people's hands covered in clay at a pottery studio
PHOTO: Karen Maes

The profusion of collaborative tools — both official and not — have left employees confused about what tools they should use, and put teams at risk of “atomization” and unconsciously becoming disconnected from each other through their tool choices. A subsequent risk is people falling back onto old, default behaviors, such as email, spreadsheets or four-hour meetings.

So what should we do about collaboration in light of this?

At Spark Trajectory we’ve developed our Task Trajectory user journey framework to help clients get a handle on how to approach digital workplace strategy. User journeys help clarify what employees want, what you offer as an organization and what employees really do. Narrowing down the focus to the user journeys that inspire collaboration allows an organization to understand why people need to collaborate, and look for decisive moments to intervene to improve employees’ collaboration outcomes. 

Governance and Setting Boundaries Around Collaboration Tools

Many organizations provide a matrix of collaboration tools that indicate different levels of recommendation and support by communicating support levels, for example:

  1. Recommended: this tool is what the organization expects to be used for a task.
  2. Available: this tool is available and supported.
  3. Unsupported: this tool is available and can be used, but is not supported and should not be used for critical tasks.
  4. Forbidden: this tool should not be used for any task under any circumstances.

Many users will accept this on face value and work within these constraints. And any user willing to push constraints or engage in risky behaviors cannot claim they were ignorant of the policy!

Driving the adoption of recommended collaboration tools remains a hard task and displacing forbidden products must be planned and executed to ensure it happens. Again, thinking about collaboration in terms of success or failure in a user journey assists greatly. Does the tool benefit a certain group? Does the use of the tool bring any drawbacks — such as making the group harder to work with? A group using Slack when everyone else is using Teams cuts themselves off. A group using a specific product like Invision to wireframe product designs does not and their ability to collaborate with others increases.

One of the decisive moments we see is at the start of projects. The project manager largely sets the tone and chooses the tools the group will use to work together. Influencing project managers is therefore key. One of the first steps of any project is to look at the tools that will support collaboration needs of the team — either by looking at what is recommended somewhere in the digital workplace, or by typically calling the IT helpdesk for advice, or using an IT request form. These are all critical paths to signpost by creating some content that people can read, priming your IT helpdesk folks and then thinking about how tool provisioning is done.

Editor's Note: Read the first article in this two-part series, "How User Journeys Help Us Understand Collaboration"

Strategy That Listens

The world of collaboration has turned into an ice cream parlor. Dozens of delicious sounding flavours stretch before us and we press our faces up against the cold glass. Old favorites we know will satisfy us sit alongside novel delights and tempt our taste buds.

The days of software vendors selling exclusively to some senior manager in IT are long gone. Every employee and manager is now a target for enterprise software sales. We need to face up to the fact that the world has changed. A collaboration strategy of crossing one’s arms and sternly saying “No!” at every new innovation because you chose a certain solution isn’t sustainable. We need to craft a model of strategic governance that can best exploit what we already have and already pay for, but leave the door open for new and perhaps revolutionary products.

Collaboration and digital workplace managers need to be visible within the organization to have those conversations. They need to create opportunities for ideas to circulate throughout the product life cycle about how people want to collaborate, not just when everything feels old and worn out and someone decides that something must be done.

Related Article: How Collaboration Hubs Can Support Digital Workplace Governance

The Hidden Secret of Collaboration

A lot of what we call collaboration in large enterprises isn’t really producing anything. The idealistic vision of collaboration is people coming together — a meeting of minds! — to generate something new that one person alone could never have dreamt up. Unfortunately collaboration has a hidden secret: It is used as a sticking plaster for broken processes.

Let’s imagine the digital workplace is split down the middle with process-driven workflow tools on one side, and mostly ad-hoc collaborative tools on the other.

process driven

On the process-driven digital workplace is the big-ticket computing that runs your ERP system, your retail systems, your fulfillment systems as well as HR, expenses and payroll. On the ad-hoc side you have email, files and collaboration systems. The process-driven digital workplace is like a beehive: highly organized, specialized and optimized for scale and efficiency — but is inflexible and hard to change. The ad hoc digital workplace is flexible and opportunistic. It favors the individual and is highly adaptable, but is terribly messy. It’s more like a nest of rats!

process driven

Hopefully processes run smoothly, but we all know they don’t. Sooner or later something in the process-driven digital workplace needs the involvement of the ad-hoc digital workplace. An email needs to be sent, a meeting called, some details checked. Perhaps someone needs to sign off on something but they are on vacation for three weeks! Disaster! Sometimes processes become so incomplete that they are effectively broken and the process only continues because of people filling in the gaps. Those gaps very often look and feel like collaboration.

process driven

If you go looking for this you will find it easily in every important business process in your organization. Broken processes cause doubt, ambiguity and uncertainty. Either information is absent or people distrust the available information. Sometimes the information is open to interpretation or is too unpredictable to be relied upon. The result is a profusion of valueless collaboration as meetings, calls and messages erode people’s time. Someone using Yammer in a desperate attempt to find information is not valuable collaboration — it just adds to the clutter and noise of modern business life. Processes are seen as unchanging and persistent, but improving and streamlining them sometimes can free up people to work in more fruitful ways.

Related Article: The Collaboration Community's Big Dirty Productivity Secret

Improving Collaboration With User Journeys

Collaboration looks very complicated. Thousands of people working on hundreds of different projects. But the patterns are there, and the patterns pull into a sharp focus when you start to look. Looking at collaboration through the lens of user journeys allows you to manage the space more knowledgeably — the basic needs that people have are, in fact, few.

This can help you make sense of the chaos and make incisive interventions to ensure that the result of everyone’s hard work is constructive and meaningful. And let’s never have another dispiriting four-hour meeting with no agenda, no decisions and no actions.