How collaboration ended up in IT, and why it may move

While the bring-your-own-X trend has swung back and forth in IT, applications have long been more challenging to lock down than devices. Collaboration is now one of the most significant areas where user-led IT is growing.
Written by Dion Hinchcliffe, Contributor

One of the more interesting aspects of the intersection -- and the frequent gap -- between IT and business is how often technology inserts itself into activities that used to only involve people. Now, as we'll see, it is increasingly inserting itself directly into the work lives of business users.

Due to increasingly low barriers to adoption -- nearly free devices, incredibly rich and robust mobile app stores, viral SaaS applications, etc. -- technology is everywhere: Devices and applications now mediate so much of what we do between each other, precisely because of the reach, immediacy, and efficiency that technology can confer by overcoming the classic barriers to more traditional modes of communication and collaboration.

Adding to the pressure for newer and better solutions are that the perceived stakes for improved digital collaboration are high these day. It's widely understood there is still considerable new value to be gained by activating organization-wide on not just the basic values of faster, easier digital engagement between employees, but also of more strategic business activities, like improving decision making, innovation, and rethinking what's possible with core institutional practices that make our enterprises operate.

The Elements of Modern Digital Collaboration in the Enterprise

Yet it's also a truism that the evolution of technology moves quite a bit faster than most businesses can keep up with. Consequently, the majority of organizations today are not nearly beginning to explore the full range options in the rapidly growing portfolio of new digital collaboration solutions that now emerge literally every day in the marketplace right now.

Note: The recent explosion of new collaboration tools is also a real issue in its own right, but I believe it's also creating an important opportunity to finally start addressing the problem.

Enterprises want better collaboration, but feel unprepared

As a result, businesses currently feel poorly prepared to seize the opportunities. As a case in point, a recent study commissioned by AT&T found that despite 79% of respondents reporting that they believed that good collaboration was very important to their organizations, over half felt they were not very effective, or were outright ineffective, in their collaboration efforts currently.

There is clearly a gap between where most organizations are today with collaboration, and where they'd like to be. The fly in the ointment appears to have several sources:

First, given that improving teamwork using digital tools is typically the official province of the IT department, workers today must wait for collaboration solutions to be evaluated and selected for them, and then use whatever is provided, or be in violation of corporate IT policy. For reasons of efficiency, cost management, and maintainability, these solutions are often one-size fits all for the entire organization, or there at most a small handful of options, regardless of the unique challenges and needs a given part of the organization has for their high value collaborative scenarios.

Second, the inexorable march of technology change has also been overwhelming the average IT department in recent years. As a result, collaboration often comes behind other urgent improvements to primary business applications, especially since virtually all companies already have some set of tools deployed today. This means that cutting-edge collaboration tools, which are evolving at a fierce rate at the moment, generally have a hard time making it into organization, at least through the choke point of traditional channels and procurement criteria.

Thus technology supply typically isn't meeting internal demand for better collaboration in many organizations today. Further evidence: The aforementioned survey also found that just over half of organizations will be increasing their budget for collaboration tools, given the strategic and tactical value they can unleash.

Far from coincidental to this conversation, is another related trend: It's expected that unsanctioned, so-called 'shadow IT' will grow this year by a whopping 20%. These are end-user acquired applications and devices that are used for business purposes despite internal policies and controls against them.

What categories are most represented by shadow IT? You can probably guess: Fire sharing, data archiving, and social tools, with the first and last primarily used for collaboration in its many forms.

The rise of 'Bring Your Own Collaboration'

So, the root of the trend in rogue use of collaboration seems to the be relatively slow pace of official deployment of better supporting tools. This is compounded by tool strategies that attempt to fit most or all collaboration scenarios into the capabilities of just a few options, usually only those offered by the largest and most stable collaboration vendors, many of which are not innovating nearly as much or as fast as smaller competitors.

This has given rise to significant a new trend, now being referred to as BYOC, or 'Bring-Your-Own-Collaboration', and is likely to lead to an unprecedented challenge in IT departments' controlling their companies' data and software assets.

Of course, the prevailing view by most IT departments is to put a complete stop to BYOC. But it's increasingly just as clear that the horse has probably left the stable. To add insult to injury, credible voices such as the CIO of Red Hat, Lee Congdon are now suggesting that in fact, shadow IT is actually strategic asset that can be wielded to enable change and IT transformation in scale in a more decentralized fashion, if only IT departments can figure out how to channel it.

There is actually a good case to be made that digital collaboration is an ideal candidate for using shadow IT champions to find, experiment with, and let the best solutions for different parts of the organization rise to the top. This can be done more or less continuously, instead of every few years through the traditional technology procurement process, greatly increasing the rate of corporate technology adaptation.

One reason for digital collaboration tools being a good candidate for this approach is that they tend not to be regarded as mission critical. Outages are not considered to be front page news even for very large organizations.

But to change to this model successfully in today's fast-moving environments will almost certainly require the CIO and CHRO to come together very differently than they have had to before, and realize a much different take on supporting workforce collaboration.

Missed Opportunities for Strategic Management of Collaboration

These days, the two organizations most invested and involved in collaboration are the IT department, who is in the primary role to actually deliver technology enablement to every worker, and HR, who typically has a support role in a) providing the training and education for the tools themselves and any support skills and b) has a mandate to broadly cultivate the development of the workforce so that the overall performance of the organization is improved.

However, because of our modern tech-centric approach, too often collaboration is looked at as an tool-based activity, instead of a human activity. For its part, far from being mired only in technology, digital collaboration has headed in a historically significant a new direction, as a way of actually managing and operating our businesses.

Unfortunately, the tactical view and training of our workforce on the features of collaboration technology does a disservice to the business potential that can be reaped. Digital technology today requires a new and very different set of workforce skills, ones that are far more knowledge-centric, network-centric, and openly collaborative. These skills, which are largely almost entirely separate from the technology itself, are required to get the most interesting and exciting outputs from digital teamwork.

In other words, rolling out new collaboration technology, without fostering these skills, won't accomplish nearly as much.

How does all this change the overall picture of what we're trying to achieve as an organization? In the holistic visual of collaboration depicted above, we can now see there are a number of layers to a successful collaborative workplace today.

These layers ranges from connecting collaborative solutions to key corporate goals and objectives, to actually fostering a strategic set of collaborative skills. This is all built upon an enabling technology foundation -- with a matching and well-articulated strategy -- that has many facets, from federated search and integration with key enterprise applications and data sets, to many multiple modes of conversation, from chat and rich media to video meetings, with strategic capabilities like collaborative analytics to help find opportunities to improve and optimize it all.

Modern Collaboration: More Variation, Updated Skills

How can organizations leverage the activities on their edges that are bringing new collaboration technologies into the company and enable this new picture, all while taking the topic of collaboration up to a new strategic level? There seem to be a few key changes in mindset and approach required:

  • Allow, and provide clear guidance on, how different parts of the organization can diverge from the organization's official collaboration approach. This enables constant internal evaluation and competition to find better approaches, gets the latest collaborative technology into the organization in a more controlled and sustainable way, while letting parts of the organization that can significantly better from new methods and approaches, vary as they need to. The key is ensuring everyone is required to maintain a simple and understandable data security policy, and keep knowledge findable across silos. Organizations seeking the greatest results, will actually pro-actively seek digital change agents in scale to drive faster collaborative improvements.
  • Treat collaboration as a strategic skill, and create a supporting education program for modernizing the workforce. Go well beyond technology training, and look at digital collaboration as new a professional skill that involves leadership over digital networks, working out loud, dynamically participating in and making sense of many diverse data sets and opinions, wielding the techniques for scaled co-creation across large distributed teams, and more. The most effective programs I've seen recently tended to be relatively lightweight and target the most valuable knowledge workers.
  • Don't use adoption as a metric for success with digital collaboration, instead use impact to core business activities. Most adoption numbers for collaboration tools are relative to usage, whether it has impact to the business or not. This approach will not create strategic, high value outcomes, yet it's the metric that the majority of organizations currently cite as to success. Start with looking for correlation to already collected business KPIs, while building a longer-term performance measurement program. In short, connect your collaboration efforts to strategic corporate goals, and measure the results (yes, it's hard but worth it.)

Keeping collaboration, by letting some of it go

The actual risk today is of in-action: Not getting ahead of -- and empowering as needed -- grassroots adoption of new collaboration tools, neglecting the strategic view of digital collaboration as a new professional skill, and attempting to force one master, final collaboration solution. Lack of movement will put the CIO and CHRO at risk of losing control over a growing share of internal collaboration, as the activity changes faster than it ever has in our organizations, especially at the edge, as fewer workers ask for permission, and just use what works best. Smart leaders will provide pro-active local enablement, with a strong safety net underneath.

As IT in general is at a crossroads now, it behooves us to think about IT and collaboration differently, as more diverse, more open, and far more opportunistic than before. Then we can fully understand the value that can be accessed, as well as the necessary changes required to support it. Collaboration today is much more than 'just' productivity or efficiency, but the very story of how our organizations will operate and be competitive in the future. Ultimately, I believe, the victors in this generation of IT change will put everyone in the collaboration department.

Additional Reading

How digital collaboration will evolve in 2015

The digital collaboration industry continues to flourish

Watching digital collaboration evolve: Key events in the last year

Editorial standards