Feeding the squirrel

One of July's themes at CMSWire is "Keys to Successful Enterprise Collaboration." Allow me to recommend a thought-provoking article by Sam Marshall: "Why Collaboration Works for Others, But Not for You." Here I’d like to offer a different and, I think, more basic approach than Sam’s.

I want to look at some very basic frameworks — the "people-process-technology" triangle and the “W5H” — and see how we can apply them to enterprise-wide collaboration. OK, you may ask, beyond going back to these basic levels, where do I depart from the redoubtable Mr. Marshall? Well, let’s get this out there up front: Culture.

Sam quite rightly states he is a bit fed up with people who trot out the overly simplistic statement that to be able to collaborate (or frankly, to do anything) you have to have the right culture. Applied specifically to the collaboration scenario, he feels it’s not quite right to embark on massive culture change across an organization just in order to enable better collaboration.

In many respects, I agree with his statement:

"My own belief is that it is hard enough to change people’s ways of working, so matching the approach to the current collaboration culture is the best approach. If there is a really strong organization-wide push to change culture, then yes, collaboration tools may support that, but they won’t drive that change on their own."

While I do agree that particular tools will only ever support culture change and can never drive it, I disagree that you need to match your approach to collaboration to the current culture. I think a little bit of culture change can go a very long way — and you do not have to tackle the entire organizational culture or its myriad of potential sub-cultures. You should not shy away from small, incremental changes that can potentially make a big difference.

People, Process and Technology

If we look at the three sides of this triangle, giving equal weight to each (as the model is normally presented), we can consider culture to be an intrinsic element of the people and process dimensions. In the enterprise collaboration use case, I believe that culture is far more important than the technology deployed, and this is why I think a little highly targeted effort at cultural change, in whatever form it might need to take, is worth the effort.

Sam quite rightly points out that for various reasons some tools work just fine in some organizations, but the same ones gain no traction at all in others. Interestingly, there was a lot of discussion on social collaboration at the recent J. Boye Philadelphia 15 Conference. Many presenters suggested they did not like their present technology, be it SharePoint, Yammer, Chatter, Tibbr or Jive, but that in the current fiscal situation they were not going to be able to swap to another one. Those that were the most successful appeared to be the ones doing a little focused culture change in order to fit the tool into their process as best they could. For an organization to be able to say "This is not the perfect tool, but it’s what I have got, so I am going to lever the heck out of it" requires a little cultural remodeling.

Yes, I know the technological particularities of your specific platform can have an impact, but I am ex-Army, and I know that when an EMP burst has taken down your satellite communications, data links, networks and laptops, you can still plan operations using paper maps, pencils and notebooks — it's all about that collaborative culture!


So lets examine a really basic model in the collaboration context: What, Who, Why, Where, When and How (or five W's and an H).

What Are Your Collaboration Goals?

Collaboration means people working together to achieve a common goal. So what is your common goal? Is it clear, is it understood by all involved? This will become more important the bigger the collaborating group is and the more complex the environment – for example, spread across the globe or in different operating units. Don't lose sight of the goal: Collaborative work is for a reason. Broad-based information sharing can be useful, but it is not the same as deliberative collaboration.

Who Is Collaborating?

Is this about a small team that often (or always) works together, or a large, global, virtual team spread across time zones, with different perspectives because they come from different operating divisions? The small team, say, fewer than 10 people on the same floor, are likely to already have a common culture. The complex global team may not, and they are more likely to benefit from a framework of simple behavioral guidelines to help them form their own collaborative micro-culture.

Why Are You Collaborating to Achieve This Goal?

What exactly are the outcomes your collaboration is intended to achieve? Does the context have a potential impact on the development of collaborative culture across the organization or on the micro-culture applicable to each team? Is this team working together by choice, or have they been forced together by process? Is this collaborative effort planned or ad hoc, because that will have an impact on the support mechanism and potentially even the technology tool use.

Where Is the Collaboration Taking Place?

Is this collaboration taking place in a single room, or is it technologically mediated across the globe? Even if all the people are in one building, the corporate culture may well mean that a virtual team thrown together to quickly achieve a specific goal will work as an electronic team levering various collaboration technologies – the difference being, a global team would not be able to claim a meeting space as their "war room" and fill it with computers and white boards!

When Is the Collaboration Taking Place?

Is this ad hoc collaboration, with a deadline? Or is it part of the standard execution of a major business process that will iterate again and again as part of your normal working practices? If you’re supporting a constant generation of tactical problem solving teams, then your collaborative culture will be different from that baked in to collaborative business processes, but to Sam Marshall's point, you may have both within a single organization. The even more basic view of "when" is business hours: If this is a global team, will components of it in effect be collaborating 24/7 across time zones?

How Are You Enabling Collaboration?

Even this question does not talk exclusively to technology. How are you enabling high-quality collaborative work through your cultural efforts? HR policy and procedure, guidelines and training provisions, communications and clarity of purpose? And yes, what collaboration tools do you make available, from telephones and whiteboards to global deployments of SharePoint, Yammer and Jive (yes, all of them, plus more)?

In conclusion, I would reiterate that culture is more important than technology when looking to build high-performance, collaborative working environments. If you have a good grasp of this “collaboration culture” then you can actually succeed, no matter the technology. However, culture change to enable enhanced collaboration does not have to comprise enterprise-level, complex and expensive change management programs.

You can collaborate effectively without the greatest technology platform of all time. Some technologies will fit better with your existing culture, your existing ways of working, and if you can implement a tool that complements your environment, then adoption should be higher and efficient collaboration may result.

As ever, we are all different and your mileage may vary.

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