Remember the old Star Trek episode where someone brought a Tribble (little furry creature) on board? The tribbles reproduce at an astonishing rate and soon the crew finds Tribbles in every corner of the Enterprise.

Collaborative tools are a lot like Tribbles. One person has a need, finds a free tool online, and after a test, their group decides to use it.The same happens with other groups and other tools, and pretty soon you end up with collaborative chaos, much like the problem Captain Kirk had with the Tribbles.

Star Trek's writers always found a good and humane way to solve problems. But that isn't always the case with organizations. Many have legacy collaborative infrastructure systems(e.g. SharePoint) that don’t work so well in collaboration and frustrate users.

But IT paid millions of dollars for the software over several years, with several full time employees dedicated to it, and so the CIO can’t boot it out without looking like an idiot for spending all that money on something that fails to meet the collaborative needs of his users.

Add to this seething mess a few more ingredients: Consumerization: not only are people bringing their own devices, but they are also brining their own software (often messaging, social network or collaboration software). 

The next ingredient is Millennials (18 to 30-year-olds). They grew up digital, they work differently (in a more distributed manner), they always want to be connected, they don’t have the same work goals and values as the rest of management, and yet are natural collaborators with a wide knowledge of technology and how to make the best use of new technologies. It will be interesting to see what happens with the first millennial CIO.

Exiting from Collaborative Chaos

Planning is the only way organizations can get out of collaborative chaos. Who makes a plan around collaboration -- it's all ad-hoc, right?

Creating a 3-year plan (not a longer horizon, because the technology changes too quickly) might look something like this:

1. Immediate -- get an outside firm to survey the organization for tools, attitudes and problems with collaboration:

  • What critical processes in the organization have a high collaboration component to implement collaborative leverage
  • Determine the stakeholders, who has the greatest need, what has the greatest impact on revenue, etc.

2. Once you've established where the organization is with collaboration, have the management team use a collaborative metric like TCEP (Technology, Culture, Economics, Politics). This will establish a baseline score for collaboration in the organization. “If it can’t be measured … it can’t be managed” is a great Peter Drucker quote that helps support this initial work.

3. Meet with all stakeholders:

  • Propose low overhead tools that will meet 80 percent of the identified collaboration needs
  • Make sure these tools can pull data from your current data sources (ERP, CRM, SAP, etc.), and do not require a lot of context switching (jumping from tool to tool to get a task done) to support standard use cases
  • Meet individually with each stakeholder and go over the tools proposed and how they would work. Emphasize the benefits to their organization
  • Create reverse mentoring opportunities where millennials can mentor the C-suite in the use and opportunities these new tools afford

4. Test the tools:

Learning Opportunities

  • Don’t do it all at once. Test tools with different teams, different projects, distributed teams and localized teams. The tests don’t have to be long -- you should know in a week or two if the tool is making things better or worse
  • Poor processes or poor human interactions will not be saved by better collaboration tools, they will just magnify where and what the problem is. Although tools get 80 percent of the attention, people and processes are the root of 80 percent of the problems
  • If the tool(s) work well, try it with some partners or contractors (close and positive relationships) and see how the tools work for them
  • See if a particular process that has collaborative leverage (like new product development) can be improved by using the tool. Easy measurements here include cycle time, time to market or time to revenue

5. Armed with all this data and test results reconvene a stakeholder meeting and lay out a plan for collaboration:

  • Which group get what tools when, what is expected from them, how will you measure use or productivity. Once the tools have been rolled out to various departments, have management revisit the TCEP to see if the score has changed. If it has gone up significantly, you know you are on the right track.

How to Pick the Right Tool for the Right Job?

Collaborative Strategies, Inc. tracks over 2000 different collaborative solutions -- which are more than any market should have or can support.I call about 1500 of those tools zombie tools, i.e. dead but still walking. Stay away from those.

If their customer base is not growing, most of their revenues come from maintenance fees, they have unhappy customers and few or no new releases of the tool, only bug fixes -- it's likely this is a zombie tool. Zombie collaboration vendors are not always small, there are big ones as well that may be “too big to fail.”

Once you've ruled out the zombie vendors, try to determine what the work actually is. Have someone who does the particular job the tool is meant to solve write down what they do in great detail (in steps if they can). Look for areas of interaction where collaboration might make things better.

Once you have a functional description of the work, you can start mapping it to different collaborative functions. For example, if you are a technical writer and you need the developers to review what you have written (for accuracy, or in case they change something) don’t use email. That will cause versioning problems, and you might lose some of the critical feedback given.Instead, use a virtual team space like Central Desktop (now owned by PGi which has a real-time collaborative tool called iMeet, and the integration avoids context switching), or you can use tools like Google Docs (although there may be some security issues).

There is a lot more to this and is one of the reasons there are so many tools, and so many people using the wrong tool for the wrong function -- you can write a report in a spreadsheet, but that doesn't use the spreadsheet’s main functionality.

My next article will provide a quick taxonomy of collaborative tools and go into more detail about how to match your work with the right tool.

Title image Sergey Petrov /