Posted by Dion Hinchcliffe.

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Over the last 10 years, enterprises have been inundated with an endless stream of new collaborative technologies. These have ranged from the high concept — enterprise social networks, co-created intranets, and related social business tools — to the merely incremental, such as unified communications, enterprise chat, improved content/document management systems, and now mobile collaboration.

That these have raised the bar and improved the way enterprises work — at least overall — there isn’t a great deal of doubt. However, the actual question is how much the additional complexity and fragmentation caused by new collaborative channels means there has been a net improvement.

The more prosaic reality is that most organizations are only reporting low incremental returns from their recent investments in collaboration, often in the single digits. While this is often enough to justify the expenditure, it’s still a far cry from the revolutionary outcomes many — including yours truly — realized were possible.

But for those with an IT background, this does not come as much of a surprise. Large IT projects frequently underperform initially for a variety of reasons, not the least which is that it takes time to absorb and metabolize major shifts in how we work. The truth is that IT is still struggling to reconcile new collaborative tools with the old ones. During this process, we’ve often forgot, ironically given that the focus is collaboration, that we must create collaborative solutions that are good fits both for the people that use them, as well as the urgent needs of the business itself.

Related: How To Improve Global Workforce Collaboration

Collaborative Performance Improvement with Enterprise Social Networks and Social Business

We at Adjuvi now believe that the influx of powerful new collaborative technologies has laid the groundwork for a second wave of modernization that will more deeply impact the business. We have good evidence that the strategic benefits of successful collaborative projects is considerable. But most organizations have barely rolled out the tools, often focused on a horizontal and largely laissez faire approach where employees were left to figure out the best way — and when and where — to use these new tools. Thus they are not receiving the benefits they could be and should be.

Aim modern collaboration at better business outcomes

While this is a perfectly acceptable — if suboptimal — way to start, and it will certainly produce some results, we believe this leaves most of the business value of modern collaboration off the table. When I studied dozens upon dozens of collaboration efforts when I wrote Social Business By Design, one fact leaped out when you look at the picture of those that have reported outsized returns versus those that haven’t:

Organizations that fundamentally restructure the way they work around improved collaborative methods see far higher business benefits.

That is, the more that the organization optimizes the business for the unique strengths and abilities of new methods of collaboration, the more likely they are to see significant returns. While this makes sense on its face, it’s also not what most organizations are doing today. Instead, they are either taking a ‘Field of Dreams’ approach (the proverbial creation of a new collaborative environment and the hope that users will come) or they are identifying a few high level scenarios and focusing on them, such as employee onboarding, project management, or sales support, but without rethinking the possibilities very deeply. In other words, paving the cow path instead of directly grappling with today’s significant challenges.

Esko Kilpi recently explained how today’s highly complex enterprise environments have to change because of today’s new operating environment:

An organization is not a whole consisting of parts. There is no inside and outside. An organization is a continuously developing or stagnating pattern in time. Industrial management was a particular pattern based on specific assumptions about causality and human agency.

The sciences of social complexity change our understanding of causality and recent developments in psychology/sociology have shown that human agency is not located or stored in an individual, contrary to mainstream economics. The individual mind arises continuously in communication between people.

The focus of industrial management was on division of labor and the design of vertical/horizontal communication channels. The focus should now be on cooperation and emergent interaction based on transparency, interdependence and responsiveness. Looking at communication, not through it, what we are making together.

Given this legacy, it’s perfectly understandable why organizations would take an incremental approach to improving collaboration, even though it’s increasingly well understood that the needle won’t move much initially. First, there is the perception of risk: The bigger the change made to the business, the more chance that things will go wrong. Second, it’s often poorly understood what makes new forms of collaboration particularly effective, and hence these aspects are not emphasized or optimized for.

So, while highly scaled and cost-effective open business processes and community-centric business models are now clearly the end-game when it comes to rethinking collaboration to ensure large organizations are competitive in today’s marketplace, most companies require at least several discrete steps to get there.

The Three Aspects of Collaborative Performance Improvement

We believe that a growing number of enterprises today — having now put down a solid foundation for new modes of collaboration — are ready for the second step. This next wave, which we call collaborative performance improvement and will create strategic (instead of tactical) business value, looks like the following:

  • The redesign and optimization of business processes across functions to employ the unique strengths of modern collaborative approaches. Organizations will go well beyond horizontal, general purpose collaboration and redesign functional process (marketing, sales, customer care, product development, operations, supply chain, support functions, etc.) around powerful new collaborative capabilities. One of the great examples of this was the rethinking of the supply chain using social tools by Teva Pharmaceuticals to shrink manufacturing cycle time by 40%, something which their traditional ERP system could not do.
  • Adoption of a simultaneously customer-centric and worker-centric model of collaboration. Collaborative outcomes today are often curtailed because they stops at the silo the worker is in or the particular business function the customer is interacting with. For instance, there’s often an artificial gap as the customer moves between marketing and sales, or sales and customer care, or operations and product development. It’s a legacy of our industrial age models and how they shaped our businesses. But in the network era, collaboration naturally flows across and includes all relevant stakeholders. The most successful business outcomes come with there are no unnecessary barriers between who needs to collaborate. Collaborative performance improvement will integrate key business scenarios across silos in a natural user experience.
  • A shift from collaboration as a support function to a business function. Most people think of collaboration as an activity carried out within teams that enables a specific business result, not the business result itself. This is certainly the case for legacy businesses today. But we’ve now learned that collaboration itself is also inherently a business function, as it can form the basis of both transactional and relationship-based value. In its simplest form, this is collaboration-as-a-service, akin to crowdsourcing, but adapted to the enterprise. Companies like Innocentive and others have offered this model for years. Now, however, we’re seeing with global solution networks and other forms of large-scale collaboration that take advantage of this realization. This is the strategic chessboard that must be of high interest to business leaders, as it is actually one of the largest avenues left open for enterprise growth. It’s also an ideal on ramp to digital business (namely, to get much more value via new modes of collaboration from corporate assets and the collective intelligence of the workforce.)

What does all this mean? How should organizations get started on the second wave? It means that for most companies, the collaborative journey has barely begun and will continue to be an exciting one. The contemporary models of collaboration offer tremendous business potential, if organizations are willing to start down the second wave and go beyond so-called “bolt-on” collaboration by rethinking their business processes — while shifting their culture a bit — to access the considerable benefits as they prepare more fully to modernize their business.

What will you do to drive collaborative improvement?

Lastly, part of the problem is that collaborative project teams today are often in support units — such as IT, corporate communications, or even HR (see visual above) — and consequently don’t have responsibility or control over other parts of the business. Thus the default is for low-impact horizontal usage at a distance, rather that impactful transformation within the business.

However, this is where senior leaders are urgently needed most to drive change. They can step in as sponsors and provide the vision, mandate, and required resources. As The Community Roundtable recently reported in their latest study, the single most effective action that businesses can take to improve community-based collaboration is secure close executive involvement. This then is the key mandate and requirement to start down the road of collaborative performance improvement.