That’s the hype, anyway.
The reality has thus far been less than stellar. One reason for the lackluster performance is top-down implementation strategies, with the typical implementation cycle going something like this: executives are quickly sold on it, IT spends a lot of time and money deploying it, and employees promptly ignore it.
A typical knowledge worker has specific work to get done each day, and they collaborate in ways they’re comfortable with – over the phone, in meeting rooms, and via email. Much of the collaboration is serial in nature, but it’s collaborative and the work gets done. That’s all anyone cares about.
None of these status-quo methods of collaboration are particularly efficient, but they are part of the fabric of corporate life. They also have intangible benefits. Just getting people into face-to-face meetings has value. After all, who do you have stronger relationships with, people whose faces you know or those who are just voices on the phone or names in your inbox?
Moreover, if collaborative applications aren’t concretely tied to work flows and the ways people already interact, they are dead on arrival. Too often, collaboration strategies change rather than augment what people are already doing.
Does that mean collaboration in the enterprise is a hopeless cause? Not quite.
Collaboration is quietly finding another avenue into the enterprise. Rather than coming at the behest of C-level executives, it is now coming in through the back door, brought in by ordinary employees.
Social Networking’s Back Door to the Enterprise
As with WLANs, cell phones, and PDAs before it, collaboration – in the form of social networking applications like Plaxo, LinkedIn, and, yes, even MySpace – is being used to make the work day easier and more interesting.
I brought this point up in a conversation with Antony Brydon, CEO and co-founder of Visible Path, a provider of enterprise networking tools. “All the things you mentioned had something important in common: they were part of broader technology trends. Social networking is clearly part of a larger trend, and it has an additional benefit the others did not, namely that adoption is viral in nature.”
How, though, does an up-tick in blogging and business networking sites like Plaxo translate into enterprise applications?
“What’s of value is the network,” Brydon said. “We refer to it as ‘relationship capital.’ The assumption is that your network of professional contacts is part of your organization’s net worth. If you have a way to map and manage that network, you will benefit the organization’s bottom line.”
While you may be using Plaxo simply to keep up with colleagues changing jobs, the organization could benefit from having a broadening network it could tap into for partnerships or sales.
From Personal to Organizational Relationships
The key to making that leap, from a personal to an organizational relationship, is to search through the vast number of social networking applications, email accounts, and contact lists to find appropriate relationships. “Once a list of contacts is known, the next step is to determine the strength of those relationships before mapping them across the organization.”
Quantifying how a relationship benefits the bottom line, though, is at least as tricky as mapping it. “Think of it this way,” Brydon said, “if your network of relationships can be used to hire someone, find information more efficiently, or cut a sales cycle in half, then you’ve achieved something more concrete than ‘collaboration.’”
Brydon pointed to research from the University of Chicago and the University of North Carolina that showed that a sales person is sixteen times more likely to land a meeting if it is arranged through a common contact. Similarly, a company recruiting a potential employee is ten times more likely to land that person if a common party helps facilitate the effort.
Another entrance point for social networking in the enterprise is through document management. If information is the lifeblood of organizations, then finding ways to better manage, store, re-use, and even retire information is of critical importance.
Next page: A case study, Plus: Moving beyond email.
When Sentara Healthcare, a regional health care provider in North Carolina and Virginia, started thinking about networking and collaboration, they faced a huge hurdle: their employees were spread out over 80 facilities.
Since many health care employees spend most of their day on the move, with little time at a desk in front of a PC, Sentara knew that a top-down approach would draw little interest. Sure, collaboration could help them share information across their organization, but it had to represent a way of making work easier, not more of a burden for employees.
Sentara started small. One of its most successful implementations of a collaborative platform involved a project where they were shifting from paper to digital records. Each paper document had to go through a series of approvals and checks before it became a purely electronic entity, and the process could be slow and cumbersome. Worse, many of the records were “live” records, meaning that they needed to be available during the approval process.
With the collaborative platform from SiteScape driving this project, employees were able to access a shared space that showed them exactly where a document was and who was looking at it. If someone needs to access a record, they knew exactly where to go.
Will projects like these translate into organization-wide adoption? “Yes, eventually,” said Phillip Lanzafame, Sentara’s director e-business, “but it’s a subtle process.” He pointed to email as a case in point. Everyone uses email to collaborate because it’s something they know.
Moving Past Email
“Email is really good for messaging and sending an attachment or two, but it’s terrible for auditing, durability and security,” Lanzafame said. “There’s no control. There’s no way to pull things back.”
In a health care setting where regulations like HIPPA apply, organizations are required by law to find better and more secure methods of collaboration. Lanzafame uses that to his advantage, flagging workflows being handled via email that shouldn’t.
“When I get an email with sixteen attachments, I tell people that this is not an email task,” he says.
He makes the same case where privacy is concerned. He then points people to the collaborative space and shows them how to post their documents, followed by sending out an email with links. “It save bandwidth and it gives us, as an organization, control over that document,” he said. The employee never has to think about privacy or control because it’s built into the platform.
The key to all of this is making the transition as easy as possible, minus the boring training sessions, the top-down mandates, and the long, disruptive implementation and data migration cycles.
“People aren’t clamoring for collaborative spaces,” said Andy Fox, CTO of SiteScape. “What they want is a better method for getting projects done. Giving them a personal networking space is just an on-ramp to collaboration, but from there, you can move to team projects and then to enterprise-wide collaboration.”