squirrel outside a window with a walnut inside
Companies continue to chase down the elusive ideal of productivity, introducing new tools along the way. But is that really helping? PHOTO: Kai Schreiber

To communicate or to collaborate? That is the question for the digital workplace.

But for companies, it isn't a binary choice. It's more along the lines of, "How, when and why do we communicate and collaborate in the workplace?"

Carrie Basham Young, Talk Social to Me founder, spends a lot of time working with organizations on what she calls a "communication and collaboration channel strategy."

She asks: How do communications (formal and informal) and collaboration (project work and information coordination) play together at work given the myriad toolsets, both sanctioned and rogue, at any one company? 

That is a question that should be top of mind for organizations in the digital workplace, Basham Young said. It's a topic we'll explore here with Basham Young and fellow collaboration strategy expert David Lavenda as we continue to explore our August editorial theme, "Chat, Collaboration, Documents & Search: How Work Really Gets Done."

'Inextricably Linked'

Carrie Basham Young
Carrie Basham Young

Basham Young's goal when working with companies on a collaboration and communication strategy is to tie culture and collaborative behaviors together under one umbrella, she said.

Communication, she said, is often considered as information delivered TO a group of employees or customers. Collaboration, meanwhile, happens WITH and between people. 

"They are inextricably linked with each other," said Basham Young, a member of the current CMSWire's Reader Advisory Board. "However, one can't happen effectively without the other. Often, communication strategies tend to be pre-packaged, approved messages that leaders want employees to hear. There's no way to create a two-way feedback loop. More modern communications strategies should, moving forward, take into account the collaborative nature of work and extract ideas, topics and suggestions from the people who actually power the organization."

Bad Communication = Disengaged Employees

The "approved messages" mentality probably isn't helping in this era of employee disengagement. Jill Christensen of Jill Christensen International spoke to this at the Digital Workplace Experience conference during her keynote, saying it's high time organizations fix the epidemic of employee disengagement. She places the blame directly on senior leaders.

Gallup estimates actively disengaged employees cost the US $450 billion to $550 billion in lost productivity every year.

“Employee disengagement is at all-time high,” Marissa Jarratt, vice president of marketing for the Global Snacks Group at PepsiCo., told the Gilbane Digital Content Conference audience last year. “It’s not so much that employees are hostile or disruptive, they’re just disengaged. They’re doing the minimal amount of work required. They’re less vigilant and more prone to miss work and change jobs as new opportunities arise.”

How Work Really Gets Done

With so many ways to communicate in the workplace, companies must realize they have little control over how work really gets done, Basham Young said.

"Work gets done," she said, "through informal networks inside an organization. Information flows through the relationships that employees have built with each other."

If your company wants to deploy a new communication or collaboration tool, get employees involved in the selection process.

"And companies must build a strategy," Basham Young added, "that respects the business needs of a variety of employees and their organically formed networks."

Collaboration Tool Strategies

David Lavenda
David Lavenda

Employees can be an asset when determining if a tool is worth the investment.

Even when tools are introduced — say a Microsoft Teams or Slack — that won’t necessarily change people’s reluctance to share one iota, said David Lavenda, vice president of product strategy at harmon.ie.

"What you do see is a short burst of usage when the tools are rolled out, because there is a lot of corporate visibility," Lavenda said. "Then usage peters out, and managers realize that nothing’s changed. The tools die on the vine ... until the next tool that is going to solve the problem appears on the horizon. Collaboration is a mindset. It has to be fostered. Tools only make it easier."

And let's face it: rolling out a hot collaboration tool like Workplace by Facebook won't magically bring all collaboration and communication under one roof.

"Tools like Yammer and Facebook Workplace are rolled out, but they are largely disconnected from the work being done through business apps, documents and email," Lavenda said. "So the collaboration tool becomes one more place to go to communicate. That’s a mistake because collaboration does not take place independent of work."

'Exciting Time'

If collaboration tools are integrated into employees' existing workflows, then you've got a value, Lavenda said.

Slack, he said, "gets this" with its many integrations. However, he called those "largely superficial notifications." 

"Solutions like Jive and Cisco have tried to address this," Lavenda added, "but have done so by creating a platform that people have to adopt. But folks want to keep using the tools they already have. This nut has not yet been cracked. Whoever is able to do so will affect a revolution in how people get work done. I believe this is coming." 

Lavenda said innovations in artificial intelligence in the form of natural language processing and machine learning will help "connect disparate systems in a meaningful way, without one-off integrations."

He calls this revolution "topic computing," which allows people to focus on topics like products, services and projects, regardless from where the notifications or discussions come. 

"It’s an exciting time," Lavenda said, "for companies genuinely interested in facilitating collaboration to get work done."