view of a man walking down stairwell from above
PHOTO: Raphael Koh

Collaboration is like dietary fiber — everyone agrees it is a wonderful thing, but too much, and everything grinds to a halt.

In organizations it used to be hard to find tools to collaborate with. Now practically every month a shiny new cool tool is released that we are tempted to use. This is thrown on the pile of collaboration solutions. Deep down in the geological strata there is the bedrock of email and shared drives. A bit further up there are deposits of on-premises SharePoint, a layer of Confluence or MediaWiki. A seam of Yammer and Jive show some evidence of primitive life in the Sociozoic era. Currently there is great diversity and an explosion of life in the collaboration ocean. Diverse species of all kinds swim around eating each other, with WhatsApp and Office 365 as apex predators.

While it is nice to think competition between collaboration solutions will create a Darwinian winner, the aspirations of software companies and those of organizations and employees are entirely opposed. It is one thing to have access to tools that do the job well, it is another to let chaos reign. Employee experience, productivity and project success suffer if collaboration becomes too confusing. Confusion about what tool is right for the occasion, or what messaging tool is used by a particular team leads people to fall back onto the bedrock defaults of email and a spreadsheet. Of course this is only digital  collaboration. There is plenty of collaboration that goes on around a printout or on a white board, on a conference line or… well, it is easy to get caught up in the sheer complexity of it.

Untangle Collaboration Complexity With User Journeys

A nice way to approach the mess is by looking at user journeys. At Spark Trajectory we’ve developed a user journey framework called Task Trajectory as a way to look at the sum total of what employees need and how they satisfy their tasks across the whole digital workplace. We can zoom into some specific user journeys that inspire collaboration to understand why people need to collaborate.

So firstly, let’s define some terms. A user journey is the path a user might take between their intention to undertake a task and the completion (or failure to complete) that task. It takes into account the choices they might make, the information available to them as well as their state of mind while doing so. We describe their intention as user stories: simple statements of user need, specifying what they want and why. For example, “I need a way to keep my project team up to date.” or “We need a space to store and update project documents.” We put short versions of them in boxes like this:

user stories

We can then map where the organization offers the capability to complete the task, say a particular platform, and then track what choices employees actually take to do so. It’s key to remember an employee’s starting point isn’t inside a system! It is at their desk or a train station or inside a worry in their head. We can take these paths wherever we like and then draw a pretty picture to illustrate the preferred paths the employees take and where the organization thinks they should be.

journey

This gives us a nice high-level map of employees’ motivations, and summarizes the blockers that get in their way — and with a map we can point out where to improve the routes to a better outcome.

The story “I need a way to keep my project team up to date” can be satisfied by lots of different tasks. You can call a weekly meeting or a daily standup. You can check in one-on-one with every member of the team. You could use Yammer, Teams or Slack and give and ask for updates. You could put up a Kanban board with sticky notes, or use Miro to do the same virtually, or use Microsoft Planner or Trello. You could shout loudly with a megaphone… Or you could send an email around, I guess. The key thing with user journeys is to get a sense of what people do now and how you could make interventions to make them more productive with the tools you’ve got. By creating a user journey you are creating a map that describes the landscape and on that landscape you can plan your battle.

When we work with organizations, one thing we never have is a “collaboration user journey.” That would be ridiculous. When you think about it, collaboration is a mode of behavior that we as humans employ to achieve certain things. We don’t engage the collaboration gear unless we have to. We see collaboration behaviors as key parts of several other journeys:

  • The knowledge journey — Needs around finding experts and groups to share with and learn from and also writing things down to be useful later.
  • The project journey — Needs around working together as a group around a certain deliverable.
  • The meeting journey — Needs around organizing places and spaces for getting clarity with conversation.

So what do we find when we look at collaboration like this? Confusion, atomization and falling back to defaults.

Related Article: Is Your Intranet Lost in the Fog?

Confusion

Employees are seriously confused about what application to use. The choices are dazzling and ever changing. There are those who cheer for their favorites — the best are evangelists who bring others with them. The worst are zealots who reject any common tooling. Some are aware of the choices available, others appear to be covering their eyes and ears and hoping the complexity will go away. Tools that start to get adopted get rejected — often entirely passively — people start with good intentions and then quietly and unconsciously stop using it.

Atomization

Technology choices are unintentionally creating breaks and divisions between different groups. Groups choosing particular technologies to work more closely together can, without knowing it, push other people away. We worked with one group where people had stopped logging into their softphone (they hated it), but it meant it had become impossible to call anyone.

Back to Defaults

When there is confusion about what to use, or confusion about what other people use we play it safe: Email and a spreadsheet. WhatsApp. A text message. A four-hour meeting.

Related Article: Providing Flexibility in Workplace Tools Doesn't Mean It's a Free-For-All

How to Clean Up the Collaboration Mess?

Once you get an idea of the paths employees take you can start installing some signposts to point them in the right direction.

One of the critical elements is to get some level of governance in place. Communicating what tools people are expected to use is a first step. By all means provide a delicious menu of collaborative treats for people to choose from, but be really clear about which ones are the unhealthy choices and which ones are downright poisonous.

We need to start forming strategic governance that can respond to the ever-increasing choice of collaboration tools. It is no longer OK to pick one and sit there with our arms crossed shouting “No!” at business stakeholders when they find a cool new tool. This will simply make more people likely to ignore you. We need to be able to look at novel collaboration services on their merits and have grown-up conversations about them.

There is also a hidden secret of collaboration that must be dealt with, but we’ll discuss that in the next post.

Ultimately, we need to help simplify the collaboration landscape for our users. Providing consistent and personalized ways into collaboration spaces for each employee — perhaps in the form of some kind of central portal — means they don’t have to go searching in one of dozens of spaces they have access to. Whatever you design or implement needs to simplify rather than complicate the collaboration landscape, steeped in the governance and the uses of the different tools that actually add value to what people do, rather than mask the inefficient holes and kinks in less-than-ideal process. Considering how collaboration tools are provisioned is also key — ensuring the right tool for the job is provided and ensuring a process is in place to clear up the mess.

Otherwise it just becomes part of the fossil record.

In part two we will look at these solutions in more detail by addressing digital workplace product governance, ensuring strategic governance processes are in place, making sure process workarounds aren’t masquerading as collaboration and providing solutions to simplify people’s access to collaboration tools.