How to Deliver on a Modern Enterprise Collaboration Strategy

One of the most significant challenges with digital collaboration in today’s large organization is the sheer degree of tool proliferation and channel fragmentation that is taking place. If you combine this trend with the reality that many new ways of working together in digital spaces provide most of their value only when used in very different ways than our legacy tools, then you have a perfect storm of obstacles to forward progress.

Consequently, over the last couple of years, we’ve witnessed many organizations attempting to undertake large efforts to rationalize and bring order to the growing constellation of collaboration platforms, methods, apps, and their various vested stakeholders. Out of all these efforts, several key learnings have emerged:

  • There is no all-in-one enterprise collaboration platform. Despite the trend towards convergence into suites and unified communications platforms, collaboration tools and scenarios have become far too varied for any single solution to handle well. Neither are there dozens of platforms, at least not yet. But any enterprise collaboration strategy in the large must account for and reconcile a workable set of solutions into a more manageable and consistent portfolio, with lots of help from vested stakeholders on the ground.
  • Internal technology landscapes are becoming very hard to change, while tech change continues to accelerate. Deep integration across systems as well as the growing baggage of legacy applications are becoming the leading cause of drag in moving to the latest tools and platforms. This is now substantially impeding the move to new collaboration tools. New, sometimes radical, approaches are required to address.
  • Workplace skills are not keeping pace with what modern collaboration tools make possible. A collaboration solution is only as effective as those that use it. Not only do the latest tools often require a new mindset, they also require organizations that support and encourage new behaviors and cultural shifts in the workforce.
  • Conflicting modes and silos of collaboration are delaying organization-wide improvements. The tension between legacy collaboration tools, usually centered around either document and content management or older unified communications platforms is coming into direct opposition with newer approaches, often championed by different internal groups or departments, leading to various competing camps, with no clear winner and general state of paralysis.

Unfortunately, this state of affairs is common in many organizations, and makes it hard to discern — much less access — the tremendous untapped value in moving to new collaboration tools. Can this untapped value be quantified today? Yes, the most reliable data currently available says that failure to widely implement the latest collaboration tools is costing the average organization 25% across the board in productivity. That’s a competitively significant amount that can change the industry fate of an organization.

The good news is that it doesn’t have to be this way. However, moving forward and adapting does require consistent and overarching management of collaboration across the enterprise at least one level above which it’s been done today. Today’s approach has been either to look at collaboration through a technology lens (usually through an existing platform such as SharePoint or an enterprise social network) or consider it through a functional lens, such as corporate communications, HR, sales, or lines of business. Both of these lenses work well enough to not fail outright that often, but both also underperform by not accounting for the rapid advances of new collaborative technologies — and the need to adopt more of them to solve outstanding business needs, not less — as well as for the support of a collaboration strategy that is consistent, managed, skill-supported, effective, efficient, and enterprise-wide.

Additional Reading: Realizing Effective Digital Collaboration in the Enterprise

Modern Modes of Enterprise Collaboration

Sorting through Modern/Legacy Collaboration Tools

So, how can organizations move to a modern collaboration strategy that’s incorporates a rapidly evolving portfolio of tools, methods, and business needs across the organization?

First, it requires a clear view of what collaboration technology makes possible today and, for each advance, determining its place in the organization. In almost all categories, the state of the art continues to improve. The latest tools are adopting or supporting new models of working together (social business, lightweight collaboration) or new technologies (mobile/wearable interfaces, multi-point HD video, persistent chat, collaborative analytics, social business process support, etc.)

While technology is not typically the make-or-break factor in succeeding with digital collaboration (in general, that factor is successfully navigating the organization itself to adopt and use the tools effectively), it’s important to bring to bear the best available tool for a given business use case. That requires understanding the art of the possible with collaboration technology.

These days the modern enterprise must consider at least these major tools and styles of collaboration:

  • Videoconferencing. The widespread consumer adoption of platforms like Skype, Apple’s Facetime, and Google Hangouts has set increasingly high expectations for what workers can do in the workplace. Even though though the video sessions are often discarded and don’t create value afterwards, workers are now increasingly seeking out and adopting such tools in the workplace. Cisco Telepresence and Microsoft Lync are leaders in this space as well, but many organizations will still not have the network infrastructure to fully exploit their capabilities.
  • Virtual whiteboards. Still a niche solution, virtual whiteboards make it easy for workers to collaborate on ideas in a visual way. While many consumer or small business options exist, most organizations have limited penetration of enterprise-class tools like SMARTBoard or Promethean.
  • IM, SMS, MMS, and chat. There has been enormous growth in instant messaging, mobile device texting, and chat for tactical collaboration scenarios in the enterprise. These capabilities are simple, easy to adopt, and largely well-understood by the average worker. Persistent chat is also a key maturity feature to ensure tacit knowledge is captured and discoverable later for re-use.
  • VOIP. The shift to digital channels for voice calling and teleconferencing has been steady, and the blurring of voice on PCs, tablets, and phones has been a strong trend as well. However, audio collaboration tends to be a conduit for transient knowledge that disappears when the call is over, and so not considered high leverage, yet is a tool that businesses will need to support for the foreseeable future, often by embedding it where it most convenient in digitally-enabled business processes.
  • Simultaneous document editing. A few years ago, Google Docs showed what was possible when it comes to the next generation of document editing: Many users working on a document, live, all at the same time. The capabilities have been slow to move into traditional productivity applications, but it has long been considered a high value capability by organizations such as the Executive Board.
  • File sync and sharing. Tools like Dropbox have set the stage for extremely easy sharing of files across all devices. This has let to enterprise solutions like Box and others to overcome the increasingly severe limitations that older tools like e-mail have in file sizes they can support.
  • Screen sharing. Another tactical but highly useful capability, screen sharing services allow workers to collaborative work on any application together, provide support to each other and/or customers, and it increasingly being incorporated into existing collaboration platforms. Leading enterprise offerings include Adobe Connect, Fuze, and Gotoassist.
  • E-mail. E-mail is still the leading form of business communication, but the sheer competition from social and mobile technologies (and everything else on this list) means its days are almost certainly ultimately numbered as more effective ways of collaboration are adopted. Despite this, though some large companies are engaging in significant e-mail cessation efforts, it will likely be a key component of collaborative strategy for at least the next decade. In the medium term, e-mail is likely to fuse with unified communications, suites, and social networks as part of a ‘unified activity stream’ to centralize collaboration and control fragmentation.
  • Content and document management. While SharePoint is typically the 800-lb gorilla when it comes to document management in most organizations, it also cannot be considered a complete or modern collaboration tool, despite its vast feature set. Yet determining how it fits into collaboration strategy is essential, despite well-meaning SharePoint teams trying to bend what is an enormously powerful, yet complex legacy tool, into the shapes expected by today’s technology expectations. That said, there is a key connection that must be maintained between other conversational collaboration platforms and their outputs (very often documents) and CMS/DMS platforms. I sometimes see integration efforts that connect collaborative processes around documents to official document repositories, which is the right approach. In most organizations, however, properly reconciling content and document management with other collaboration platforms is neglected or underserved. As a result, most CIOs have their work cut out for them in reconciling SharePoint with everything else.
  • Unified communications. Creating a cohesive communications and collaboration environment is not a new idea, and unified communications (UC) was envisioned as a solution to this. Despite missing the social networking boat for far too long, unified comms as steadily made inroads as a way to ensure all collaboration channels are made first class citizens. Despite this, the cost and complexity of most UC solutions, and their slow adoption of new emerging channels, has made progress slow. Nevertheless, it must be a core plank in collaboration strategy. Personally, I see alternative models for integrating knowledge flows in organizations steadily emerge on the social networking side.
  • Collaboration suites. We also see major collaboration platforms today adding more and more features and integrations with other collaboration platforms. IBM Connections and Jive both have many different modes for working together, from social networks and activity streams, to forums, blogs, wikis, chat, and much more.
  • Social CRM. Too many collaboration tools still make it hard to collaborate with those outside of the firewall, particularly those most important to the organization, namely customers. Social CRM tools range the gamut from social support to entire customer enagement suites. This space is evolving so quickly, and crosses over so many other collaboration tools, that I recommend you track our industry colleague Paul Greenberg’s CRM Idol efforts closely for the latest advances and capabilities.
  • Corporate blogs. While blogging is not longer on the cutting edge communications and collaboration technology, it’s still an effective format that scales and is interactive, accumulating collective intelligence in comments and discussion. Blogs are particularly useful for executive communication to large audiences (internal or external) or for structured engagement efforts for large initiatives and projects. Despite this, recent evidence shows that corporate blogging may have plateaued, though growth in use of social channels by corporations is increasing overall.
  • Wikis. A workhorse of social collaboration, the humble wiki is found in most organizations today, and is often the one of the first next-generation collaborative tools that most enterprises originally adopted. Even though wikis have been subsumed into the larger collaborative suites to a large extent, they are still core content and collaboration repositories with a strong link ecosystem that is often the beginning of a true Web-oriented architecture.
  • Social intranet platforms. The effort to take intranets to the next level has been an ongoing discussion in IT circles for a decade, yet many — if not most — corporate intranets are static and little used other than for HR benefits and corporate office driving directions. Yet so much value is lost with intranets as the design of most of them prevent the knowledge of the organization from being fully harnessed, at least without tedious procedures. Yet there are now some compelling stories of social intranets. Probably the most forward looking work in this space is what Thoughtfarmer has been doing over the years to enable more successful intranets.
  • Social hiring. A particularly bright spot in collaboration has been in the hiring space, where employees can use social connections to find the strongest candidates. LinkedIn has created an entire industry around their networked hiring capabilities and some of the organization we’ve worked with have found social channels to be the strongest source of strategic hires. This is still a somewhat nascent space, but must be on the collaborative roadmap, as scaled talent management over networks is going to become one of the largest growth areas in organizations in coming years.
  • Enterprise social networks (ESNs). The adoption of social networks in the workplace has been one of the largest and most significant trends in collaboration over the last half decade, making it into nearly half of large organizations over that time period. However, given that social networks produce value in new and different ways with new methods such a Working Out Loud, mass open collaboration, crowd-enabled processes, and other techniques, the struggle has sometimes been to make the supporting changes to processes and skills within the organization. However, given that most organizations have internal social networks of some form, and estimates that the market for them will double over the next five years, and the ESN is going to be a staple of most companies’ collaboration strategy.
  • Crowdsourcing. Crowd-enabling business activities of every sort, from crowdfunding to crowdlabor has become big business and a key strategy to scale business processes and innovation with much less cost or effort. As one of the major forms of collaboration, crowds + global networks have led to the collaborative economy, one of the most important economic trends of the digital age. Companies need to be collaborating at scale with their customers and suppliers in new and highly innovative ways. Jeremiah Owyang has a tremendous summary of how this collaborative revolution is taking place today’s organizations.
  • Online customer/partner communities. Perhaps one of the most strategic investments organizations can make is in external communities of their key stakeholders, namely their customers and business partners. I’ve discussed how this is a zero sum game and how the window is already closing in some industries to build long-term sustainable relationships in collaborative digital environments to hold ones stakeholders close and drive strategic business outcome. You can read the latest The Community Roundtable’s latest State of Online Community Management report for 2014 for details on what makes a leader in this vital collaborative activity.

One of the most controversial questions right now is whether to try to reduce the number of collaboration tools to make them manageable, or increase them to best support the number of scenarios that large organizations typically have. More collaborative tech is harder to manage and more expensive. Less collaborative tech is likely to miss key opportunities that the right tools can bring to bear. In the end, in our opinion, organizations have to support a lot more collaborative technologies in general, which requires entirely new adoption, management, and governance strategies.

Additional Reading: The new digital workplace: How enterprises are preparing for the future of work

Yet Technology Isn’t Even the Hardest Aspect of Digital Collaboration

Sadly, even though I began this post with an exploration of digital tools, I only put them first because it’s important to get them out of the way. That’s because — and it cannot be stressed enough — the most difficult and critical aspect of improving collaboration is the people component. In the end, collaboration is fundamentally a human activity. It’s just plain hard work and can be enormously challenging even in the best of conditions. This means collaborative strategy has to reflect that the largest investment and most effort will be put into changing the expectations, mindset, habits, behavior, and culture of the people in the organization. This must be done in a way that directly and rapidly enables these powerful new ways of digital teamwork.

Fortunately, patterns for success have emerged in how organizations are driving the necessary non-technology changes. First and foremost, this is the readily availability of change champions.

Establishing and Effective and Modern Collaboration Strategy: Roadmap, Change Management, and Business Use Cases for Outcomes with Social Business and Other Methods of Digital Teamwork

As it turns out, almost every organization today has a decent pool of change champions who know about many of today’s new digital tools and already have ideas and use cases they can contribute, as well as resources, time, and precious political capital. The most successful collaboration strategies will find and tap into them. One key lesson in successful efforts has been in creating a champions program that can help craft the strategy, tailor it for local departments, divisions, and regional geographic sensibilities, and then help heavy lift the strategy into fruition.

Thus, the components of a modern collaboration strategy are increasingly understood and fairly straightforward:

  • Integrated collaboration platform strategy & roadmap. This sorts through and understands the place for each existing and planning piece of collaborative technology, a plan for evolving them and introducing new tools and methods, and a calendar-based plan for when they will be introduced.
  • Decentralized adoption & operations approach with process remodeling. As I’ve explored through the years, the capabilities for collaborative performance improvement and other new forms of IT must be much more decentralized. What’s more, business functions must be redesigned so that team-based processes are centered around the new collaboration tools as the way work gets done.
  • Workforce education, support, & skill building plan. Too often, the workforce does not have the right skills, knowledge, and collaborative literacy to drive adoption, much less effectiveness with new collaboration tools. Education programs for new hires and long-time employees, just-in-time training resources, and continuous, effective communication programs integrated with senior executive messaging are the most effective.
  • Staffing, budgeting, and resources. The results of a collaborative strategy are commensurate with the investment made, quality of staffing, and available committed resources in IT, HR, corporate comm, and other support functions.
  • Legacy and new use cases validated, mapped to business cases. Clear use cases that are captured from areas across the organization, detailed out, and for which at least back-of-the-envelope business cases are developed are essential to understanding the opportunities on the ground for better methods and tools for collaboration.
  • ROI and measurement process. Tragically, I see many collaboration initiatives struggle because they didn’t capture data to back up and explain what they accomplished in early phases. Don’t make this mistake. Invest in an effort to baseline existing KPIs and show at least correlation with new collaborative activities and their improvement.
  • Local change champion enablement program. No overly centralized collaboration initiative can make all the technology, process, and structural changes required. You’ll need a lot of help. Enlist help from others across the organization who have the knowledge on the ground and local resources to help define use cases, experiment, and find the right paths forward.
  • Change management playbook (18-36 months). Although heavy weight and formal change programs have lost favor, that doesn’t mean it’s acceptable to eschew orchestrating a more optimal and cogent route towards better collaboration. Find internal experts who are good at change, get them on board, and let them help you plan your collaborative improvements.

The Likely Outcomes Make the Sustained Effort Pay Off

While the work to get up a level on the digital collaboration pyramid and create a more mature capability will require sustained effort and serious commitment from your organization, the effort is clearly well worth it. To help better articulate the business motivations, we’ve compiled a compilation of the benefits of modern workforce collaboration from the most authoritative sources, and it makes a powerful case for improving the status quo. In short, everything from workforce learning (just-in-time training, and employee on-boarding), workforce engagement, knowledge retention, higher adoption, a better set of tool choices, and a whole host of operational improvements, from higher productivity and effectiveness, to lower travel costs, shorter time to market, and the list goes on.

But much of the reason to make collaboration such a top line investment is that, as Jive’s Elisa Steele observes, it just matters so much to how the modern organization functions. Teamwork, sharing of ideas, gaining enterprise-wide alignment around strategic and tactical ideas is vital to enable in its finest possible incarnation in today’s hypercompetitive marketplaces.

In the end, we find that most organizations are still falling behind the rapid pace of the marketplace. It’s only by scaling up and decentralizing collaboration strategy at the highest level in your organization, do you stand a chance of regaining a measure of positive control and a reasonable chance at the potential outcomes.

Additional Reading:

Workplace 2020: The Role of IT Leadership in Social Business Transformation

Collaborative Performance Improvement: The Second Wave of the Contemporary Workforce

Dion Hinchcliffe

Dion Hinchcliffe is a well-known business strategist, enterprise architect, book author, frequent keynote speaker, analyst, and transformation consultant. Dion works with the leadership teams of Fortune 500 and Global 2000 firms to drive successful change with new digital methods involving enterprise social media, digital business models, Internet ecosystems, workforce collaboration, and the future of work in general.

All stories by: Dion Hinchcliffe