Enterprise Collaboration Tools: Hammers in Search of Nails?

All but the simplest processes in an enterprise require collaboration of some type, whether it’s two co-workers writing a document, or a cross-functional group of employees developing an application or resolving a thorny technical issue in coordination with external vendors and partners.

Email or file-sharing tools are often all that’s needed for simple projects. But for complex situations, enterprise collaboration tools offer more sophisticated, specialized functionality for communication and task management.

Enterprise collaboration tools: best if used properlySo why is it that CIOs “can’t sell enterprise collaboration tools” within their organizations, according to recent CIO magazine piece? As Matt Kapko writes:

“Enterprise collaboration is a dubious pursuit. You can almost sense its impending failure the minute it gets introduced to a workforce and becomes just another tool that employees are supposed to use…

The promise of collaboration is to replace face-to-face communication, but if the implementation isn’t well-planned, it can’t become something extra that people have to do…Collaboration also has to perform better than the incumbent, which is email for most people.”

Now, collaboration tools don’t necessarily replace in-person communication, but they do supplement and enhance it by enabling team members to participate either locally or from any remote location, and in real time or asynchronously.

And as for email: it works well when everyone starts on the same page, but often fails when new people join the thread. Those who join an email discussion in progress may miss messages, context, and key attachments.

Hammer in Search of a Nail

The first problem Kapko identifies is that collaboration software is too often presented as another tool to learn and use, rather than a solution to a specific problem. As he notes, “CIOs can’t merely launch a tool and tell employees to go forth and collaborate. The C suite needs to lead by example and use these new tools to accomplish meaningful business objectives.”

No one buys a hammer simply to fill up a toolbox. People buy hammers because they need to bend a piece of sheet metal, or drive stakes into the ground, or pound in some loose nails. They are addressing a need. But of course, the type of hammer someone buys will vary based on which of these needs they have. Which leads to problem number two…

Choose the Right Tool for the Job

Implementation fails when the collaboration tool isn’t tied to a distinct need.

Enterprise collaboration tools are a much easier “sell” when they are selected and are an ideal fit for a specific type of application. Employees will use Dropbox instead of email for sharing large files, or Google Docs for multi-person document review and editing, because those tools work better for those purposes.

Similarly, they’ll use enterprise collaboration tools in place of email for situations where the tool is a superior fit for purpose.

Think Outside the Department (and the Enterprise)

A third challenge is finding a tool that makes it easy for disparate groups to collaborate, not just cross-functionally but also between an organization and external vendors, consultants or partners.

Per Kapko, “One of the biggest challenges is determining how to implement enterprise collaboration in cross-functional manner,” and he quotes John Abel of Hitachi Data Systems saying, “Teams are pretty good at communicating within their own group but when it comes to integrating across departments silos tend to happen, which ultimately becomes problematic.”

To be effective, the tool needs to provide for secure, ad hoc access by outside parties as needed, and be intuitive enough that anyone can pick it up in a matter of minutes, with no training. Simple, well-designed user experience reduces resistance and increases adoption.

Evolution, Not Revolution

As with clothing, one-size-fits-all collaboration software rarely fits anyone very well.

Rather than trying to select a tool for every role, situation, and application, implement one that addresses a specific need–but has the flexibility to be used in additional ways. For example, a virtual war room tool designed to helps teams collaborate to fix mission-critical network outages may also be useful for light project management and in a change management context, for collaborating during major releases and other high-impact changes.

“The reason for enterprise collaboration is still so hazy that relatively few CIOs agree on what challenges lie ahead,” writes Kapko. To be successful, tools should to be chosen to meet specific needs—whether it’s a few people in a single department sharing large files or an ad hoc team of internal and external specialists communicating and coordinating efforts to solve a large, complex, urgent problem.

Instead of a Swiss-army-knife type of enterprise collaboration tool, choose one that addresses an important need and does it well. Then see what other creative ways employees come up with to use the platform.

Next Steps

 

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