How much can technology actually improve collaboration?

A conflicting set of views is emerging on what technology enablement for a fundamentally human-centric activity can actually achieve. What do we know for sure?

There seem to be few categories of business software that end up entailing more finesse or a careful touch than digital collaboration tools. This seems a bit disappointing at first, since we're so used to acquiring technology today and being able to put it to use right away, essentially from the outset. But as it turns out, there's a good reason for this, as we'll see.

While getting some immediate value has actually been the case with digital collaboration almost from the outset -- as many of the benefits appear right away simply by making team interaction possible across time and space -- it's achieving real benefits beyond just the initial basic gains we've already received that is more the focus of efforts in the enterprise today.

In other words, we've learned that there is a baseline return on investment that most organizations can achieve immediately with the typical digital collaboration tool. However, the more strategic benefits (see value diagram below) only seem to accrue if we focus on certain details in how we go about collaborating or how we shape the environment in which it happens. This includes key aspects such as ensuring that conversations persist over time, making collaboration more open and participative, or allowing collaborative scenarios to be discovered later on so that knowledge and experts can be quickly and easily located.

Related: The Internet inside the enterprise: We don't have it and we need it

The Value of Digital and Social Collaboration

In fact, much of the excitement in the multi-billion dollar digital collaboration industry over the last ten years has been about how much headroom there is to realize the additional value in more advanced forms of collaboration.

Yet the reality is that most of us are still in the crawling stages of collaboration. Improvements like social collaboration still rely on very basic, if fundamental, design changes, such as sharing information with everyone by default, instead of only a predetermined team. Yet few organizations provide collaborative literacy to workers on what makes these approaches so valuable, nor encourage using the powerful and emergent capabilities they offer in scale.

There are other advances in digital collaboration that can provide an additional layer of strategic value as well, but many organizations aren't ready for them either. Instead, the issue this year appears to be that we're now at a watershed moment in collaboration: Older, aging models of collaboration, including e-mail, SharePoint, IM, unified communication, and even SMS, are clearly getting long in the tooth. It's obvious to most observers that they haven't aged well and that there are now better alternatives emerging.

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Today It's Team vs. Organization-Wide Collaboration

On the other hand, the last generation of tools aimed at large-scale mass collaboration, such as enterprise social networks and online community platforms, has seen steady but often spotty adoption. They do seem to offer well-established strategic benefits -- at least if there is sustained bottom-up and top-down support and understanding of how they create value -- but it's been hard work for most organizations to get there.

More recently, as I pointed out in my recent frame-up of the state of collaboration this year, there the pendulum has swung back to an updated form of team collaboration that is simpler to use and adopt, yet also largely tactical in terms of results in can produce.

So the tension today then seems to be growing between the desire for "get it done" new types of pragmatic collaboration (ala Box, Slack, etc) vs. the "big" social collaboration initiatives, the latter which at least in some organizations, are becoming fairly successful. However, I don't believe this is a zero sum game. As PwC cited in their recent CEO survey, there is such a broad need for improved collaboration in most organizations, that there is plenty of room for new and improved solutions.

The Popularity of Different Types of Digital Collaboration Including Enterprise Social Networks | Altimeter and HBR

However, the overall debate was renewed again this month on which models for collaboration are the most successful, with Altimeter's Charlene Li publishing a significant piece of new research in the Harvard Business Review, noting that enterprise social networks (ESNs) -- which are typically the foundational technology in larger scale social business initiatives -- don't receive as much use as other types of collaboration tools.

While I'd collegially debate the characterization of low use, as nearly half of the surveyed companies have widespread use of ESNs, the underlying point made is key: Leadership is the top factor when it comes to creating an organization that has a successful collaborative culture.

For it's part, the big social business vision of re-imagining a high performance collaborative organization that operates in innovative and highly effective new ways was always tall order. it's also had a distinct barrier to entry: Transformation of culture and behavior is a major change, and one that involves people, both factors that can create substantial headwinds. So I don't think it comes as news that a more ambitious and transformative way of working is seeing lower adoption than simpler forms of communication and collaboration. I'd also note that those simpler ways also don't scale as well, provide sustained leverage, and accumulated long term value either. Things that are really worth doing are often hard, as the saying goes.

Communication versus Collaboration in Digital and Social Tools

Which is a key point: Communication and collaboration are not synonymous. One is a simple exchange of information, the other is the co-creation of shared outcomes that are richer than they would be otherwise because the participants respond to learning and insight during the process itself.

This also means people are the most important aspect of collaboration, digital or otherwise. If they are unwilling -- or as is often the case, simply don't have the skills and resources to enable them -- to collaborate together openly as a team, then you won't seem results, tactically or strategically. This means that virtually all digital communication tools can be used to collaborate -- as it is peoples' activities and decisions within them that make collaboration happen -- and today's major collaboration platforms tend to focus on features that actually enable this teamwork. These features are typically activity streams to encourage sharing, rich user profiles to help put people in the center, search and discovery mechanisms to enable and encourage learning from prior activities, and so on.

Others have also responded to Altimeter's research, such as Stowe Boyd, who criticizes the tools themselves for perhaps doing their jobs too well and creating too much collaboration:

So, perhaps our enterprise social networks naturally lead the workforce towards an excess of communication, and as a result, people avoid them. At least those that want to get their work done instead of first line managers trying to find out what work has been done.

But I believe that that if we must look into the mirror if we want to see the root issue: Collaboration is a mindset and set of skills. It is also a messy and occasionally frustrating activity, and in the short term can even take longer than not collaborating. But long term, effective collaboration provides far stronger results. But to get there, we must first take a look at ourselves.

It's Us, Not The Apps

Modern Values of Digital and Social Collaboration
I've long examined adoption strategies for collaboration tools. From this work, it quickly became obvious that almost all of the effective techniques are aimed at changing human behavior or otherwise facilitating the way people work. Good collaboration is almost always a people challenge. Thus, although newer, larger scale collaboration tools like ESNs may have a lower adoption rate than other forms of collaboration, but that's because there is a bigger bar to clear to access the value they offer: Changing and improving ourselves first, and then the way we work together.

Large scale and long-term collaboration offers great potential, as the data has shown -- from employee engagement to corporate innovation -- but only if we're prepared to meet new collaborative technologies halfway. We simply cannot expect to fire up the latest new collaborative application that enables entirely new and potent ways of working, yet still work in our old ways, and then claim that new results are not forthcoming.

Hard lessons like this -- including the fact that important new capabilities like community management are highly overrepresented in well known successes with applications like ESNs -- are still taking time for companies to understand and appreciate. But I believe that as whole the collaborative industry is evolving well, along with us, to pathfind important new ways for us to come together and create shared value. To realize their great potential, we must embrace and adopt a new set of modern collaborative values within ourselves, which simply cannot be achieved solely by acquiring the latest collaborative software, in order to see real and sustained improvements in our organizations.

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