How to ensure collaboration really works

Collaboration projects too often end in tears because of a failure to address a number of key issues

More effective collaboration is a priority for many organisations, but in reality few have a consistent approach to introducing collaboration tools. Most have a hodge-podge of siloed new and legacy systems.

'Collaboration' is a term overused by vendors, often for their own ends. But it means enabling people engaged in a common task to work together effectively on either a formal or ad hoc basis to realise their goals.

Useful collaboration applications range from email to groupware and from videoconferencing to social-networking tools such as blogs and wikis.

Mark Adams, unified communications and collaboration practice manager at IT services provider Logicalis, says there are two key reasons for organisations to undertake collaboration projects at the moment. "One is to improve the integration of what they already have and the other is to spend money to resolve key business problems," he says.

Major challenge
But a major challenge for IT managers in this context is that such projects are often handed over to them to solve from a technical perspective, when in fact they are business initiatives that involve changing the corporate culture, business processes and staff behaviour.

That core element of change management means such projects can become poison chalices and need to be handled with care. There are four key areas to focus on to help collaboration work more smoothly.

Key area 1: Plan for change

A key starting point for any successful collaboration initiative is to help the business define the problems it wishes to solve and the desired outcomes. One approach is to set up stakeholder workshops or a steering committee, which should include representatives from all departments to discuss their goals and priorities.

A useful means of focusing thought is to group end-users into a few broad categories of job role. Such categories could include home workers, road warriors and office-based staff; or leaders, experts and team members, for example.

After they have been defined, the next step is to understand how these user groups interact, what challenges they face and how such challenges might be solved. It is also important to explore the potential benefits of any changes to working practices, the cultural impact of such change, and how the success of any project will be measured.

Productivity gains
Hard figures for return on investment are particularly crucial during a recession, but one of the big challenges is that many collaboration initiatives tend to generate softer productivity gains rather than obvious financial savings.

But while productivity savings can be hard to measure, Frank Modruson, chief information officer at consultancy Accenture, says it is sometimes possible to "defer costs into other areas, which means the hard dollar benefit will pay for any investment that's made".

In practice, this approach means bundling things rather than having discrete components. "So you say, 'Here are the hard dollar benefits, but these are the soft benefits that ride on their coat tails and if you combine them, the overall benefits are this'," Modruson adds.

Define business processes
Another crucial undertaking is to ensure stakeholders define and capture the business processes that need to be streamlined at a later date. This activity should involve encouraging representatives from different parts of the business to provide input about where, when and how they use such processes, as well as how any change would probably affect them.

Based on these findings, IT managers can then provide committee representatives with a range of technology options and related costs, so informed choices can be made to support key goals. They should also establish who is to act as project leader and clarify the extent of the authority of the role.

Adrian Moss, head of Web 2.0 and social media at IT services provider Parity, says the authority of the project leader needs to be defined to avoid upsetting people. "You can't sweep it under the carpet or the initiative won't work," he says.

Finally, a future roadmap based on a phased delivery model should be produced. This working document should include aims, objectives, desired outcomes and metrics as well as information about the IT architecture that will underpin the various individual initiatives that make up the whole.

Key area 2: Change management

One of the common mistakes made with many early collaboration projects was to adopt the philosophy of 'build it and they will come'. The trouble with that approach is only those already predisposed to collaborating are likely to do so, while others may simply feel resentful about having new tools thrust upon them.

In other words, if staff are unable to see the benefits of such systems, they will probably use them as little as possible or ignore them completely and continue to use tried and tested methods.

So one of the key considerations here is obtaining user buy-in. Parity's Adrian Moss thinks it is only human nature to find change unsettling. "Many companies struggle to take people with them but, if they don't, staff can end up feeling part of the problem rather than part of the solution. So it's important to engage them," he says.

Formal communications
But such attempts at engagement should ideally take various forms and be worked out in advance as part of a formal communications plan. Possible educational forums include sit-down meetings, webcasts, podcasts or blogs in which senior managers outline goals, rationales and potential impact on job roles.

Frank Modruson, chief information officer at consultancy Accenture, says you have to use a variety of communications mechanisms repeatedly in different ways to reinforce your message. "Then when people start using the system and have a good experience, they'll tell others about it who will also start using it but in ways you never expected. It becomes viral," he says.

But it is also important that such exercises do not just involve providing people with information. Instead, they should be used as opportunities to listen and obtain input from the shop floor.

Feedback mechanisms
As a result, feedback mechanisms should be introduced, particularly for those staff who do not feel brave enough to put their head above the parapet in a public forum. Such mechanisms can range from surveys and email to wikis and small, informal discussion groups.

Grooming key influencers or carefully chosen enthusiasts to become super-users can also be useful. Such super-users should take part in defining the initial requirements and, as members of the pilot project to test run the system, will be involved in providing early-stage feedback.

But another super-user role is to evangelise the new offering to generate enthusiasm and support. They will then take responsibility for subsequent training and support, particularly for those issues that do not require IT intervention.

Any insights gleaned from such avenues should then be fed back to the project leader and members of the steering committee, so they can be acted on. The aim is to ensure continual improvements during and after the formal lifetime of the project.

Key area 3: Embedding collaboration

Major barriers to implementing a collaboration project successfully can stem from such fundamental issues as organisational culture. Some companies are inherently more collaborative than others.

If staff and managers are not used to co-operating or sharing information, being asked to do so can represent a culture shock.

Changing underlying corporate behaviour is notoriously difficult and can take years, not least because of internal politics. But one way of tackling this issue is to embed collaboration tools into business processes and workflows.

Tom Gray, chief technology officer at IT services provider Kainos, says collaboration tools need to become part of the natural workflow. "So it becomes easier to go with that flow to get to a given outcome than not. It's about making it as easy as possible for people to have the appropriate conversation," he says.

For example, should an organisation want to make it easier for team members to collaborate on a document or a product design, communications tools such as email or instant messaging could be embedded into the relevant system or workspace.

Availability and communication
Then, if one team member wishes to discuss a given issue with another, they could simply click on a button and, via a presence application, discover whether they were available and the best means to communicate with them.

All communications can then be stored in a central log for access by authorised personnel and any document changes flagged up via an email alert. This process should not only facilitate more efficient working practices, but also ensure better version control.

Another option is to encourage business managers to change their staff incentive structure. So they could set monthly performance objectives based on the extent to which personnel contribute to wikis and link that performance to bonuses.

"That approach encourages people to contribute and, while some will do it as a tick-list item, you have to be prepared to live with that. An alternative is to rate articles, but that creates a confrontational environment and you need to take away any elements that feel threatening," says Gray.

Key area 4: Project management

Collaboration initiatives generally need strong project management because of their susceptibility to scope-creep, particularly if requirements have been poorly defined at the outset.

Such projects are often large in scale and can become a moving target, especially if an eye is not kept on the human factor.

A particular issue in this context relates to making inadequate provision for training or other change-management elements, with organisations instead choosing to rush ahead with technology implementations before staff are ready to adapt.

Another consideration is effectively managing new project teams that are outside normal command-and-control processes, particularly if members feel out of their comfort zone. That danger is one reason why, says Parity's Adrian Moss, it is important to get key stakeholders involved in the initiative from the outset.

"It takes strong, positive management at the senior and project management level to get different people from different parts of the organisation to say 'this is my job and I have to do this and that to make it successful'," he adds.

Core infrastructure
From an IT point of view, it is also crucial to ensure that core parts of the underlying infrastructure are up to the job of supporting the new collaboration tools. The two most important elements to explore in this context are the organisation's core directory structure and its network. The network in particular is key as it acts as the foundation to everything else.

As a result, local and wide-area networks need to be assessed to ensure they provide enough bandwidth to support increased levels of network-intensive traffic. Moreover, if IP telephony is being introduced for the first time, quality-of-service functionality will be required to ensure voice services are usable.

But it may be necessary to rationalise the sheer quantity of directory services that have sprung up to handle different application groups. The aim here is to ensure there is only one instance of each user's details so collaboration services work smoothly.

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