Enterprise Collaboration: It's the Culture, Stupid!

Ann All
Slide Show

Collaboration in the Enterprise

Spending on the rise, but execs still worry about productivity.

My son is taking guitar lessons, which cost me about $90 a month. I pay an additional $10 a month to rent an electric guitar. We started with an old acoustic guitar that had belonged to Dad, but switched when his instructor suggested it was easier to learn to play an electric guitar and he would be more motivated due to the higher "cool factor." Yet no matter what we try -- entreaties, threats, incentives -- he doesn't want to practice. I don't think we'll continue with the lessons or the rental much longer.


Switching from one type of tool to another didn't help because his underlying motivation and willingness to alter his routine -- by practicing every day -- just isn't there. I was guilty of the same thing I see at many companies, thinking that getting the right tool would somehow magically solve all the underlying problems.


Companies expend lots of effort vetting technical tools and yet too often end up disappointed in their performance. Just like me, they might keep putting additional time and money into the tools, assuming that eventually they will derive some value from them.


That's especially true of collaboration. As a study conducted by All Collaboration and Elearning Media Group earlier this year showed, cultural rather than technological shortcomings were seen as the biggest barrier to successful collaboration. About two-thirds of survey respondents collaborated on a project daily. However, only about a third of those who wanted to collaborate were able to, and then only about half the time they wanted to. Respondents cited the need to change the organizational culture as the biggest obstacle to collaboration, followed by the need to improve the process itself and improve collaborative tools.


Yet many companies continue to focus on the tools. A recent survey by IT services provider Avanade did so, with those results finding companies planning to increase their investments in collaboration technologies despite concerns over possible negative effects on productivity. That isn't as counterintuitive as it seems, since companies are faced with what seems like a classic "chicken or egg" question: Does organizational change come before or after investing in tools?


In writing about the Avanade study, I speculated the dominance of e-mail as the most common collaboration tool of choice might be limiting respondents' overall views of collaboration. While there's a sense e-mail is broken, there isn't enough collective experience with e-mail alternatives for companies to feel good about them, either.


David Coleman, author of a post discussing the Elearning study, expressed surprise at respondents' reliance on e-mail. Members of project teams found e-mail, data sharing or conferencing (including file sharing) and audio conferencing among the most effective tools for project management and implementation. Wikis or collaborative writing, instant messaging and discussion forums were seen as the least helpful, according to the study.


I wonder if this isn't because e-mail, data sharing and audio conferencing for many folks still seem to better support what Elearning found were the four most dominant factors for successful collaboration: focusing on the right issue or problem; shared understanding of roles, goals, timelines and deliverables; good and persistent leadership; and processes worked out for optimal team interactions and communication.


Just putting a subject line in an e-mail suggests some thought has gone into identifying the issues at hand. The originator of an e-mail message or audio conference is usually the project leader. Is the same true for instant messaging, forums or document sharing? Such tools often make it difficult to determine who is leading a collaborative effort. And as mentioned in a prior post on promoting use of wikis, several companies have found wiki users are reluctant to jump in and edit others' work. Most of us are more comfortable making "suggestions" by e-mail.


Speaking of that post, while it offers a list of suggestions geared toward boosting wiki use, many of the tips would apply just as well to other types of tools such as discussion forums, document sharing or software like Cisco's Quad that supports numerous collaboration tools. Among those hints:

  • Host a brainstorming session in which users can suggest uses for different tools.
  • Have managers recognize power users at an all-hands meeting or videoconference. Consider offering rewards such as gift cards.
  • Host events in which users can demonstrate and discuss how they use tools, spreading best practices and new ideas among different teams.

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Add Comment      Leave a comment on this blog post
Jun 14, 2010 10:40 AM Lokesh Datta Lokesh Datta  says:


The eLearning! article that you refer to in this post highlights only a part of the complete study by All Collaboration. The All Collaboration study, Assessing the State of Collaboration: Return to Essentials, is available at: http://allcollaboration.com/storage/files/Assessing_the_State_of_Collaboration_Report.pdf

Three key findings of the study are:

1. Complex collaboration is already a significant work activity for many people, and will only grow in importance.

2. Successful collaboration requires mostly the good principles of project management applied to dispersed teams.

3. Keep it simple on the collaboration tools.


Lokesh Datta


Twitter: @LDatta

Jun 14, 2010 11:02 AM Lokesh Datta Lokesh Datta  says:

A follow-up to my previous comment!

We have written a number of articles that leverage findings of the study by All Collaboration, Assessing the State of Collaboration: Return to Essentials.

Darwin to Dilbert, Contextualizing Top Collaboration Quotes, at: http://allcollaboration.com/home/2010/5/17/darwin-to-dilbert-contextualizing-top-collaboration-quotes.html

Open Letter to Collaboration Tool Providers, at: http://allcollaboration.com/home/2010/5/13/open-letter-to-collaboration-tool-providers.html

Mind the 'Collaboration Gap', at: http://allcollaboration.com/home/2010/5/7/mind-the-collaboration-gap.html

What We Can Do to Improve Collaboration, at: http://allcollaboration.com/home/2010/5/4/what-we-can-do-to-improve-collaboration.html

Effective Collaboration Is More than Deliverables, at: http://allcollaboration.com/home/2010/5/4/effective-collaboration-is-more-than-deliverables.html

Sources of Complexity in Collaboration, at: http://allcollaboration.com/home/2010/5/26/sources-of-complexity-in-collaboration.html

Comments by Survey Respondents on the State of Collaboration, at: http://allcollaboration.com/home/2010/3/8/comments-on-the-state-of-collaboration.html

Regards, Lokesh

Jun 15, 2010 12:47 PM Casey Casey  says:

I have been using Mavenlink for a lot of my web collaboration.  Works great for small businesses, such as mine, and side businesses.  As you wrote, Mavenlink has data sharing, the ability to post things in a feed to groups, and payment options among other things.

Jun 15, 2010 12:51 PM Casey Casey  says:

Sorry, haha.  Here is the link: https://www.mavenlink.com

Jun 15, 2010 4:34 PM Dana Larson Dana Larson  says:

I have first-hand experience with this. My previous company thought that the idea of collaboration was a good one, and when choosing a project management system, chose one that integrated collaboration as well. the collaboration features were never used because they reverted back to email very quickly, and they still aren't collaboration well. I now work at that PM and collaboration company, and we see this time and time again - we are also working on educating others on the benefits of collaboration and how to overcome those barriers to acceptance. I love this post because it is exactly what we've been saying all along - accept collaboration into your corporate culture, and you'll find success.


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