One of the signature challenges of large organizations today is the unique set of issues they face when trying to improve the way their workers interact, communicate, and collaborate together. The collaborative environment in a typical enterprise is complex: A dozen or more time zones, vast distances between offices, regional cultural differences, corporate politics, bureaucracy, and differing technology capabilities all make it very challenging to improve the status quo.
Even though increasing the effectiveness of collaboration is an activity that is highly likely to provide significant gains to how a business operates, it’s typically a fraught process. Fortunately, updating collaborative methods to meet the dynamic needs of the changing workforce — as well as meeting the needs of the business — is one of the top priorities of digital transformation these days.
It also doesn’t help, however, that some of the highest value collaboration scenarios are typically cross-border: Workers with business partners and suppliers, or workers with customers. That’s typically because the constrained visibility required to protect corporate data in such scenarios is counter to many of the newer, more open techniques, such as social collaboration. In large organizations, this is typically exacerbated by multiple divisions and subunits, many of which have different sets of collaboration platforms and techniques.
In short, driving successful collaborative improvements in the workforce seems counterintuitively more difficult in today’s market precisely because it is saturated with supporting tools, techniques, and too many choices. This often causes analysis paralysis. That means often little changes except the introduction of some easy-to-roll-out generic tooling such as an enterprise social network, a video conferencing capability, or new virtual meeting space. However, without closely tying collaborative processes to the value chain of the organization, it is a long, slow road to reaping benefits through hit-or-miss usage and largely accidental organic returns.
This then is the key to improving the way a global workforce collaborates:
Connect collaborative processes directly to high-value outcomes that create significant business impact.
Additional reading: Rethinking Work In the Collaborative Era
Of course, like many things that are worthwhile, this is quite a bit easier said than done. For one, global workforces are made of people. And people, even when they want to embrace change — in this case, adopting better practices, tools, and techniques for collaboration — need time and help to do so. Not surprisingly, the more help they get, the more rapid and impactful the outcome is.
To help understand and build a mental model of how better to directly connect collaborative improvement to business value, it’s helpful to look at what I call the workforce collaboration value chain.
Yes, it sounds like corporate speak, but it’s also a powerful way of mapping the array of inputs we have to bring to bear on collaboration, along with tools, activities, and desired outputs. By understand all of our collaborative assets to their fullest extent, only then do we have the best chance of producing results that really matter.
Workforce Collaboration: High Value Requires High Impact
When we look at the collaboration value chain we can see five key elements (see visual above), a careful focus on understanding of which is required to ensure you aren’t engaged in what’s a highly visible, enterprise-wide improve effort that’s also largely tactical exercise and will therefore under perform.
- Inputs. To develop and realize a successful collaboration strategy that delivers desired results, means tapping into the full wealth and richness of the organization’s resources. This includes existing interaction processes, collaboration projects (and their existing knowledge and assets), work artifacts, corporate structure, language, culture, overall business objectives, known collaborative constraints (something will I cover in detail in a future post), internally respected measures of performance, and governance. This is the full palette from which a meaningfully impactful workforce collaboration strategy must draw.
- Tools. Collaboration can be greatly improved by the right supporting technology, which has been true since at least the advent of the telephone. But we’ve come an enormous way since then, and today’s digital collaboration tools have consistently been able to support double digit returns in performance, and sometimes more. You can certainly improve collaboration without tools to help — and collaboration is always about people in the end — but you’ll also leave much of the gains behind.
- Activities. Understanding how you collaborate and on what is absolutely key to driving performance gains. An effective collaboration strategy will map existing collaboration models onto new ones and identify a process of getting to the target approach over time, using specific methods that are known to drive behavior change in an organization.
- Output. Managing the structure and processes of collaboration so that desired outcomes take place is the key to the whole exercise. Most organizations are looking for specific benefits, even though they’re often highly emergent as well with today’s approaches, which will spin off many important 2nd order results. These benefits typically are gains in measurable workforce productivity, capturing of tacit institutional knowledge, employee engagement, corporate efficiency, cost reduction (travel especially), business agility, and better cross-divisional corporate alignment.
- Impact. Of course, specific collaborative outputs lead to more strategic benefits for our enterprises as well. This includes often hard to quantify outcomes like better responding to changing markets (because collaborative workforces are more amenable to adopting change), creating more innovative products and services (because you can tap into more and better ideas over open networks), addressing competition, and creating resilient and sustainable new institutional practices that are self-organizing and perpetuating (again, though mass connectedness, collaboration, and peer production of said practices via better collaborative methods.
How can we build our own version of this value chain for our organization? It’s not difficult but it does require planning and critical thinking. While some organizations today still eschew strategy, such exercises, as long as they aren’t overly massive and rigid constructs, greatly aid in understanding the promise, value proposition, and often most importantly, the hidden obstacles that — if you only understood them upfront — would help you understand how to move ahead confidently and with least risk.
The simple fact is that our workforces are the single biggest investment that most businesses have. Better collaboration is the key to unlocking the untapped value and innovation in them, which we know is considerable.
What will be the future of work in your organization?
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