Building a culture of collaboration

For centuries, philosophers and economists have been captivated by the question of how and why humans share resources and information. The philosopher Adam Smith, who in 1776 wrote his famous treatise on capitalism, The Wealth of Nations, said the drive to work together with others springs from the desire to meet one’s own selfish needs.

Smith’s words still ring true today. In the last few years, collaboration has become a buzzword. It’s piqued the interest of organizations who want their people to work more efficiently together for the good of the whole by using tools like e-mail, instant messaging (IM), Web conferencing and virtual workspaces to share information quicker, and with fewer boundaries.

But some industry watchers say you can’t forget that collaboration doesn’t occur without first having the right corporate culture in place. “That’s a problem that you see throughout the history of collaboration software, going back to the ’80s,” said Ashim Pal, vice-president of the content collaboration group at the U.K. office of analyst firm Meta Group. “Those tools are often dropped onto desktops with no real attempt to try to use them in an integrated way in the work activity. That means people will rather use them on the side than in the core of their work.”

Pal and other experts conclude that individuals won’t use such tools unless there are obvious benefits, not only for the organization as a whole, but also for the individual.

Sharing the load

Lately the trend has been toward contextual collaboration, where applications like word processors, IM, shared calendars and groupware are embedded into a unified user interface, using presence technology to let people know who’s online and who’s associated with the creation of each document. People can communicate and instantly share resources at their disposal, from any of the involved applications.

“What we’re calling collaboration today is really an amalgamation of a number of different technologies that have grown up over last five to seven years,” said Tim Kounadis, senior product marketing manager for IBM Lotus, maker of an integrated set of collaboration tools. “In the past we used to think of collaboration as several different applications unto themselves. Now we’re finding that companies are interested in collaboration as another compenent of their business process.”

Canam Manac Group, a structural steel component manufacturing firm in Boucherville, Que., hasn’t had much of a problem convincing its staff to use a number of IBM Lotus technologies to improve workflow. Jean Thibodeau, the company’s vice-president of IT and outsourcing services, said that before Canam Manac started using Lotus technologies, the firm would receive paper-based requisitions and drawings from engineering firms or customers for made-to-order components.

“Every time we needed additional information…we would have to issue a request for information (RFI) on paper, send it via fax, and receive the answer via fax.” Once the drawings were done, they had to be sent back to the customer or engineer for approval, and if there were corrections, the documents would have to be couriered. “Those are normally large documents – 36 by 48-inch sheets of paper – so it was quite expensive to just throw them around like that,” Thibodeau said.

Using QuickPlace (recently re-named Lotus Team Workplace), a Web-based solution for creating team workspaces, Canam Manac’s customers can log in, look at the RFI and send their answers without all the additional paperwork and waiting time.

Canam Manac is also using Domino.doc, a document management application, and Lotus SameTime (now Lotus Instant Messaging and Web Conferencing). “The advantage (of SameTime) versus other (IM tools) you can get on the market is that it’s totally integrated.” Thibodeau also likes the fact that SameTime gives users contextual awareness, indicating which of those people involved in creating a particular document are online and available for chat.

Although he declined to discuss specific dollar savings, Thibodeau said the collaboration tools have made a “dramatic impact on courier costs and faxes.” The replication feature in Lotus also means staff in overseas locations like Romania and India, because they are in different time zones, can assist their Canadian colleagues in projects on off-hours. “It’s like having an extended shift.”

Thibodeau said it’s been relatively easy for Canam Manac to get its employees to embrace collaboration because the tools they’re using improve the speed and flow of information for everyone. But in other environments such as sales, he said, there may be cases where this type of technology doesn’t always get the best response.

“The question is always same: ‘What is in it for me?’ If they’re not sure what they’re going to gain out of it, they’re not going to do it. I think how we got successful is not with a great collaboration strategy but with quick wins and easy-to-see benefits. Then when you get into areas where the benefits are not as obvious, (the users) will just latch onto it and go.”

Building a bond

Another firm that has successfully gotten its employees onboard with collaboration tools is Edmonton-based Stantec Consulting, an infrastructure and facilities professional services firm with 40 offices and 3,500 employees across North America and the Carribean. Company spokesperson Jay Averill said Stantec embraced collaboration technologies to help experts in various locations work together on the same project. “If there is a bridge in Edmonton we’re working on, we can also have an expert in Phoenix working on certain aspects…Any collaboration technology allows us to share information easily,” Averill said.

Stantec is using San Jose, Calif.-based WebEx Communication Inc.’s online meeting and Web conferencing software. “We can have a drawing up on one person’s desktop and another person in another place can take control of the desktop and manipulate the drawing. It’s like having one person sitting at desk and four other engineers from different cities poring over one drawing and making corrections – but you save on the flight and the time it takes for a three-day trip across country.”

The firm has also been using Microsoft’s Windows SharePoint Services since last spring to create and manage its own collaborative project Web sites where staff can upload drawings, or where Stantec’s 30 senior managers can post documents, conduct surveys and discuss strategic plans.

The implementation of Microsoft Exchange Server 2003 is in the testing phase now; the solution is expected to provide additional flexibility for remote users. “E-mail is still a huge part of our communications,” Averill said. “We have such a mobile workforce and it’s very important for them to have easy access to e-mail.”

Averill said users of collaboration tools range from quick adopters who like the technologies and use them all the time, to those who won’t touch them. Then there are the middle-ground people who use it sometimes. “That’s pretty consistent with a lot of companies.” Stantec has tried to introduce the tools slowly, he said. “Our strategy is to get people used to working and sharing information online.”

Sharing = good citizenship

Meta Group’s Pal said infrastructure vendors like Microsoft are feeling the heat from application vendors including Oracle, SAP and Citrix, who are offering their own process-specific collaboration pieces.

Geoff Plummer, IT director for the District Municipality of Muskoka, said his organization chose Oracle Collaboration Suite over Microsoft Exchange Server. “We felt that Collaboration Suite certainly had advantages that we didn’t think we’d get from Exchange.” The district has 220 staff spread out over a large area and needed collaboration tools that would serve its mobile workers. “Collaboration Suite, we thought, had a better shot at that than Exchange Server.”

The district is still in the process of getting the suite set up, with a go-live date targeted for mid-January. Part of the package is a file management component which, according to Jim Stonehouse, industry director for the public sector at Oracle Canada in Mississauga, Ont., manages e-mail, calendars, Oracle files and voice transactions all on a single database. “That way your management expenses get cut down.”

The file management feature also helps with version control and updates. “You can have one copy of each e-mail stored on a single server setting,” Stonehouse said. Added Plummer, “That ensures you’re working out of the same prayerbook, as they say – it’s not Joe with one version and Mary with another.”

Plummer said the monetary savings are expected to amount to $12,000, in addition to some of the more intangible savings on the communication and staff usage side. The total cost is budgeted at $70,000, including support costs for the next six years, with an additional $95 per seat that the area’s individual municipalities will have to pick up in order to join in.

The nice thing about Collaboration Suite is that the desktop environment for the end user doesn’t change, said Stonehouse. For e-mail, “whether it’s Lotus Notes, Netscape or Outlook, that can remain same,” which in turn helps users accept new tools. “We’re really talking to the business folks to try to help them take costs out of managing disparate systems that they’re managing today.”

The best way to prevent users from just hording everything on their hard drives and encourage them get on board with a file management system, Plummer suggested, is to simply explain that it’s the only way their files are going to be backed up.

Challenges and solutions

Despite these success stories, Meta Group’s Pal said history is “littered” with examples of companies deploying collaboration software but not being able to get people to use it. “Most people will continue to foul that piece up,” because the IT people who typically choose the software “know nothing about the process redesign and how to integrate it into the workplace.” In other words, it’s easy for someone to describe how collaboration will enhance productivity, but it’s more difficult to show how the tools can be integrated into daily operations in a way that people are naturally inclined to use them, he said.

Ray Ozzie, CEO of Beverly, Mass.-based collaboration software maker Groove Networks, has his own stories about successes and failures in the early years of Lotus installations. Between 1984 and 1997, Ozzie founded and led Iris Associates, funded by Lotus Development Corp., to create what is now IBM’s Lotus Notes.

“The core lesson, I think, to be learned is that you cannot throw technology at problem that involves social and interpersonal dynamics. The goal is to get people to work together within the context of the organization toward some end, like solving customer problems faster. You can’t…assume people will just change their work habits.” If work habits have to change, training is imperative – “software isn’t magic and it doesn’t do that for you,” Ozzie said.

Kevin Hunter, product marketing manager at Microsoft Canada Co. in Mississauga, Ont., agreed. “[If (people] are not trained properly or motivated correctly on the human resources side of the business, this issue becomes tougher. If they can be trained and shown the benefits of a centralized repository, that it makes a person’s day and job more straightforward, that would have people over-investing their efforts in collaboration.”

Another way to encourage collaboration, said Jeff Ubois, contributing analyst at Ferris Research in San Francisco, is to come up with a system where managers reward people for asking questions and sharing answers. “It does cost something to answer questions,” he said, citing the classic example of online groups that at any given time have only 10 per cent of visitors posting questions or contributing any answers, and 90 per cent just lurking. “If you can convert even a small fraction of people into contributors, that really is a great thing,” Ubois said.

In the end, the most effective collaboration software is the kind that adapts to the way people already work, Ozzie said. E-mail and IM fall into that category. “They didn’t require some paradigm shift or for people to think dramatically differently. They fit into the context or model of how people interact with other people, and leave them in control.”

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