posted 19 Dec 2008 in Volume 12 Issue 4
Ei cover feature: Are we a collaborative
Research says yes, most see the value. The power, however, is with the users more than the technology, and managers and users are concerned about security.
By Angela Ashenden
Over the past couple of years, the market for collaboration software has seen a flurry of activity, with vendors large and small clamouring to contribute to the buzz that is collaboration and ‘Enterprise 2.0’. While there are inevitably those whose claims are more marketing hype than reality, there has been a wealth of technology innovation around enterprise collaboration software, which has drawn inspiration from the success of social networking communities on the web.
As an analyst, I am in the privileged position of having to follow these trends closely and examining the technology on offer in order to advise organisations on the technology bets that they should be making given their particular situations.
It is all too easy to be swept away by the excitement of the vendor community when, back in the real world, the situation on the ground – among organisations for whom technology is the means rather than the end – is very different.
As part of our collaboration continuous advisory service at Macehiter Ward-Dutton, we carry out twice-yearly surveys of European enterprises to get a clearer picture of how they really perceive collaboration, how they are going about implementing it and to identify best practice advice and guidance.
From ‘team’ to collaboration
The most significant message to come out of our first study, which was carried out in June 2008 in close collaboration (!) with our partner Freeform Dynamics, is this: European organisations increasingly recognise the need to change and adapt in order to embrace the advantages that collaboration – the practice rather than just the technology – can bring.
Over 70 per cent of our study participants acknowledged there is at least some element of a collaborative culture amongst professionals and managers within their own organisations, and almost 60 per cent reported an increasing emphasis on collaboration amongst these groups. The overriding driver of this shift towards collaborative working is the desire to improve the efficiency of the workforce (see figure 1), rather than the business differentiation and innovation that is often promoted by the vendor community.
This highlights the increasing need for organisations to become more flexible – both in terms of their internal structure, and in their ability to adapt to a rapidly changing business environment.
The traditional view of the ‘team’, which is based on a hierarchical, stove-piped perspective, is changing. The perspective on the organisation, where each functional area is autonomous and focused on delivering its respective objectives, is evolving to one based on more of a horizontal perspective, where individuals from different functional areas come together to share their knowledge and experience.
In ‘lean’ organisations, individuals are likely to be working in different groups on multiple projects simultaneously. At the same time, teams are becoming increasingly transient; individuals may only be involved for a very short time, and so need to be brought up to speed quickly, contribute their input, share their findings and relevant knowledge with the team, and move on.
The promise of these less-structured, non-hierarchical collaborative working environments is that new ideas can be executed more quickly, enabling organisations to respond more rapidly and effectively to the ever-changing demands of the environments in which they operate. New projects and teams can be up and running quickly, without the need for major reorganisation, enabling the organisation to be more dynamic.
More than flexible teams
Workforce efficiency is about more than flexible teams. Organisations are also looking to use their resources more effectively by, for example, facilitating the reuse of work done elsewhere within the organisation.
This might mean avoiding duplication of effort where the output of a project or task can be exploited elsewhere, or it might mean building upon previous work in a new project. Furthermore, many mergers and acquisitions aim to exploit the combined knowledge, skills and expertise of the organisations involved, but this can be an uphill struggle due to differing organisational structures, cultures and systems.
Collaborative working can help to break down these barriers, establish communication channels and so enable opportunities to be more quickly identified and implemented. Collaboration technologies can also reduce an organisation’s overheads; instant messaging that is integrated with a CRM application, for example, can reduce telephony costs, whilst the use of teleconferencing or videoconferencing for team meetings can reduce the costs and time associated with travel where participants are widely distributed.
Another significant driver that emerged from our user study is the importance of collaboration with partners and customers. Over 60 per cent of participants have already established significant collaborative relationships with external parties, and almost 80 per cent anticipate that the demand for cross-organisational collaboration will increase.
Such collaboration may simply be about enabling more interactive relationships, or it may be tightly integrated into business processes. With organisations increasingly dependent on external parties for elements of their operations, for example through business process outsourcing (BPO), offshore development, and the extended supply chain and partner network, collaboration software can enable those disparate teams to work as a single group, exploiting the skills and regional knowledge of each individual, and bridging time zones.
Technology a means to an end
The collaboration software market is extremely broad, with many vendors offering many different products, which sometimes provide vastly different functionality - yet all are positioned as enablers of collaborative working. Not only that, but as figure 2 shows, some of these technologies are new, exciting and somewhat unknown, while others have been around for donkey’s years.
The hype in today’s collaboration software market would have you believe that every organisation is awash with wikis, blogs and folksonomies, but our research tells another story. It shows that European organisations are not falling for the hype, with the majority preferring to use more established collaboration software, such as audio or video conferencing tools, and/or making use of their existing technology investments such as document sharing via traditional file servers, in preference to deploying today’s state-of-the-art solutions.
While this is undoubtedly an indication of the relative immaturity of the market rather than an assessment of the value of today’s software offerings, it serves to highlight an important message about the role of technology in implementing collaborative working initiatives. Though it cannot deliver a collaborative working environment in its own right, technology can play an important role. It can facilitate communication, enabling the recording, storage and sharing of information, and helping to locate relevant people and resources.
By providing different methods of communication which suit different situations – for example instant messaging if the recipient is online, e-mail if they are not – and combining voice-based communication with desktop- or device-based applications, such as application sharing or white boarding, technology can support collaborative working in a distributed environment by enabling individuals to achieve (almost) as much as if they were in the same room.
It’s clear from our study that most European organisations already have some collaboration components in place, such as e-mail and instant messaging, content management and enterprise search. As such, one of the most important considerations when choosing collaboration software is how well it can be integrated into existing IT environments, rather than creating another information silo with its own administration and management headaches.
While it may seem attractive to replace some of these components, it is important not to lose sight of the fact that there are likely to have been significant investments which organisations are not ready to throw away. While the map of collaboration software components in figure 2 highlights the breadth of tools available, it is important to emphasise that few, in any organisations, are likely to need all of them – or at least not in the early stages of any collaboration initiative. There has to be an explicit need for a particular collaboration technology – it must be possible to identify specific projects, teams or activities where such a technology would add value – as the technology in itself will never drive a more collaborative environment.
That’s where culture comes in.
Nurturing a collaborative culture
The old adage ‘success breeds success’ may be a cliché, but we found clear evidence for its validity in our study. Those organisations which were already more advanced in their implementation of collaborative working practices were much more open to the prospect of increasing their use of collaboration – both in terms of improving collaboration and sharing in general terms (as shown in figure 3), and in adopting more state-of-the-art technologies, such as web conferencing or team workspaces.
This highlights the importance of senior management buy-in to (or indeed championing of) the transition to a more open, collaborative working environment.
A collaborative culture requires shifts in both organisational structure and infrastructure to enable individuals to work more openly, to share their knowledge and experience, to take responsibility for their own contributions, and to possess the confidence, ability and authority to make their own decisions.
However, individuals simply cannot undertake this transition without appropriate support from management. This may require formal changes to training and reward programmes to aid understanding and drive acceptance of the collaboration initiative and its implications – both for individuals, and their managers.
Collaboration must be seen to provide distinct advantages over current working methods – it cannot be only marginally better.
Centralised collaboration strategies
Collaborative working may be about non-hierarchical relationships and working practices, but there is still a critical need for central control. Organisations must maintain control for regulatory compliance, risk management and consistency purposes.
Our research indicates that European organisations are aware of this need: three-quarters of the participants already have a centralised collaboration strategy, or are in the process of establishing one. Similarly, our study group recognises the benefits of a centralised approach to the deployment of collaboration technology: half of them have already centralised document sharing capabilities, and a further 36 per cent are working towards it.
One of the biggest risks associated with the implementation of collaboration software is that it often starts in small pockets of the organisation, creating new silos of information that are invisible to the rest of the organisation. Many of the new state-of-the-art technologies, such as communities and team workspaces, can be acquired as subscription services. Whilst this offers significant benefits in terms of enabling teams to get up and running very quickly, building the adoption and acceptance of collaboration principles in a bottom-up, viral fashion, it may also mean that the IT organisation is bypassed, with the risk of non compliance with organisational security and governance policies.
Organisations are faced with the difficult balancing act of allowing bottom-up adoption without compromising essential top-down governance and strategy requirements. It would be all too easy for those at the centre to dismiss, or even prohibit, these grass roots practices, but this would stifle local champions. These are the individuals who are in the best position to identify valuable uses of the software for business case/ROI purposes and to offer useful insights into the benefits and best practice of collaborative working, which can then be used in training programs.
Furthermore, if they can be convinced that the strategy from the centre is right, they can become valuable allies when it comes to the viral take-up across the organisation.
As the strategy evolves, these grassroots enthusiasts are also likely to play a key role in determining which new technologies or features would be beneficial to the organisation, feeding into subsequent project phases.
A work in progress
It is clear from our user research that reality is some way behind the hype as far as European adoption of state-of-the-art collaboration technologies is concerned. At the same time, though, there is a clear shift underway in favour of collaborative working.
As the organisational culture begins to embrace collaboration, so the likelihood of successful adoption of new technologies increases. Collaboration is a way of working; technology is simply a tool that supports it, particularly in a world where individuals aren’t in the same office – or even the same time zone.
Collaboration software offers new opportunities to organisations to improve workforce efficiency, create business differentiation, and drive innovation – but a culture that encourages and nurtures collaborative working is the underlying foundation on which the success of that software must be built. For more information go to:
MWD Collaboration continuous advisory service – http://www.mwdadvisors.com/promotion/collab_cas.php
A picture of collaboration practice and perceptions in Europe 1H08 –http://services.mwdadvisors.com/collaboration/detail.php?id=128
Ideals and reality: understanding the context for your enterprise collaboration strategy – http://www.mwdadvisors.com/articles/detail.php?id=50 ?
Angela Ashenden is principal analyst at UK based Macehiter Ward-Dutton. She can be contacted at email@example.com