How to make collaboration work

Over the past 16 years, my firm has worked with hundreds of vendors and end-users of collaboration technologies and has seen a wide variety of implementations. We wondered what factors helped make some of these implementations successful. Why in some firms did the technology spread throughout the organization over a relatively short period of time, while in others an initially successful pilot project ended up going nowhere?

This article is based on a series of interviews we did with end-user organizations to find out what these critical factors were. Analysis of these interviews allowed us to identify the following seven critical factors for successful implementation:

1. Collaboration technology projects need to be tied to specific and important business needs felt by the actual users of the technology.

2. The adoption project must be led by a single influential champion and have the active support of key executives.

3. The organization must have clear, well-defined business processes that are compatible with the technology.

4. There must be clear and meaningful metrics to measure success.

5. The new technology must be easy to learn how to use. This can be accomplished through (a) excellent up-front training and support, (b) selecting technology that is inherently easy to use, (c) active involvement and support by IT, (d) starting with small projects and gradually building, as competence with the technology grows.

6. After a successful pilot, end users must effectively build upon and advertise their success to other groups.

7. The user deployment plan should place significant emphasis on addressing people and cultural issues.

The users we talked with seemed to know about most of these success factors. Those users that had not reached the level of adoption they were hoping for usually told us that it was because they missed only one or two of these factors.

We found that most end-user organizations dramatically underestimated the complexity of the adoption problem. They also consistently overestimated the technology aspects of the situation, and underestimated the cultural, economic and political aspects of adoption.

Critical adoption factors

Below we have broken out some of the factors that affect adoption of collaborative technologies and discussed both the results and our interpretation of the data.

Technical factors: In a few cases we did find that bandwidth and infrastructure did hold back adoption. However the vendors saw this as an issue much more often than the end-users did.

A good example of this occurred at a large aerospace firm. They had a new CIO and he had a mandate to “get collaboration in”, both because this company was a government contractor, and because it could leverage these technologies to produce savings and improve ROI. In this case, collaboration came in on the back of a six-sigma initiative. Unfortunately the organization, in its haste to roll out the technology, failed to consider an archiving policy, and when the (asynchronous) collaboration technology became available, users put in hundreds of gigabytes of data into each of the team spaces, bringing the servers to their knees. This was compounded by the fact that the managers in the departments that got this new technology did not offer much in the way of training. And so a rollout that the new CIO thought would take six months had, at last look, extended into its second year, and the organization was just getting around to developing an archiving policy.

When we talked with the end-users, technology was usually not the issue; policy and behavioral issues seemed to matter most. But of course, since the technology is the most tangible and visible, the collaboration technology was blamed.

Too many solutions: In many cases, we found that increased adoption of one collaborative technology was hindered by the fact that other departments in the company were already using similar technologies from a different vendor. This led to a trend we call ‘collaborative consolidation’.

Nowhere was this trend more apparent than in large enterprises where the lines of business were often going around IT and getting initial implementations of collaborative technologies through an application service provider. If, after an initial pilot with the ASP, the collaborative technology became more popular and was used by more than one group in the organization, it often was brought in-house and IT was asked to support it.

In cases where there was a strong CIO, he or she would eventually begin to track the costs for this support, become appalled, and demand that the enterprise consolidate to one or two vendors. This usually resulted in some sort of committee being formed by IT and the technology stakeholders to help to determine a common set of requirements needed by the whole organization in this area. This often became a political battle, and the collaboration technologies political footballs.

This trend towards ‘collaborative consolidation’ was more apparent in larger organizations that had some maturity with collaborative solutions. Their biggest issue was finding technologies that would meet the diverse collaborative needs of various groups of end-users, and trying to get this solution from one vendor at a much lower price. Training, maintenance, support and TCO were also factors in selecting a collaboration vendor during this consolidation phase.

Cultural factors. As stated earlier, end-users typically underestimated the complexity of the adoption problem. Both end-users and vendors were aware of the cultural/behavioral impact these technologies could have, however very few interviewees in either group knew how to deal with these issues successfully to help drive adoption. These issues are usually hidden, difficult to address, and boil down to not only changing the technology, but creating changes in the organizational culture simultaneously with the introduction of collaborative technology.

Some questions that we thought would be useful for end-users to answer as part of that larger cultural change are:

1. How do you motivate people to use the technology?

2. How do you get people to see personal benefit from the technology?

3. How do you initiate behavioral change?

4. How do you sustain behavioral change?

5. How do you institutionalize the changes?

Home-grown Solutions

We found that in many cases, end-user organizations had taken matters into their own hands and had developed their own internal (home grown) applications. Often these applications were widely used and successful. The problem came in support costs, and resources for technology advancement. In the case of the aerospace organization cited earlier, both of these two factors caused them to move from their own home-grown collaborative system to one from a vendor.

Six solvable problems

In all we were able to identify six unique issues that end-users and their vendors should try to resolve to help ensure successful adoption of collaborative technology. Read more

In some cases, collaborative technology adoption was slowed or halted because of these home-grown tools and some of the special features they have. In the aerospace company, the group that was working with the federal intelligence community was still using the home-grown tool and had a r

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