A while ago, I read an article in a Swedish newspaper about how common it is for top executives and board members in companies on the Swedish stock exchange to send each other sensitive financial information via email before publishing financial reports. According to a study, more than two thirds of all companies on the stock exchange exchanged such information using unencryped email communication.

Top executives and board members are busy people who are almost always on the move. They rarely have the time to meet face-to-face in-between board meetings. Everything they need to do together in between those meetings has to be done virtually.

Looking at it this way, email is a powerful tool that allows them to communicate with each other and share and access information such as financial information from anywhere, using any device, at any time. The problem is that they might not even have considered the risks or alternative ways to get the work done. Emailing has become a habit that they don't question. It's practical and convenient, so why even consider change?

Editor's Note: Also from Oscar Berg: The Driving Force behind Social Collaboration

Why Sacrifice Our Habits?

When our habits are questioned, we always seem to have a convenient excuse at hand to defend our habits, such as that “there's no good technology for doing this in a better way”. Sometimes that is true. Yet, quite often it isn't. The technologies and solutions which enable better behaviors and practices are actually available to us, but for some reason we choose to ignore them. Even if we are willing to make the effort to change, we find ourselves in situations where our environment reinforces our existing habits and where we depend on other people to change as well. To illustrate this, consider the following example.

Say I want to get feedback from a few people on a text that I have written, in this case for a tender that I am working on together with some colleagues. Although we don’t all belong to the same organizational unit, we all now belong to a tender team and have decided to use Google Groups for discussions and Google Docs for storing and sharing our documents. We stick to email for communicating and discussing since everyone is familiar with it and can access it wherever they may be, though Google Groups helps us keep our conversations together and accessible.

I decide to start a new Google Groups discussion by sending an email to the group. In the email, I paste a link to the document in Google Docs that I want the other members of the group to review and give me their feedback on. I want them all to open the document in Google Docs and add their feedback or make changes directly in the document. Then they should notify me and the other group members by replying to the Google Groups email. This also means that each person who updates the document will be able to see previous updates to the document, and adjust the feedback accordingly. For example, if someone has already added a piece of information that they discovered was missing, then of course they won't have to add it again.

What now if several of the people I collaborate with instead download the document to their desktop, open it in their local Word processor, add their feedback and send the document as an attachment to a mail to the mail group? Suddenly, there are multiple copies of the same document attached to our conversation, each one independently edited by a group member. The process of reviewing the feedback and integrating it into one single version becomes really complex. There is just no simple way to get an overview of all the feedback that provided.

Habits Make People Break Collaboration Agreements

The most common reason why people break collaboration agreements is that they are stuck in their habits. They are used to providing feedback on documents that way; they don't even reflect on the mess they create or how the intended practices could have helped avoid it. They are used to the mess and find it perfectly normal.

The value we see in changing does often not exceed the initial effort of changing our behaviors -- or rather, in breaking our habits. Once we learn a new behavior and it becomes automatic, the effort will be lower each time we exercise the new behavior. But climbing up a hill is exhausting, even if things will be better on the other side.

Technology Is the Easy Part

It has been said many times before, but needs to be constantly repeated: technology is an enabler and accelerator, not an initiator of change. There must always be an intention and enough motivation, be it intrinsic or extrinsic rewards, self motivation or peer pressure, for an individual to actually change and adopt new behaviors. Improving practices requires us to reflect on our existing practices and behaviors, question them and be curious and explore alternative and better practices.

Once we have a better technology in place, the biggest challenge always seem to be to break our habits. In my experience, it is even truer when it comes to change which by many people is considered “optional”, such as changing their existing collaboration practices.