Is collaboration in your organization like a 3-ring circus? Are you the ringmaster or the clown; the trapeze artist or the animal tamer? 

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Some of these questions were brought up because I just saw Cavalia (Cirque du Soleil with horses) recently and so the circus metaphor was on my mind.

Most enterprises are going through a vast transformation around collaboration. No longer are the 1.0 tools (SharePoint, Exchange, etc.) meeting the needs of the line of business or those with collaborative needs in sales, marketing, support, R&D, etc.

Since most collaboration tools are in the cloud, they are just going out and finding their own "acts" so to speak in new collaborative solutions more tailored to their specific problem or context. 

Trying to keep the old collaboration tools going is the ringmaster’s role, the trapeze artist is a group looking at new tools and trying to strike a balance between the old and the new. The lion tamer is a group that has adopted a new collaboration tool whether IT approves or not, and the clown is off in left field looking at new collaboration technologies with no eye towards their appropriateness within your enterprise.

Which role are you?

The Ringmaster

These days IT is in a tough place trying to hold it all together and keep things secure. Many of the IT groups we talk with are still trying to put the horse back in the barn (to keep with the horse metaphor), and that just does not work. Most of the conversations we have with these ring masters are very emotional. It really is not about the technology, but is about control.

Who wants to be told that over the last few years they have spent millions on SharePoint only to have people use it as a document repository, and a poor one at that! Microsoft sold SharePoint with the promise of true collaboration and when it did not quite work out that way, different groups went off to find their own solutions and became the trapeze artists, the lion tamers and even the clowns!

The question for IT today is do we continue with these big monolithic systems that are based on pre-Internet architectures, or do we cut our losses and go with something more modern? I currently have 208 apps on my iPhone. I paid nothing or little for each of them. I did not spend millions, need to create an infrastructure, get new hardware, negotiate licenses and assign a skilled person to keep things running. I just download and use them.

A few apps together can do much of what the big monolithic systems can. Instead of Exchange I can try to cut down on my email and use Box or Dropbox for content storage, sharing and synchronization. I use Meetin.gs for my calendaring and scheduling (ok, their native app is not quite out yet) I can use Gdrive to share a spreadsheet of receivables with my operations person ... you get the idea.

Emotions and Control

When I was doing some work for a client a few years ago, I had an interesting experience that repeated itself over and over at different companies. In this case we had decided on a Unified Communications and Collaboration strategy by doing lots of interviews of all different roles at the company, as well as looking at a variety of vendor offerings (they were using Notes and the CIO wanted to move to SharePoint).

What I found in one-on-one explanations with people in the C-suite was that they not only did they not understand why this new (well, not so new now) technology would benefit their organization, but they also did not know what it was, could not talk coherently about it or even use it. They did not want to look or sound stupid -- nobody does!

Once I was able to explain the strategy, its advantages, savings and new things they did not know they could do, I was able to go through the application with them until they were comfortable with it. As a result they became big proponents of the technology and the new way of doing things. Today the same argument is going on in the C-suite about Crowd technologies, or the “Social Enterprise.”

Changing a Paradigm

Imagine yourself the captain of a small fishing boat, much like George Clooney was in “Perfect Storm” but you not only can’t see over the technology wave that is crashing down upon you, but all the other waves behind it that are combining to make this perfect storm that is rocking your boat and threatening to sink you!

Often IT is not the best person to explain or even select these technologies. The old adage, “you can never get fired by going with IBM” does not hold true even for Microsoft these days. IT people often want to go with the status quo; it is easier than changing to a new paradigm, even if it is not what is best for the organization.

Even a Circus Has a Plan

The elephants don’t come out with the tigers, the clowns do come out with the trapeze artists, the ring master is like the conductor of an orchestra and tries to make sure that everyone follows the plan or the result is chaos and danger. The same is true for an organization, there has to be a plan for collaboration.

Today most people have to deal with a monolithic system that does not do what they want or need, but have been mandated by IT. So they go find apps on their own that do what they need, and many times never tell IT. The only way I see out of this technology induced trap is a plan.

What is your collaboration plan for the next three years? How does it fit with some of your longer term goals and objectives? Are you clear how it will change the culture as well as meet people’s work needs? How will it evolve, what should be first, who will make sure the plan will be executed successfully?

Often the best way to deal with this issue is through an independent third party. As a mentor of mine likes to say “It is very hard to read the label on the bottle, when you are in the bottle.” You need someone on the outside who can read the label on the bottle, can see across organizations and political turf and can help you develop and execute a collaboration plan that does not have to be expensive, can be in alignment with your current and future goals/initiatives and can even provide a sustainable competitive advantage.

Editor's Note: David Coleman has written extensively about the Social Enterprise. To read more:

-- Collaboration - Rules of the Road