We invest in digital collaboration tools, therefore we see collaboration as the outcome, right? 

Unfortunately, the answer is largely a resounding no.

Over the last year, I have been running workshops for multinational organizations on how to overcome collaboration's hurdles. The following five areas emerged which require extra attention when deploying digital collaboration tools.

1. First, Get Your Meeting Culture Right

How do your people behave in face-to-face meetings? Do they have genuine interaction, or do they get by with minimal input? 

A culture of collaboration must manifest itself in person before we can expect it to occur virtually. If all we do in person is a round-table update of the week's tasks, then we are highly unlikely to use our digital tools any more effectively.

A positive meeting culture is not about being held to account on our updates and tasks, it's one where we can have a proper conversation. A place where we can be honest and where we look to renew and improve, not to speak only when expected to.

The following tactics can help create better conditions for teams to thrive in meetings:

  1. Lose the agenda and focus on the priorities at hand. Having an agenda formed of limited time slots and updates is not the best use of the assembled team. You have all of your intellectual capital together in a room — use it. This means focusing conversations around solving problems or improving things. Understand what the outcome of the meeting is, and work fluidly towards that. Don't waste time on round-robin updates.
  2. Ensure that quiet voices get a say. Sometimes the louder, dominant voices in a room need to know when to put a sock in it. This isn't about putting them on the spot, but encouraging them to participate and actually listening to them. Seek the broadest diversity of opinion possible.
  3. Get your team together by giving them a topic they care about. Often this isn't a work topic but a personal one. Nothing builds empathy and trust more than understanding the real person in the room, and can help you overcome personality bottlenecks.
  4. Having an open, trusting culture in meetings opens the way to embed these behaviors in the digital environment. Can't collaborate in a room? Then it certainly won't happen automatically in the digital domain.

2. There's No Time for Collaboration

Unfortunately, routine usually trumps collaboration. The task at hand — dealing with emails or status updates in meetings — seem to be the norm. We expend so much energy being seen and responding to demands. We are too busy reacting to ever collaborate properly.

So how do we break this cycle, and free up time for constructive collaboration? One technique is to do away with internal emails entirely, and focus on conversations as a communication method.

Another proven method is to mandate a period of collaboration time per day. Time that people, especially managers, are free. A time where people are not in meetings, but available and visible to respond in person or via enterprise social tools. Where people visibly engage in real-time conversations focused on solutions. It's amazing how effectively problems can be dealt with by discussing them, rather than emailing back-and-forth.

And the other benefit? Email traffic reduces significantly, because things are actually being dealt with through a proper conversation. Time 'sacrificed' for collaboration is returned with interest.

3. We're Afraid to Be Seen

Working out loud can be intimidating: A wild lawless jungle where our conversations and activities are no longer safely stowed away, but roam free across the digital workplace in full view of colleagues and managers alike. 

Nothing puts people off using digital collaboration tools more than the perceived lack of safety in using them.

Learning Opportunities

Safety in the digital workplace largely manifests itself in the modeled behaviors of others. We need to 'see' that what we do is acceptable. At it's very simplest, seeing others lead the way into the digital jungle helps clear the path for the rest of us. Catalysts and senior leaders in particular, can display simple behaviors to encourage further contributions, such as 'likes' and comments on posts.

Engagement is one proven method to help develop confidence in the digital landscape: understanding what holds people back, and helping them to overcome these hurdles. Engage with your teams, coach them on the desired behaviors. This will turn the digital jungle into a sanctuary of knowledge and help.

4. Digital Confusion

Social collaboration can be a minefield. Multiple tools, many with significant cross-purpose and overlap. Some tools get used in isolated pockets, whilst many of us just don’t bother engaging with them at all. Too complicated, too difficult.

It’s unrealistic to expect these tools to be culled down into just one or two core platforms. Effective governance should focus not on the rules and the don’ts, but on the hows and more importantly, the wheres. 

Where do I go to for a project issue? Where do I go to with a broader question? Providing clarity on how to post in the wider digital world can make a huge difference.

Simple guidance to help navigate the treacherous seas of social navigation is easily done and much appreciated — and I guarantee it's simpler than trying to come up with a one size fits all platform. Use what you have and guide people through it.

5. Getting Leaders and Influencers to Engage

Simply put, collaboration won’t happen if we are missing a key component of the workforce — senior leaders. Their absence reduces the credibility, removes that tacit approval for digital working, and also reduces its effectiveness. After all, how much can we achieve if decision makers and experts aren’t among us?

Seeing our leaders in the collaboration tool, actively responding, encourages and emboldens us. Leaders engaging, respecting what people say, not trying to direct conversations but listening to what is said are modeling effective collaborative behaviors. The other kind of leader, the one who is absent or uses the medium to broadcast one-way communications, blocks digital collaboration.

So don’t forget to engage with your leaders and influencers, help them understand how they can shape the wider adoption. They don’t have to be in there posting all the time — they shouldn't be — but knowing they are involved, listening and responding will make a huge difference.

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