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PHOTO: Lisa @ Sierra Tierra

Employees simply want data and insights so they can do their jobs. For many companies this means trying to perfect their use of collaboration tools, according to a new report from The Economist Intelligence Unit, which surveyed 1,145 senior executives including IT, HR and other business leaders about employee experience. 

So what does perfection look like with collaboration tools? OK, we’ll admit there is probably no such thing as the perfect collaboration tool, though investors may disagree to the tune of $20 billion

Finding a Collaboration Tool That Fits

The hunt for a collaboration tool should not be about the perfect tool, but about the perfect fit for what employees specifically need, according to Angela Ashenden, principal analyst of digital workplace at CCS Insight. “My primary advice is to think about what you are trying to achieve with a collaboration tool," Ashenden said. 

“This is a massive and complex space with many different types of solutions, from chat to file sharing, enterprise social networking, project-based collaboration, online communities, team productivity tools, web and video conferencing — pretty much every supplier in these areas describes their solution as supporting collaboration. And they’re not wrong; it just depends on your perspective.”

Related Article: How to Apply Governance to Your Collaboration Tools

Understanding the Challenges and Problems That Need Solving 

Ashenden encourages those on the hunt for collaboration tools to ask some important internal questions before even getting close to an actual selection — it’s not enough to say that you want to improve collaboration. 

Is it about helping connect people in different parts of the business? Helping encourage/improve/support knowledge sharing? Helping to find the right person to do a particular job? Providing a way for people to come together to share experiences or common interests? Helping teams get their work done on a day-to-day basis? Connecting deskless workers with the rest of the business? Helping people feel more connected with/within the organization?  “Once you understand your specific use cases and goals,” she said, “it’s easier to work out which type of tool will be most useful. Then you can compare apples with apples more effectively.”

Don’t Let IT Pick Your Collaboration Tools

Houston, have we struck a controversial chord here? David Coleman, longtime collaboration researcher and analyst, said the first move is to keep IT away from the buy button with collaboration tools. Well, not entirely. Coleman wasn’t suggesting IT not be a part of the process. In fact he even said they could be leaders on the project selecting a collaboration tool. Coleman just doesn’t think they should be the ultimate — and only — authority in the process. “Because they will pick the tools that are best for them, not best for the business,” Coleman said.

IT, Coleman added, may already have an agreement with a provider such as Microsoft where they favor that vendor. But what really matters most is trying to determine what it is your users need to actually do, he said. “IT should probably lead the charge but should look more at surveying their customers, which are the lines of business,” Coleman said. “They should try to understand what they need and how they will use it, before they go off and pick a bunch of tools that will get pushed on people that don't want them and then not be used.”

Related Article: 5 Common Reasons Collaboration Tools Fail

Identify Problem Solving Users

Oftentimes, Coleman finds end users picking their own tools for collaboration since a lot of them are free. They happily use those tools with a group or department, and IT really doesn't know much about them. 

This, Coleman said, is a golden opportunity to interview those people because they fulfilled a need on their own and have intimate knowledge of what’s been working and where collaboration gaps exist. “A lot of times you find out they generally have a specific need,” Coleman said.

It’s vital to work with your employees who may have found their own solutions because it will not only help you identify the features that people want, but also can be good for adoption efforts, Ashenden said. “Those people who are finding their own solutions are also potentially valuable allies in the adoption process,” she said, “so it’s important to work with them and get them involved, whatever approach you take to product selection.”

Related Article: Find the Right Collaboration Tool Fit for Your Digital Workplace

Choosing the Build, Buy or Borrow Route

When finding the best ways to collaborate as a team, we have to think outside the box, said Angela Culver, CMO of Mobile Labs. The decision, she said, comes down to whether to build, buy or borrow tools to suit her team’s needs, she said. 

Culver said she found success with a particular collaboration tool for her marketing team. While it is not designed or really intended for marketers to use, she found that leveraging an existing tool in the organization prevented her from having to buy additional tools for project management. As an added bonus, other departments and their leadership team can also use the tool to communicate with the marketing team and “have more transparency by viewing and tracking the work that we are doing in marketing.”

Never Forget the Change Management Challenge

Most collaboration tools need lots of investment in change management before they are widely adopted. This is particularly true if you are trying to get people to move away from an alternative tool/method, even if it’s inadequate or inferior, according to Ashenden. “The most perfect choice of tool,” she said, “still won’t necessarily help if you don’t think about change management and adoption, not just at launch, but on an ongoing basis.”

Changing Behaviors > Selecting a Tool

The way to make any collaboration tool successful is to change people’s collaborative behaviors, according to Alister Webb, partner and consultant of Innosis. “The mere presence of collaboration tools, no matter how good, does not bring about great collaboration,” Webb said. “Great collaborative behaviors bring about great collaboration.”

It’s important to talk about what tools you need, but that should be the second part of the discussion after, “What do good collaborative behaviors look like?” Before we talk about the tools, do we know what part our key roles — senior leaders, middle managers and team leaders, community managers, to name a few — need to play in order to make our tool deployment successful?