Companies need their critical workforces to perform smarter, faster and more productively. Achieving that goal requires embedding collaborative technologies deep into processes and incentivizing collaborative behaviors — ultimately transforming the workflow to turn knowledge into action. Collaboration platforms should do more than help employees talk about their work; they should create new ways for employees to do their work.
Although collaborative technology solutions have been around for many years, they are a bit like Olympic athletes with a slew of silver medals, but no golds: high achievers that have yet to achieve their highest aspirations.
Certainly, there is no lack of collaboration technologies in the marketplace. Vendors are offering businesses a growing range of these tools, including Facebook-like social platforms, such as Chatter, Yammer and Jive, as well as employee crowdsourcing tools, such as AnswerHub and Spigit. In general, executives are sold on the need for enterprise social technologies to improve collaboration, especially in supporting the work of today’s enormous global organizations.
However, many executives sense they should be getting more value from these tools, that they are realizing only a subset of their potential benefits.
Why have these solutions advanced only to silver-medal status, instead of to gold? One sticking point is that they need to do more than just make it easier for employees to share knowledge and communicate. Collaboration technologies must help shape how work is performed, and enable teamwork that leads to better results, greater innovation and higher productivity. After all, collaboration literally means “working together” — co-laboring, not just co-talking. Collaboration tools cannot just be about better knowledge sharing; they need to improve the speed and effectiveness of people’s efforts.
How can executives use collaboration tools to truly transform workflow and business performance?
Three strategies can help companies achieve the large gains in productivity, decision making and innovation they seek from these technologies:
1) Embed collaboration technologies within business processes
- New collaboration technologies do more than just digitize old ways of doing things; they make new ways of doing things possible. This is accomplished, in part, by embedding the technologies into the way work is performed, so that using them becomes a natural and accepted part of the job. It’s also important to set objectives in specific terms related to an industry and to job roles, as well as to measure results. For example, for an insurance company, the goal could be to increase knowledge sharing. A better goal would be to improve underwriters’ speed and effectiveness in pricing insurance policies.
- Collaboration technologies can also provide guidance, so workflows can be optimized to improve quality and increase productivity. With an optimized workflow, working groups will have standardized work plans, with roles, tasks and templates laid out in advance. Team members can then use the platform to hand off work, conduct discussions, share updates, review checklists and obtain approvals. Using collaborative technologies to capture the workflow allows people to study how effective the process is and where they can be improved, as well as how well teams are collaborating.
2) Shape the collaboration behaviors that drive results
- Simply making collaboration technologies available is not enough. Equally important is engaging in the change-management activities that shape, encourage and incentivize desired collaboration behaviors.
- Early approaches to incentivizing participation in knowledge sharing often focused on quantity of content, as opposed to quality. Looking for a better way to encourage the use of collaboration tools, EMC Corp. decided to turn collaborative participation into a game with winners and awards. The company’s Jive-powered enterprise social network had grown to 240,000 users within four years, but customers, employees and partners were not using the network as much as expected. EMC implemented a game approach to support its "Recognition, Awards and Motivation program." Employees win points for completing tasks, answering questions or doing other work on the social network. Employees who complete “missions” — a sequence of relevant achievements — receive awards and corporate recognition for their expertise.
3) Unleash the full power of enterprise talent
- Effective collaboration technologies support not only how people work today, but how they will need to work in the future. Increasingly, companies are embracing new operating models, in which multiple organizations — the company, its vendors, its outsourcers, its partners and others — work together toward unified goals. Such an operating model will be successful only if people from the different organizations collaborate effectively.
- Consider how crowdsourcing and the social web are already enabling firms to hand off some tasks to workers outside the enterprise. Salesforce.com uses LiveOps’ Cloud Contact Center to deliver global customer-support services, which involves using contractors who work from home and set their own hours. The platform tracks performance and rewards high performers with recognition, more work and better pay. Uber and Lyft are using the similar structures. One advantage of this approach is that it allows organizations to scale their customer contact needs quickly to respond to sudden spikes in demand.
- In the future, these same concepts and technologies are likely to be applied to more kinds of knowledge work. Take, for example, an automotive engineer who needs help creating engineering drawings. That engineer could use enterprise collaboration technologies to route a request for help to the company’s most relevant intranet sites. A retired engineer in Michigan or a young engineer in Europe could offer to assist and receive not just pay but a reputation-enhancing public review for completing the job well. Mechanisms like these could help companies quickly and seamlessly plug their skills gaps.
Conclusion: expecting more
Executives are right to expect more from the new wave of collaborative technologies. A new way to work and a more efficient workflow provide new potential to improve organizational efficiencies and productivity, aid decision making and spark idea generation. Rather than accept just modest improvements from these technologies, executives should aim high and pursue the greater gains that can come by embedding collaboration into specific processes, incentivizing collaborative behaviors and thinking more strategically about these important technologies.