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In Part 2, I explained why organizational culture and leadership are probably the most important factors contributing to gains in employee productivity and innovation. This week, I’d like to describe two additional, highly essential enablers: extended workplace visuality and pervasive collaboration.

Extended Workplace Visuality: A visual workplace is one in which information needed to collaborate, engage, and stay productive is made available at the right time and place, rather than hidden away in spreadsheets and other documents on various employees’ laptops.

Visual displays have complemented lean manufacturing practices on the plant floor for many years, significantly reducing work-in-process inventories and manufacturing lead times, while driving cost and quality improvements. Visual thinking has also been adopted in environments such as airports and hospitals to improve operations, customer service, safety, and quality.

Simple physical display devices such as whiteboards with erasable markers work well within a local environment, but are ineffective when employees and teams are dispersed across multiple buildings, cities, or even countries. Interactive electronic whiteboards and touch-screen displays, integrated with digitized business dashboards, business analytics, web conferencing, video, and other collaboration tools, can extend the benefits of workplace visuality across global enterprises. The most important benefit of visuality is its role in unifying and aligning employees across locations and cultures by visually displaying business goals and metrics, and reinforcing a common vocabulary across the organization.

Pervasive Collaboration: Collaboration tools must integrate seamlessly with the way employees work and be pervasive in the workplace. Today, employees may need to go to a purpose-built conference room to use high-definition video and interactive whiteboard capabilities in order to collaborate with remote colleagues.  These “immersive” environments are useful for short periods of high-intensity, real-time collaboration. But in many cases, the collaboration environment must be booked in advance. These environments are often not available for ad hoc collaboration and brainstorming sessions. Many organizations, as a result, have developed a “collaboration strategy” that uses an architectural approach to identify a portfolio of collaboration tools (for real-time and asynchronous modes of collaboration) and capabilities that serve the needs of their business and employees. To be successful, collaboration tools must be easy to use, readily available, and integrated with back-end information systems and data repositories.

What might an office of the near future look like? It could resemble the one below, with a high-resolution touch-screen display that enables fully integrated content annotation and sharing, web-based conferencing, video, and high-fidelity audio and data sharing. Such environments are already becoming a reality in many organizations today.

Source: Cisco IBSG, 2012

The good news is that many of the right tools and technologies to enable extended workplace visuality and pervasive collaboration are available and mature. These include pervasive video (from high-end immersive telepresence to desktops, laptops, tablets, and smartphones), enterprise social networking, unified communications, digital signage and digital media systems, electronic whiteboards, and others.

Managers can get started by first understanding the specific needs of their business and barriers to collaboration. Piloting simple solutions that provide extended workplace visuality and scale collaboration capabilities across locations is an extremely effective way to learn and adapt solutions, and then gradually build them into the fabric of how work gets done. Benefits range from tangible, financial value that results from increased revenues and profits (e.g., by serving customers better and faster), to intangible value (e.g., productive employees) and improved business capabilities (e.g., innovation capabilities).  The time to get started on the path to capturing the next wave of productivity gains through culture, visuality, and collaboration is now.

What has your experience been in integrating advanced collaboration tools in your workplace? How are you addressing the productivity and employee engagement challenge? As always, I am interested in your thoughts.

In the conclusion of this four-part series, I’ll focus on how to capture and quantify benefits that result from workplace visuality and collaboration.

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