working on computer, phone and paper
What if companies allowed employees to make tool selection by committee rather than mandate? PHOTO: William Iven

Do you want to liven things up at your office? Start a conversation about which digital workplace tools your organization should standardize on. There’s a plethora of collaboration tools and technologies to choose from, and picking just one is an overwhelming task. 

The “bring your own device” (BYOD) movement may offer a solution to the problem. As recently as a decade ago, the idea of bringing your own device to work was unthinkable. Today it’s commonplace for people to use personal devices on the job — especially mobile phones. So, using the same logic as BYOD, why not allow people to collaborate with their own digital tools of choice?

Consumer Preferences Bleed Into the Workplace

In prior generations, CIOs could comfortably hide behind the idea that “no-one ever got fired for buying IBM/Microsoft” and comfortably took the consolidate vendors path. Life isn't so simple today. 

I recall having a conversation with a former colleague who was in his final weeks of retiring from his CIO job at a large organization. He reflected on how proud he and his team were in running a tight IT infrastructure that was robust and secure. Then along came Gen Y and their camera phones, capable of sharing company information to the world with a couple of clicks. He was relieved that he wouldn’t have to deal with that.

Employees have been able to develop their tool preferences as consumers, and now they are looking to exert their preferences at work. Identifying and mandating a single tool set is no longer a guarantee of universal adoption. Free versions of tools like Yammer and Slack gained significant footholds inside the enterprise well before the CIOs got involved. 

And now we are witnessing some ludicrous situations where companies are starting to pay for deployments of technologies that used to be free — and corporate IT is demanding new security standards for these applications, even though many employees have been using them effectively for years.

To Govern or not to Govern?

Let’s embark on a little thought experiment, where the enterprise governance is scaled back to the point where end user choice is the preferred option. Let’s call this approach “BYODigital.”

the transition from consumer tools to enterprise tools

In this world, employees are free to use whatever collaboration tools they prefer. Many will be freely available, like Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn and Instagram. But the IT department may also get involved by offering some enterprise-quality options of its own — but as a choice, not a mandate.

You as the Integrator

In the BYODigital world, you become the point of integration for yourself. To collaborate effectively, you will have to negotiate with others in your ecosystem as to how you will choose to communicate. The key point here is that your ecosystem is people-centric. Priority information is accessed via people in your ecosystem. All other information is classified as a lower priority.

Building on the work of Constellation Research principal analyst and 7Summits chief strategy officer Dion Hinchcliffe, who has his own view of the dysfunction, we see the following “layers” of cooperation:

using email as an integrated layer

Negotiating With Your Ecosystem

As an individual, you may spend the majority of your time with your local work team, typically from two to 10 people. The team lead might negotiate with the rest of the team about how they will communicate. For example, a tech team may identify with the different development tools and platforms the team is using and agree on a set of tools that can work for the team. A marketing team may choose a different team collaboration tool, perhaps one more focused on sharing media. Given that there is only a relatively small number of people to negotiate with, this should be straightforward.

Once we move to the enterprise level, it is time to take notice of the enterprise social networking (ESN) thought leaders who may or may not exist in corporate IT. For many organizations, this will start as experiments with “freemium” products, to see which one gains the most traction. In our experience, this stage can last several years or, for the laggards, corporate IT may play catch-up by choosing a preferred product to start with. 

Either way, as an individual, you only have a single vote: use the ESN tool or not. However, you should be prepared to compromise “for the greater good” and not limit your participation in enterprisewide activity purely because you prefer a different tool. Remember, you are representing your team on the enterprise stage.

Once we move beyond the realms of your enterprise into market or industry networks, you will likely have no bargaining power. But again, it is your choice as to whether you want to participate or not. Astute external community managers, however, will ensure that the tools and platforms are not a barrier to them building an active and engaged membership.

Governing by Cooperation, not Mandate

As you can see from this scenario, even if you were given the opportunity to bring your own digital tools to work, it is the network, rather than any formal governance structure, that will do the governing in the end — but by cooperation, rather than mandate.

In this scenario, email gets a second life as the only universal communication platform that can connect you across the full breadth of your ecosystem. So even though the new social tools claim to be “email replacements,” email is here to stay.

As to the question of information overload, your best filter is made up of the people in your network. What interests them is also likely to interest you. An effective personal filter could follow the cooperation layers shown in the image above:

  1. People in my team (close work colleagues).
  2. People in my project or program.
  3. People I know or have heard of in my organization.
  4. People I know or have heard of in my field of specialization.
  5. People in the wider world I have heard about and am interested in.

You simply apportion your time and attention accordingly.