Why should any organization adopt collaboration? There's only one reason—value creation. After all, if we're not creating value, what's the point? With a growing consciousness for collaboration, many companies are investing in collaboration tools and technologies. These range from enterprise instant messaging and unified communications, wikis, and enterprise social media to virtual worlds, Web conferencing, and telepresence.
In a typical scenario, the months fly by after the collaboration tools are implemented. As the seasons change, decision-makers anticipate reaping the benefits of collaboration. And perhaps they can even point to successes within particular business units or functions. Often, though, it's the same old story. The company remains for the most part internally competitive, hierarchical, and command-and-control driven. The tools alone have failed to make the company collaborative. Worse yet, the tools may have created no real value, and the decision-makers who had pinned such high hopes on these tools are surprised.
Are the tools the problem? More likely, the problem is the organization. When tools fail to create value, it's usually because decision-makers adopt tools before the company's culture and processes are collaboration-ready. Organizations even adopt tools for the wrong reasons, primarily the belief that tools will create collaboration. Tools merely offer the potential for collaboration. Unlocking the value of tools happens only when an organization fits tools into collaborative culture and processes. If the culture is hierarchical and internally competitive, it will take more than tools to shift the culture. Just because a competitor uses collaborative tools doesn't mean the time is right for your organization to do likewise. If the competitor is apparently deriving value from tools, maybe it's because the competitor's culture is more collaborative and the tools are extending and enhancing the culture.
Here are five ways to create value through collaborative tools and technologies:
Focus on Culture Before Tools
To create value, tools must fit the culture. If your organization's culture is command and control, the culture must shift to let collaboration happen. The expectation that team members must go through channels or move requests for decisions "up the flagpole" runs contrary to collaboration. Introducing collaborative tools into this type of culture sends mixed messages and breeds confusion. Therefore, senior leaders must first focus on reducing formality throughout the organization, because formality poisons collaboration and diminishes value.
Formality manifests—and can be reduced—in everything from interaction among levels of leadership to the physical workplace environment. The most effective culture shift happens when senior leaders set the stage, so that people at all levels, functions, business units, and regions want to collaborate rather than internally compete. Part of the equation is changing the recognition and reward system to compensate people for collaborative rather than internally competitive behavior.
Fit Tools into Business Processes
Too often, organizations use collaboration tools just for meetings or project status updates. Getting maximum value from tools requires integrating these technologies into the way the business operates, namely specific functional processes. These range from product design and quality assurance to benefits administration and purchasing. Competitors in the aerospace industry collaborate through a purchasing consortium called Exostar.
Exostar has integrated collaborative tools including shared, secure online workspaces into purchasing processes. The tools are key enablers, but collaboration among competitors is happening because of the collaborative purchasing processes, culture, and desire to reduce purchasing overhead and create value. Before using collaborative tools to collaborate with competitors, aerospace companies first needed to shift their culture and realize that collaborating with competitors on a nondifferentiating process like purchasing creates value for each consortium member.
Adopt Spontaneous Work Styles
Many companies are investing in unified communications, which integrates instant messaging with voice calls, Web conferencing, and videoconferencing. Unified communications lets businesspeople see on their computer screens whether colleagues are available, out to lunch, or on the phone. It's the same idea as consumer IM services like Yahoo! Messenger (YHOO), Microsoft Windows Live Messenger (MSFT), or AOL AIM (AOL) in a secure framework for enterprises.
Also, unified communications enables spontaneous connections and escalation from text chat to voice and video. Too often, companies get mixed results from unified communications, because the culture and work styles are out of sync with the tools. Culturally, the organization may expect people to make appointments with leaders and schedule meetings. In contrast, unified communications gives everybody immediate access to everybody else regardless of level, role, region, function, or business unit. No appointment necessary. To maximize unified communications, formality and hierarchy must take a backseat to results.
Use Tools to Develop Products and Services
Fit the tools into product or service development processes. This involves integrating collaborative tools with the applications that engineers use to design products. So rather than simply using tools for project status updates, the tools become part-and-parcel of product development, design, and production. This can significantly reduce product cycle time. Boeing (BA) uses high-definition videoconferencing combined with advanced aerospace design software so that engineers around the world can collaboratively design the 787 Dreamliner and other aircraft.
DreamWorks Animation has created Virtual Studio Collaboration, which combines telepresence with animation design tools so that globally dispersed artists can collaboratively create the next blockbuster movie in real time while virtually sitting across from each other.
This is a departure from the pass-along approach of doing one's work, then e-mailing the work product to a colleague, meeting to exchange ideas, and then following up by working solo. Using telepresence and high-definition videoconferencing as key tools in a global virtual design environment creates far greater value for Boeing and DreamWorks Animation (DWA) than just using these tools for meetings. It's about changing the business model and the way we work from serial to real time.
Give the Entire Organization Access to the Same Tools
Some companies reinforce command-and-control culture by creating a hierarchy of tools. Executives get access to high-end collaborative tools, and everybody else uses lower-end ones. Telepresence—technology that creates the illusion that people are sitting across from each other—is the most obvious example. If your company invests in only a few such systems, it's more effective to reserve them for particular functions rather than for particular people. The most collaborative organizations give everybody access to the same tools regardless of level, role, or region. This eliminates unnecessary hierarchy, reinforces collaborative culture, and creates greater value.