If the road to Enterprise Collaboration is paved with good intentions, then project teams ought to focus less on paving and more on drivers, the employees. When drivers are only viewed occasionally through a rear view mirror, the result will likely be no different than the myriad of defunct (AKA: inactive) online communities and groups that increasingly litter the lanes along the Superhighway. User Adoption is the key to success and yet corporate systems become congested with the tools and technologies that employees abandoned – if even adopted to begin with.

When it comes to Enterprise Collaboration, we’ve all experienced a few pot holes when the roll-out doesn’t go as planned, taken a detour when the systems don’t magically integrate as expected or been stuck in gridlock traffic when the network responds at a snail’s pace. While Enterprise Collaboration is a journey; let’s not forget that it is used to reach a destination by its drivers.

Employees Often Turn to Consumer-based Alternatives

When employees face pot holes, gridlock or delays, this does not change a simple fact: they still have a job to get done. Employees are savvy and default to consumer-based alternatives that are free and widely available: Yahoo Instant Messenger, Skype, Dropbox, Tokbox, various Google apps, to name a few. When the corporate network bounces your email for being too large, resend it via hotmail, gmail or Yahoo -- no problem. Your manager is on vacation but you need her approval on a video clip? She’s got her iPhone, so you post the video on YouTube, text her the private link URL, she watches using YouTube’s mobile app and she emails you her approval. Easy fix.

These detours that use consumer-based applications are increasingly widening the divide between ‘enterprise’ and ‘employee’ collaboration. Why would an employee use a corporate system, when the ‘detour’ was a more effective and efficient in getting the job done? Project teams should document how the employees use these various tools to determine if the ‘enterprise’ initiative can provide the same capabilities -- and what training would be necessary. The corporate system should produce the same result and without imposing a layer of complexity. For example, if you don’t have an digital asset management system with mobile access but posting on YouTube fills this gap -- and for free -- then why not use it?

These consumer-based tools may not be the company standard or approved and/or deployed systems, but they are reliable, easy to use and can bridge the enterprise collaboration gaps. They may not be optimal for widespread use, but they maintain employee productivity and business continuity in instances where the enterprise system could not.

Blocking Consumer Tools May Not Be a Good Thing

I’m not advocating that companies widely deploy consumer tools. They’re called “Enterprise” systems for a reason: the comprehensive security, system integration and governance are a few factors that justify the price tag. Specifically for these ‘detour’ scenarios where a consumer-based workaround poses little, if any risk -- remember: free, easy, instant -- why not?

Companies in highly regulated industries frequently block all access to these consumer technologies (and social networking tools). Understandably, business policy strives to minimize potential risk and exposure and these social, collaborative and content tools are high on the hit list. The implications are starting to surface, and don’t appear optimal:

  1. Can’t do their job: Blocking access puts limitations on employees, their productivity and effectiveness. Expecting a product manager to read up on the market reaction to a competitive product using a personal computer on personal time is a non-starter.
  2. Detours could create risk: Employees will find workarounds that you may not like, assuming you even find out about them at all. The risk and exposure that was meant to be avoided, is now exacerbated if employees use their mobile devices to bypass the corporate restrictions.

Employee Collaboration requires a variety of tools, processes, systems and applications to meet their diverse requirements and goals. There are countless variables to consider depending on the purpose, objective and intended outcomes, not to mention the preferences and technical aptitude of the individual. A single ‘enterprise’ system may cover the majority of requirements, but no system can provide every employee with every capability he needs.

The bottom line: enterprise collaboration initiatives may be a journey but the system must take drivers on a direct route to their destinations. When it doesn’t, consumer-based technologies may provide a (more) cost-effective and accessible solution.

Employees Collaborate, not Enterprises

I’ll be honest, I’m not a big fan of the term of ‘Enterprise’ Collaboration. That one word -- enterprise -- seems to have an innate ability to usurp the direction and then drive it towards the technology, infrastructure, management buy-in, meeting paralysis and over-engineered processes. I’ve observed how it can derail the best laid project plans, disrupt employee productivity -- even business continuity, and ultimately lose site of the most important and fundamental element of the concept to begin with: the people. Employees collaborate, not enterprises.

Enterprise collaboration may be a journey but for the drivers, the employees, it’s about the destination. Far too frequently, that ‘enterprise’ word gets in the way of where the focus should be, the’ employees’. CMSWire published several articles this month that provide expert guidance, how-to’s and practical recommendations that support this notion:

A common trap is to start viewing Employees as ‘Users’. Yes, software systems have ‘users’ -- this is an industry term; however, companies have ‘employees’. This distinction is frequently overlooked and results in a technology-driven approach. Here are a few examples:

1. Employees / Users

The word ‘Users’ is a technology term. This is compounded further when additional geek speak is introduced like power users, view users, full-use users, etc. The employee -- the human -- can get lost in translation.

It’s important to know the employees who will be using the system. The PR Manager who is engaged in collaborative document management process to finalize a press release is not the same collaborative document management “user” as the Business Analyst who is finalizing quarterly budget figures with department heads.

Both are “users” of “collaborative document management” but these two personas are very different. Developing Personas is a recommended practice to help maintain focus on the employee and not the technology.

The Forrester report illustrates the gap between Employee and Enterprise Collaboration. They questioned 851 Collaboration Software Decision Makers and the biggest benefit reported was reduced travel cost and improved communications. Let me ask: as you’re at work and sending instant messages, joining a web conference or waiting for that conference call to start -- is reducing travel costs top of mind for you? I’m willing to bet if they had asked 851 employees who rely on collaboration tools to get their jobs done, the results would tell a very different and potentially more compelling story.

2. How and Why

Oscar Berg makes a great point: to look at how people use the system. I’d suggest that you take an additional step and ask, why are they using it? What is the intended outcome? If an employee is not trained on a tool or system, focusing exclusively on how may not paint the entire picture. Similarly, a technically savvy employee could result in a system/process that is unforgiving to the others. Why does the employee use the system -- what is the objective? What is her anticipated result and desired outcome?

3. Right Tool at the Right Time

Ensure it’s the right tool at the right time for right employee. As noted above, the same collaborative document management tool may be a dream for the PR Manager but a nightmare for the Business Analyst. Likewise, the technically savvy employee may breeze through an advanced process workflow that takes the less experienced person considerable time and effort. Consider the change management impact based on personas, objectives, processes and technical skill levels. It’s never too early to ensure adequate training and knowledge transfer is offered. Far too frequently training is an afterthought which compromises the employee ability to adopt the system and use it effectively.

Final Thoughts

Employees are the foundation of any enterprise collaboration initiative. Understanding who they are, what they are trying to accomplish (the outcome) and ensuring that the right tool and the right time for the right person keeps the focus on the employee and not the technology.