Collaboration today is critical for any organization’s success. Organizations are becoming more geographically distributed, and though there are some exceptions such as Google and Yahoo, most organizations have no choice in the matter.

Although research claims collaboration works better if teams are all together, there is also the 50 yard rule -- anyone over 50 yards from you will collaborate with you in the same way as they would in a distributed office. Architects are working to create more collaborative physical spaces in organizations to maximize casual serendipitous interactions. Yet most organizations have not worked out how to collaborate face to face, let alone distributed collaboration. Let's look at the most common collaboration and distributed collaboration problems, identify a solution and explore specific actions.

Why does collaboration fail so often? It’s simple: people can’t make the mental shift!

The Collaborative Shift

After working with both vendors and end-users of social and collaboration technologies for 25 years, what I have come to believe to be the most critical aspect of successful collaboration is what I call the “collaborative shift.”

The collaborative shift is a shift in mindset. It incorporates attitudes, morale, culture, relationships and more, but fundamentally it's a paradigm shift in the way you think about work. It includes considering the “we,” as well as the “me.” It’s understanding what Einstein meant when he said, “We can't solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them.”

Below are some common collaboration issues that crop up in the enterprise and solutions to move forward.

Problem: General collaboration may work, but isn't a great for anyone. Unclear value
Solution: Collaboration should be part of critical processes with “collaborative leverage.”
Action: Identify a process with collaborative leverage. Establish a benchmark metric (e.g., time to completion) before applying appropriate collaboration tool to process. Measure after to quantify the benefit.

Problem: Focus is on technology, not process and people
Solution: Technology gets 80 percent of the attention but is only 20 percent of the solution. Focus on people and behavioral issues -- these are harder to solve and require a sustainable relationship -- rather than looking for a silver bullet in the technology.
Action: IT may implement the collaborative tools, but a cross functional group across all departments should look at strategy, and what would meet most people’s needs.

Problem: Using appropriate collaboration technology
Solution: Email is an ineffective way to convey emotional content. Chat, videoconferencing or even a conference call are better at conveying this information.
Action: Understand what outcome you want, and then see if that collaborative tool can help deliver it. If not, pick another tool. Most are SaaS-based now and you can try them for free. Experiment and learn.

Problem: Knowledge hoarding
Solution: “If knowledge is power, then my knowledge is my power.” Nothing could be further from the truth. Shared information multiplies its value, hoarding information diminishes it. Increased transparency not only helps to share the information, but builds trust.
Action: This is a behavioral issue. The best solutions I have seen is when management publicly contributes their knowledge and does not hold back the best stuff.

Problem: Letting the least social people in the enterprise pick social tools
Solution: Millennials arrive with social tools and solutions. Reconsidering old collaborative infrastructures for today’s apps and tweets is not only a way to blend the old and the new, but is critical for the organization’s survival.
Action: The other outcome of IT adding new collaborative tools is that they often try to pick the best or least expensive tool that will meet user requests, with no idea what such a tool will do to catalyze changing routes of communication, and ultimately corporate structure. It is these “unintended consequences of collaboration" that can cause more havoc then benefit.

Problem: Reluctance to try new collaboration tools due to past failures
Solution: General collaborative tools these days can generate resistance to high overhead or antiquated tools (read SharePoint, etc.) especially from millennials. If you embed collaboration as part of a critical process where everyone can see the benefit (to themselves and the organization), there is little resistance.
Action: Find specific niche solutions like SocialBridge (now part of PGi) and PBWorks Agency Edition that deal with a specific process in a specific industry.

Problem: Overwhelmed by tool choices -- how to pick the best?
Solution: There can be many different vendor solutions in your organization that do pretty much the same thing (e.g., GoToMeeting, WebEx), and IT can always recommend yet another. The choice is dizzying. Start with what you want as an outcome, not with the technology.
Action: It's important to understand user needs and outcomes. Determine stakeholders and help them converge on a solution that will help the most people. While you may not meet 100 percent of the demand, aim for at least 80 percent of the functionality needed.

Problem: No collaboration strategy
Solution: Often there is no plan for collaboration, it grows organically as needed. When surveyed how social networks in the enterprise showed up, 25 percent of respondents said it emerged organically (from the bottom up). In another 25 percent of cases, management planned (top down) for the organization to use the social networking tools. In the other 50 percent there was no plan, people just used the social networking tools they were familiar with (Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter, etc.), but with corporate content.
Action: The most difficult part is to determine the goals and outcomes you want from collaboration. Once you can agree upon those (a third party consultant can often help facilitate this conversation) then determine the stakeholders and work with them to put together a three year collaboration plan. What will things look like if this plan is put in place?

Problem: Time zone, language and cultural differences
Solution: These issues often come up in distributed teams. Do you have appropriate collaboration tools to support interactions?
Action: Help everyone feel like an important part of the team. Change the time meetings start so that everyone is inconvenienced some time. Go out of your way to confirm communications, especially if that person is not a native speaker. Try to have team members explain about any country or company cultures and assumptions that may drive their behavior.

Problem: Lack of management buy-in
Solution: Many times the C-suite doesn't want to change behaviors, and believe because of their position they don’t have to. I ran into this doing some work for Logitech. This is often results from a lack of understanding about the technology and its benefits and a fear of appearing stupid. In the case of Logitech, a demonstration for the CEO of what could be done with the new technology, complete with a step-by-step guide on how to do the things he wanted to do, moved the new collaboration technologies forward quicker than anything else I did.
Action: Although there may be some bottom up activity championed by millennials, everyone wants to model their behavior on the top of the organization. Management not only has to use the collaborative solution on a regular basis, but in a public way. This goes back to transparency and trust.

Problem: How do you measure value?
Solution: Looking for the ROI of collaboration is like searching for fool’s gold. It doesn't determine value. In the case of most meetings we have meta-metrics: how many meetings, how many people, how long was the meeting, etc. Metrics about the meeting, but not about the meeting value. That has to come from metrics about the interactions of those in the meeting.
Action: Let’s continue with the meetings example. You can add up the hourly rate of everyone in the room and decide that it is the cost of the meeting. While that number may be shocking, it does not include things like “opportunity costs” and poor behaviors or interactions in the meeting.

Problem: Making the enterprise social
Solution: Baby Boomer management often do not get the value of social networks inside and outside the enterprise. Millennials understand the value, and in some cases will start a social network within the enterprise. The best thing an executive can do is let it grow. Don’t claim ownership, but see how it can be worked with and leveraged.
Action: As mentioned above, in 25 percent of the social network cases we saw, the social network rose organically (from the bottom up). Humana is a great example. The important thing about the Humana example is that no executive took ownership of the social network, yet after a year, those that had started it were asked to create a policy for the whole company.


For collaboration and distributed collaboration to work in today’s enterprise environment the use cases need to be clear and specific. A clear and well thought out multi-year plan is needed that takes the goals and initiatives of the organization into account, and has buy-in from all major stakeholders. With the escalating pace of change, new ways of working, shifting organizational structures, millennials, Gen Z and the talent war, collaboration is critical for any organization to not only be successful, but to become part of that new future.

How to Turn Things Around

Roughly 80 percent of collaboration initiatives are unsuccessful.  How can something so critical be done so poorly?  Throughout my experience, I've seen a variety of patterns, trends, use cases and techniques that helped both organizations and the vendors that serve them be more successful. Most of the solutions above come from these experiences.

Some takeaways:

  • Why is collaboration so hard, when it is a natural social behavior?
  • Understanding your collaboration goal(s) is critical
  • Set expectations to be realistic, not idealistic
  • Metrics you can use to drive the “collaboration conversation” or how to get management involved
  • The level of success you can see with “collaborative leverage”
  • It’s about the people, not the technology
  • Collaboration on its own has questionable value, but as part of a critical process has clear value

Some preliminary data from a recent survey indicates that most people are part of a hybrid or distributed team, and on average part of two to three teams working on an average of six projects simultaneously. This necessitates collaboration. Many of those surveyed believe that collaboration works best when you can get the most talent, no matter where they are working. Yet 50 percent see tools and infrastructure as their biggest challenge to collaboration, though almost 90 percent want to use these tools to coordinate with other colleagues or teams. This leaves a great opportunity for collaborative tool vendors, and for organizations that are moving towards a more distributed organization.