Challenges to Collaboration, Part 2: How to Overcome

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Melanie Turek, Contributor

April 18, 2006

4 Min Read

For some companies, getting user buy-in at the beginning of their collaboration initiatives can be tough. As one IT exec tells it, they’ve already been told so many times that a new software application is going to change the way they work, and then it fails to deliver, they no longer believe the hype.

When it comes to making sure employees use the collaboration tools they’re given, companies should prepare for several things, including:

Marketing: “Internal marketing is critical,” says one IT manager. “In our company, the whole employee productivity thing is branded. I think it’s very important, especially for an issue like collaboration, which has many aspects to it—IM, e-mail, conferencing, workspaces. And collaboration means so many things to so many people, you have to embrace that. We brand the effort so people understand where it fits in.”

That’s especially true when it comes to having the IT department take control of tools that have traditionally been managed by business units.

Technology: Make sure the technology you’re introducing works as promised. And pay attention to network issues, problems with which some reluctant users will claim as a reason for not participating in collaborative efforts. IT executives may have to make sure the experience is smooth and simple if they want to sway resistant employees.

Training: Most It executives and vendors agree that when companies implement a new collaboration tool, it’s worth taking the time to educate users on both the products, and the value they provide. “I wish we’d had a better change-management methodology,” laments one CIO. “We tried, but it’s such an intimate process that for it to be of value, you have to get a lot of people involved. We should have had more structure in managing the approach.”

It can also be good to start small, so you’re not training the entire corporate workforce at once. “You don’t need to give it to everyone in the company at first, it’s just too unstructured,” says one executive who began his roll-out with 100 people in product development. “How do you teach everyone how to collaborate? That’s not possible.”

Etiquette: Cross-cultural issues matter. As companies start to encourage workers across the globe to interact on a regular, ad hoc basis, they need to prepare them for such interactions. “We deal with a global environment, and we have to be very alert to the fact that we may be comfortable with our communities and cultures, but others might not be,” says one IT manager who oversees collaboration for a global company. “It’s not simple for us to assume that everything we say or do will be understood as it’s intended. There are class systems, gender issues, age issues—all kinds of different relationships. We’ve failed in some of our efforts as we find that the technology was just fine—the people didn’t work out what they needed ahead of time to work together. You don’t need to have perfect systems for this to work. People can make good systems fail.”

But this same executive doesn’t push the technology on anyone. “My attitude is, I’m not convincing anyone to use it. It’s not my intention to debate or convince—I’m busy enough just helping people who want help,” he says. “If it’s not really useful, why do it?”

It’s sometimes the case that changing a process for one group of people will affect how another group does their job—and those other people’s reactions should be taken into account. “A lot of this collaboration stuff was me looking at how people work, and what looked obvious to me, they can’t see,” says the chief knowledge officer for a law firm. For instance, one of the attorneys’ biggest complaints was that their secretaries were never at their desks answering the phones—they were always standing in line at the copier.

So the company moved its case-management to a Lotus Notes system, to boost attorney productivity and help keep secretaries at their desks. That made the attorneys happy—they get the information they need faster, and they can always reach their secretaries when they couldn’t before. But, says the CKO, “Some [of the secretaries] complained that now they aren’t ever able to leave their desks.” It turns out, those long lines at the copier served as breaks for the secretaries, who took the opportunity to catch up with co-workers while they waited for the machines, stretch their legs, and got a break from the 12-hour days their jobs require.

The lesson: Even if what you’re trying to accomplish would seem to make logical sense, if it goes against what people are used to doing, they’re likely to resist—especially if in changing their work habits, you change the flow of their daily lives

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