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Collaboration: The Long Journey

On the surface, improving “business collaboration” sounds like a fairly straight-forward strategy: “provide the means for people to coordinate and share information while working together to attain business results that exceed current practices”. To support this goal, organizations have deployed a long list of tools over the years. The results? Mixed. Organizations can cite many examples where collaboration projects have made people and processes more productive. Yet, if you ask leadership teams, I imagine few would feel confident that their organization’s collaborative capabilities augment strategic growth and innovation initiatives in ways that makes them more competitive in the market.

After 15+ years of deploying more and more tools, we need to ask ourselves – why haven’t organizations realized the level of breakthrough collaboration necessary for them to excel -- or in some cases, survive? It’s not that the industry has not had any “wins” with collaboration strategies but success always seems to be stubbornly limited to certain groups or business units. Improving collaboration, it seems, has become an “intractable opportunity”. As it turns out, collaboration is a more complex and enduring journey than we originally thought. However, breakthrough levels of collaboration are often crucial to bring about business transformation. The potential benefits, despite its mixed track record, have kept “collaboration” a strategic topic for leadership teams despite our struggles to get it right.

Having been an IT industry analyst (i.e., Gartner, Burton Group, and Meta Group) since 1996, I’ve worked with hundreds of organizations on how to best approach collaboration. Listed below are a series of thoughts for your consideration:

  • In the past, collaboration was document-centric and supported by tools that enabled asynchronous work (e.g., office suites, e-mail, team workspaces). These tools reflect historical productivity challenges that stretch back to the early nineties.
  • Today, achieving breakthrough levels of collaboration demands new ways of working that are more real-time, community-centric, and mobile. We need to expand the portfolio of collaboration tools to include unified communications, social networking, pervasive use of video, and smart devices.
  • We also need to do a better job at understanding the context that brings people together. The collaborative “call to action” can be driven by many factors: process (e.g., tasks), information (e.g., documents), conversations (e.g., communiqués) or community dynamics (e.g., events).
  • As work becomes more virtual and 24x7, we need to recognize the growing influence of mobility and how people’s digital lifestyle impacts collaboration. Support for consumer smart devices leveraged for work purposes has become a first-class requirement.
  • More importantly, we need to think of collaboration foremost as something that is not defined by tools at all. Collaboration is better thought of as a relationship among its participants. Connecting people to people is the core of collaboration – tools simple mediate their interactions.
  • A focus on collaborative relationships shifts the focus from tools to design when we start re-thinking collaboration in terms of interaction contexts and situational needs. We need to realize that a compelling user experience is a subtle but critical success factor for effective collaboration.
  • Acknowledging that a broad range of technologies can be applied to more effectively mediate collaborative work will help enable organizations to match the right solution to the right individual or group need.
  • However, what ultimately takes center stage is how to design collaborative environments that engage people to contribute beyond the minimal participation threshold they set for themselves. Behavior is the biggest variable for effective collaboration, yet it’s influence is often ignored or underestimated. Addressing the need for governance, change management, and culture have always been “the last mile” to sustain successful collaboration strategies.

We need to place people at the center of a collaboration strategy, not its tools. Providing the means of collaboration is just one aspect of a comprehensive solution. I encourage you to comment and start a dialog on this topic. At Cisco, we look forward to helping your organization on its long journey to deliver a next generation collaborative experience.

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