Five Keys to Successful Collaboration in the Future of Work

Despite panic-inducing, high-shock-value headlines like Will machines eventually take every job?, there’s little to worry about for most workers. Robots are more likely to supplement human labor than to replace it.

But while automation technologies broadly speaking (robots, “smart” machines, and software) may not destroy many jobs (if any) on net, they will certainly change the nature of the future of work.

Future of work is more collaboration than robotsThe work of the future will be technology-assisted, data-driven, and collaborative. Simple, autonomous tasks (e.g., scanning a barcode) are easy to automate. Complex tasks requiring a mix of expertise (e.g., designing and developing a business software application) are far more difficult, and not candidates for automation any time soon.

Enterprise collaboration software tools are nothing new—they’ve been around for two decades—yet (other than email) they still aren’t widely adopted.

That’s likely to change in the next several years, as more and more simple, autonomous tasks are automated and collaboration plays a larger part in many work roles. But to be embraced, collaboration tools must meet five crucial requirements. They must be:

  • Purposeful
  • Mobile
  • Simple
  • Integrated and contextual
  • Beneficial (to the user)

Vala Afshar, Chief Digital Evangelist at Salesforce.com, and Alan Lepofsky, VP and Principal Analyst – Collaboration Software at Constellation Research recently discussed enterprise collaboration tools and the future of work in a Huffington Post interview. Here are a few of their key findings, with additional commentary.

Collaboration Software Needs a Purpose

Too often, employees in large organizations are presented with enterprise collaboration software and told to go forth and collaborate. But such tools will fail if they don’t serve a clear purpose (and do it better than email).

As Afshar and Lepofsky note:

“Employees don’t go to work to be social or use the next great new tool and technology. Employees go to work to do sell, market, engineer, build, design, or run IT. So the future of work is still functionally job based. We still have things we have to do…

“We’ve had collaboration tools for 20 years…I look back at the phrases we used to use 20 years ago — seamless, borderless, time zone free experiences, communicate, collaborate, and coordinate. That’s exactly what vendors are saying today, so why haven’t those tools worked? We still have a vendor after vendors after analyst survey, after everything saying, adoption is low. How do I improve the usage of these tools? Employee engagement is at a low percentage. Customer engagement is low.”

But employees will adopt collaboration tools if they have a clear purpose,  the purpose is compelling, and the tool is designed optimally for that purpose. For example, an enterprise collaboration tool designed to solve big enterprise problems (such as network outages or data breaches) must be secure, provide the ability to invite participants from inside and outside the organization, enable new participants to get up to speed quickly on the status of the issue, and offer straightforward task management capabilities.

Collaboration Must be Mobile

Cloud computing and mobile access have fundamentally changed the way people work. Mobile today primarily means smart phones and tablets, though wearables and surfaces will likely play a bigger role in future.

Lepofsky defines mobile as “the ability to work well in transit. Mobile is the ability to work anywhere, anytime, not tethered to your desk…Mobile just means we can now work when we are not in those set static locations.”

Particularly for situations where collaboration is required to solve large, complex enterprise problems, an optimized mobile experience is essential. It’s unlikely all of the experts needed on ad hoc teams to resolve such issues are sitting at their desks; some may be—while others are in conference rooms, working remotely, traveling, or in the field.

Problem collaboration software should make it easy to set up a “virtual war room” that can be accessed from anywhere, on any device.

Collaboration Should be Simple

No one offers training courses on using Facebook, creating a profile on LinkedIn, or sending messages with Gmail. And it’s virtually impossible to contact customer support for any of those services. Yet they are all widely used and wildly popular—because they are dead simple.

Enterprise collaboration software needs to be like that. It should be as intuitive as email, though more functional. New users should be able to pick it up in minutes.

Collaboration Works Best When it’s Part of Workflow

Part of the appeal of email is that’s integrated into applications employees use frequently. It takes two clicks to send an open Word document or Excel spreadsheet as an email attachment.

Lepofsky sets a high bar for this, stating “collaboration software is like electricity or plumbing in our homes, or like special effects in a movie — you don’t even notice it.”

At the least, collaboration software should be designed to integrate to common workplace applications to make it easy to communicate and coordinate tasks on the fly.

Kinetic Response, for example, can be integrated with Salesforce.com to enable sales, marketing, or customer support personnel to create or look up customer-specific issues with one click of a button right within the CRM tool.

Kinetic-Response-in-SalesforceThis button uses some simple available Javascript functions to grab the case owner, primary customer contact and case URL and assemble the link to Kinetic Response.

Collaboration Has to Benefit the User (Not Just the Organization)

Collaboration improves business processes and saves money for the enterprise. But at the individual employee level, those benefits are somewhat abstract and ethereal.

Employees want to be business heroes. They want to be part of the team solving big, urgent problems. Whether it’s a network outage, PR crisis, data breach, supply chain hiccup, or any other large, complex issue, employees want to be the people their co-workers thank for getting the problem fixed quickly.

As Lepofsky explains:

“Management must define to employees what is that they are bigger part of. What does the use of technology or process mean to the individual employee? If management can explain the benefits to customers, organization and the employees, then companies can drive faster adoption of technology solutions… You need to teach employees that they will benefit… If you can make employees lives, their jobs, their success, their reward, their recognition better, they’re going to be more efficient and effective employees. Putting the tools in place and cultivating the culture of adoption is important.”

Though adoption of collaboration software has been spotty to date (“if we look at the media everything is about how this stuff doesn’t work,” per Lepofsky), changing workplace demographics and digital proficiency are likely to drive greater use going forward.

Particularly as collaboration plays a larger role in the future of work, tools that serve a clear purpose, are simple to use, and integrate with existing workflow are likely to be not just implemented by enterprises, but actively used by employees.

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