warehouse meeting

Organizational theorist and author Geoffrey Moore is credited with stating that the world of content management has moved from a "system of record" mindset to a "system of engagement" model. In my opinion, this concept perfectly encapsulates the change in tools and technology we've seen within information management over the past decade.

When I started my technology career just over 25 years ago, the document was at the center of collaboration — and most of our interaction with that document was paper-based: we created something, we printed it, we made copies, we added it to binders. 

My first week on the job at Pacific Bell in the San Francisco Bay Area in the mid-1990s I was handed a giant three-ring binder as part of my new employee onboarding. And when I asked questions, rather than sit and have a conversation, my co-workers would often point me back to my binder.

When I became involved in building out my team's early intranet all those years ago, I did my best to develop workflows and business practices to help people find the information they needed. But I also included "best practices" and tips throughout the site to identify subject matter experts (SMEs) and encourage offline interaction. 

There are differences when working with a "system of record" versus a "system of engagement." When people come together to solve problems — rather than working it out on their own — the end result is usually better because it is the product of collective input and expertise.

Develop a Shared Understanding

But unless everyone buys into that system of collaboration, key players within the organization would simply not participate. And collaboration suffers when all stakeholders are not involved. 

Having a shared understanding of what we are trying to achieve, and equally important — how we are collectively trying to achieve our goals is necessary for success.

Developing a "shared understanding" of what collaboration means within your own organization is the key to successfully defining, building, launching and maintaining successful collaboration solutions. Shared understanding was behind the creation of the ‘Measuring Collaboration Success’ initiative and anonymous community survey launched last month with a panel of experts, MVPs and authors. 

Panelists shared their thoughts about the idea of having an organization-wide shared understanding of what successful collaboration should look like, and whether it makes sense to develop community-driven best practices around something so nuanced and company-specific. Participating in this discussion were SharePoint and Office 365 MVPs Vlad Catrinescu (@vladcatrinescu), Jason Himmelstein (@sharepointlhorn), Eric Overfield (@ericoverfield) and Michal Pisarek (@MichalPisarek):

Christian Buckley: Is it even possible to come together as a community and define collaboration success? I mean, wouldn't this fall under the banner of "It Depends"?

Eric Overfield: Successful collaboration is still a big issue across many organizations and for many different reasons. Collaboration plays a big part in the success of any business or organization, regardless of their size. Many clients who turn to me and my company are still searching for a way to create an extranet or intranet portal that can enable team members to work together. They are searching for a solution to help increase communication and teamwork.

Jason Himmelstein: The question of “what does success look like” is the only one that matters for companies trying to implement a solution to the collaboration problem. There is no silver bullet, no right or wrong, and certainly no “one-size-fits-all” answer to the question. While at its broadest we can generalize a set of answers, at the finest points what success looks like is as individual per-project as a fingerprint.

A community driven effort is the only way to get true, unfiltered answers from people that can be relied upon.

CB: I agree with you 100 percent. Innovation is rarely an "a-ha!" moment but is an iterative process that comes about through the sharing of ideas and talking things out. And yet I've been through a number of system planning activities where someone (usually senior manager) jumps right into problem solving, skipping past the shared understanding of the problem itself. Collaboration usually falls into that same pattern. What makes it so difficult, in your opinion, for organizations to define collaboration?

Vlad Catrinescu: Every enterprise and every user sees collaboration differently, and every user has different goals on how they want to collaborate. Furthermore, we have so many different type of collaboration that it’s hard to define a formula that fits everyone. 

JH: The term itself is open to interpretation. By definition, collaboration is done in teams made up of individuals who have their own agendas, preferences and tendencies. Getting two or more groups to agree on how they want to collaborate is very difficult and often can cause disruptions when one group attempts to force their way on another without a mandate.

Michal Pisarek: Collaboration can mean many different things to many different people both across but also within a single organization. The first step in defining collaboration is to define the exact problem that collaboration is supposed to solve. 

As you point out, too many organizations try to jump to a solution before trying to understand the underlying problem they are trying to solve or opportunity they are trying to exploit, which leads to solutions that don’t provide any real value and are seen as simply “another tool that we have to use." In many organizations the problems that they are trying to solve can actually be solved by easy tools but it requires a concrete understanding of the problem, executive sponsorship to help enforce this change and alignment with current business process to achieve success.

EO: It is difficult for organizations to define collaboration because they usually do not have a clear understanding of what collaboration means for them and their team. Often the tools are not readily available and accessible. Sometimes they are just out of reach. 

On the other hand, there can also be too many tools to choose from. The waters can get muddy. There is no clear roadmap for them to follow. No flowchart that is easy to navigate. And because of this they often look to experts to define it for them, even when we are not fully clear as to what is the best path moving forward.

We may have our own definition of what collaboration is — but this definition may not work for everyone. It is very important for each organization to first define their business personality and culture. You have to explore that first and foremost before you can define collaboration.

CB: How does the lack of a clear definition of collaboration impact organizational efforts? Aren't most of the tools intuitive enough? Can't an organization figure it out without booking a meeting room?

EO: Without a clear definition, there is no way to measure what successful collaboration can mean for an organization, and thus there is less value put on it. Less value equals less effort. Without the proper pre-planning, a project is much more likely to fail and end-users are more likely to find outside, third-party tools that fall outside of an organization’s control.

JH: Organizations all too often do not approach collaboration as something that is mission critical. They simply figure it will happen one way or another. The problem is that this often causes false starts, abandoned efforts and ultimately loss of time and money before requirements are defined and a mandate is given.

CB: And that's when teams start picking up different tools, going out on their own. Do you think that the increased usage of consumer-focused collaboration tools (Slack, WhatsApp, Trello, etc.) is exacerbated by a failure to clearly define collaboration goals and measurements?

MP: It does, but I really think that these tools have made such an impact because of their low barrier of entry and great user experience they provide. We all know that many enterprise tools for collaboration provide a user with an experience that is far from optimal, so users go with what they know and these tools do a great job of providing a very easy interface to use.

JH: I would say ABSOLUTELY. This scenario reminds me of the movie “The American President.” Michael J. Fox and Michael Douglas’s exchange toward the end of the movie. Simply change the words a bit and …

"People want leadership collaboration. And in the absence of genuine leadership collaboration, they will listen to anyone who steps up to the microphone use any tool they can get their hands on. They want leadership collaboration, Mr. President. They’re so thirsty for it, they’ll crawl through the desert toward a mirage tool, and when they discover there’s no water it sucks, they’ll drink the sand use it anyway.

If it’s been a while since you’ve seen the movie, it’s worth watching again ....

EO: I'll also say yes, because the consumer tools are easy and are evolving much more quickly than enterprise tools, their level of entry is low. Also enterprise collaboration is so broad, means something different for everyone, yet the consumer tools address a specific collaboration type and need. 

Yes, consumer-focused collaboration tools can address an immediate problem, usually with very little download and maintenance time. That makes it easy. While enterprise collaboration is incredibly broad, consumer-focused tools are not.

If you don’t know how to define collaboration and what it means for your company, then you don’t know how to address it and thus, as problems come along, individuals or small groups within an organization search for a solution that solely addresses one need. This is where consumer-tools can be both good and bad. 

When organizations provide a clear path for how they will collaborate, encouraged by management, there is less of a need to find other tools to fill in gaps. Both sides win as individuals/groups get the tools they need to get their job done while management/IT are empowered with the control they need to safeguard data and security.

CB: What are some of the common mistakes you see organizations making as they set out to establish their collaboration strategy?

VC: I think the most common mistake is not listening to our users. When we deploy a new system or a new feature it must serve a purpose and fix a problem, or improve a process that our users hate. If the collaboration strategy we put in place adds more work to our users, their department will just buy a consumer focused tool and use that instead.

JH: They think that collaboration just happens. They forget that like any successful venture in business planning is required.

MP: Too many high-level platitudes and ethereal statements without any way to measure the effectiveness of the solutions proposed. Any organization can implement SharePoint or Slack and say that “collaboration has improved” but not enough look at this from a specific business process or use case that can be measured. 

Imagine buying a car and the sales person says that car can go “pretty fast.” There is no way that you would hand over your money, but organizations expect their employees to hand over their time and effort to collaboration efforts that are measured by quote such as “improved employee engagement,” “increased productivity” and other such platitudes.

EO: Sometimes organizations don’t address what their company’s long-term or even short-term goals are when they set out to establish a collaboration strategy. This can be a big problem. They don’t account for the costs and resources they need for set up, customization or ongoing maintenance. Yet if a collaboration tool is too heavily customized then it can be hard to adapt to change, and thus, future needs don’t get met.

CB: In your opinion, what are the key influences that can make or break enterprise collaboration?

JH: Investment, not only in the form of money but more importantly of leadership and attention. Expecting that a leader can demand collaboration happen and never think about it again is foolhardy.

VC: I think one of the key influences is working with our users and choosing our pilots wisely. Users from different departments — and even different generations — have very different views on what they understand by collaboration and the features they want.  Once you know what your users want, it’s a lot easier to find a technical solution to fit that problem. 

EO: First, do your research before you generate an enterprise collaboration strategy. See what it out there and what others are doing. You need to ask your employees, interview key organization members, and reach out to stakeholders and get their feedback. 

Feedback is a big stepping stone to successful collaboration. Once you have assessed what your company might need to communicate efficiently and effectively then you can move forward with that in mind. 

Also, project sponsors and management need to not only buy off on the recommended course of action, they must also participate.

Developing Your Collaboration Strategy

While different organizations have varying definitions of what successful collaboration looks like and behaves, I believe commonalities exist between us that can be captured as community best-practices and examples to be shared. The  purpose of the "Measuring Collaboration Success" initiative is threefold:

  1. To understand how the community defines collaboration success,
  2. To understand how they measure that success,
  3. To document the steps taken to deploy in a way that ensures the defined goal is met and that the proper measurements are in place.

As shown in the comments from four MVPs, a lot can be learned from members of our community. Collaboration is a fairly broad topic that can encompass everything from email to instant messaging to real-time video communication. But the technology we use is secondary to having a strategy for those tools, and understanding how they align with the needs of your business. Technology is not your strategy — technology enables strategy.

While we use a variety of tools and technologies, the goals of collaboration are fairly consistent across organizations: to share information, improve communication and support corporate culture. We may approach collaboration in different ways, but that doesn't mean we should not come together at the team or organizational level to agree on our collaboration goals and measurements. 

If collaboration is not well defined, how can we measure it and claim success?

Title image "IMG_3077" (CC BY 2.0) by  Acumen_