making repairs to subway tracks
PHOTO: Metropolitan Transportation Authority

Are you trying to decide where to start with the new collaboration tools you just acquired? Here’s a tip: don't start with you, or the other folks in the head office. Instead, seek opportunities at the front line, or out in the field.

The market for enterprise collaboration tools is heating up. Many (most?) organizations are either moving toward Office 365 now, or they will be in the near future. Other offerings — including Slack and Workplace by Facebook — have entered the market with a bang.

There has never been a more impressive array of collaboration and social tools for businesses. But it easily becomes too much. 

Digital workplace teams can be overwhelmed by the possibilities and become unsure of where to start — and it’s no easier for the rest of the workforce.

That’s why collaboration tools should be rolled out in waves, either as “technology waves,” in which specific capabilities are deployed one at a time, or as “people waves” that target the needs of particular staff segments. 

That still leaves a lot of waves to choose from, and my tip is this: If in doubt, look to the needs of front line staffers and people who work in the field. They need collaboration tools.

The Value of Front Line Collaboration

Over the years, I have seen and heard amazing stories of front line collaboration.

Almost a decade ago, British Airways won an Intranet Innovation Award for its “crew community forums.” The platform was built on ancient technology, but nonetheless helped to solve scores of small but critical problems that were affecting customer service. Employees would go out of their way (think hotel foyers and internet cafés) to connect to the forums, often in their free time, because they saw value in collaboration.

Best Buy achieved fame with “Blue Shirt Nation,” a similar effort to provide front line staff in stores with a way of communicating, sharing ideas and problem solving. I have seen firsthand how people working in call centers use real-time collaboration to resolve complex customer questions while the operator artfully stalled for time.

At a recent event in Sweden, I had the pleasure of talking about the importance of front line collaboration with a digital workplace manager from a large local government organization (a local council, or “commune” in Scandinavian terms).

Where was collaboration having an impact in the organization of more than 20,000 employees?

Amongst the cleaners who worked in the commune’s many facilities. They were using real-time collaboration to share all kinds of information, such as how to access an office after hours, where the cleaning room is located, or why the fifth floor is covered in construction equipment.

These are hardly the tech-savvy knowledge workers that we expect to find as users of collaboration tools.

Related Article: Front-Line Workers: The Untapped Knowledge Workers in Your Midst

Spend Time on the Front Lines

The biggest barrier to meeting the needs of frontline and field workers is a lack of visibility about how and where they work. From the headquarters building, there may even be a bit of an “out of sight, out of mind” attitude.

The starting point must therefore be to close that knowledge gap. Seek opportunities to spend time with people on the front lines, in the environment in which they work. This doesn’t need to be a formal meeting, just a “seeking to understand” visit.

Very quickly, a dozen possible opportunities for deploying collaboration and social tools will become apparent. These can generally be winnowed down to a few possible starting points.

Involve Staffers in Planning and Deployment

In my experience of conducting field research across dozens of businesses, frontline and field employees have a clear understanding of the challenges they face, and of the hurdles that make it difficult for them to deliver great service.

This means they are ideal candidates to be early adopters of tools that will make it easier to do their work and will enable them to do a better job and get things done more quickly.

The conventional approach would be to conduct requirements-gathering or field research and then formulate a strategy and plan accordingly. Tools would then be designed and deployed to the front lines.

A better approach is this: Instead of deploying tools to frontline employees, deploy tools with them. Involve some of them as core project members, and use their insights and experiences to design solutions that will support them and their colleagues.

This makes for quicker projects that deliver benefits sooner and with less risk. Moreover, this approach makes it possible to scale back change management efforts because it reduces initial resistance to change.

Related Article: Frontline Workers Still Point the Way Forward in the Digital Workplace

Sell the Success

The great thing about frontline and field employees is that they are the folks that the rest of the organization cares about. Think nurses in hospitals, branch staffers in banks, teachers in schools.

So when collaboration and social tools start having a positive impact, sell these successes to the rest of the business. If you handle things in a respectful way, frontline staffers will be happy to be held up as an example of how new technology can help the organization. It makes for great stories of compelling benefits.

With a strong early success, it becomes easier to muster the resources necessary to tackle the rest of the organization’s wider collaboration and social initiatives, and then roll out new systems in subsequent technology or people waves.