

Transparent ways of working can be corrupted very quickly allowing those with limited agendas can take over, destroying the greater good and values of broader collaboration. Unless the company sees value in reselling their collaborative ways of working and associated technologies - large consulting companies for example - it's amazing how quickly a formerly vibrant space can be railroaded off into a siding.

Political jockeying for position inside a company can quickly destroy the collaborative performance fabric a well conceived environment enables, unless it is made extremely clear there is no tolerance for using it as a career battleground between silo and fiefdom leaders.

While people are the core value of businesses, their roles and personalities change over time. Shifting loyalties, company expansion and contraction, hirings and firings and people moving on the greener pastures can quickly throw out of focus the raison d'etre for a collaboration environment that had been all the rage.

In a business world where previous century versions of offline Microsoft Office documents, email and one to one phone calls are the dominant default work paradigm, there have to be compelling, coherent concepts to move people from their known, proven ways of working. Most companies at all levels know they are chronically inefficient working this way, but when the chips are down they also know it works as a lowest common denominator.

Senior business people inherently understand that well designed purpose transcends people: staffing always evolves and mutates over time. Since the business value attributes of collaboration are fundamentally focused on getting people to work together better, much focus is therefore needed on the vision of where you will be over the longer haul.

Planning for horizons where smart mobile technologies will dominate, or far greater globalization will be a reality to cite two examples, completely transcend the attraction of an ephemeral 'Facebook in the enterprise' fashion driven approach.

Longer term strategic needs for a scalable, coherent collaborative backbone which connects silos and units on top of existing BI and associated infrastructure is tough in a world of quarterly results targets, and where staffing may completely change over time.

Setting up a level playing field is fundamentally about the people who will enable and facilitate the collaborative environment over time, which can be a thankless task without clear long term goals, guidelines and associated executive air cover. It can be brutally difficult to be tasked with running the online environment where warring factions are expected to coexist, much like attempting to run a demilitarized zone but without any power.

As a separate issue you cannot let personalities dominate: the staff running a successful collaborative environment need to be concierges, enablers, demystifiers and connectors but not masters of ceremonies. It's all to easy to allow sophisticated techno geeks to overreach when what was needed was hand holding for the least computer literate in an organization, with these folks winding up completely alienated...

People change and delusions of grandeur are fairly common in those who see entire companies holistically through their day to day interactions with users over time, and as people join and leave an organization it is extremely important to plan for consistency, whether governance, goals, experience or simply the core message to employees that this is how they are expected to work.

Weaving collaborative workflow intents into the way you want staff to work over time is essential to realize the relevancy and power of collaborative 2.0 technologies without exposing the people tasked to run it to the realities of business political border disputes and fault lines.

Image from State University of New York, Levin Institute Globalization 101

Topics: Networking, Emerging Tech

About

With extensive senior management practical experience in international enterprise collaboration, Oliver previously managed the Sony PlayStation 'WorldWide Studios' collaboration extranet, and has worked with the American Management Association, Sun, Docent/SumTotal Systems, Harvard Business School and McKinsey & Company on major initiativ... Full Bio

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