5 Rules to turn the tables on your collaboration tools technology initiative

If you lead Internal Communications or IT at your company, you likely have been watching recent developments in collaboration technology. Collaboration for the enterprise is expected to be a $49b market by 2021. The number of companies vying for that market (enterprise social networking being the heaviest category of spend) continues to grow. Technology that began as instant messaging apps or document storage services are being re-imagined.

  • There is deep competition to see which tool most effectively bridges the gap between employee communication and actionable work.
  • It’s a noisy, cluttered market with lots of capabilities.
  • The potential for distraction is very high.

What’s a Communications or IT leader to do while navigating sales demos, shadow IT and competing internal priorities? The answer is not the easiest solution:  Resist temptations for the newest, flashiest features (aka artificial intelligence)—for now. Put your business use cases front and center to direct your choice of tool. It’s also important to be realistic: it’s unlikely that any one tool will solve every use case at your company. Envision and plan for an ecosystem of tools that support your people, your processes and your company culture. Use these framing ideas to guide your company’s search for the right communication and collaboration mix with an employee and business-value centric approach.

Rule 1:  Don’t act alone

One of the most commonly overlooked aspects of finding the right technology is tackling the process as a team effort. HR and/or Internal Communications often lead the initiative, but IT should also serve as an active partner to ensure the tool selection meets expected technical and security standards.

It’s also very common to see these projects happening without input from the intended users of the tools. Your employees are not just your internal customers, they are your best advisors. A Softchoice study found that among 1,000 IT Managers and line-of-business employees, 77% say their organizations do not consult them in the process of choosing an office communications tool. Recruit a team of employee advisors to work with you! They are in the best position to help reconcile specific business objectives, day-to-day workflows and what the tools can do. Successful Talk Social to Me customers engage their employees in gathering candid feedback on what’s working and what’s not with existing solutions. Employees you involve in the process will also be natural champions and spokespeople when it is time to introduce tools widely within your company.

Rule 2:  Match the technology to your people and needs

Alcatel-Lucent’s head of digital marketing stresses that modern day companies are not homogeneous entities. How people work and their personal preferences (thanks to our app and technology-obsessed lives as consumers) vary widely. Find the common themes among your users. A streamlined tools ecosystem that exists under the purview of IT offers one, or at most two tools to address like use cases. For outliers and unique situations (legal or financial areas are common), plan an ecosystem that’s flexible—most organizations have at least a few industry and/or functionally mandated processes that need special accommodations.

When you define your needs, identify where the intended impacts of collaboration will be felt and who they will impact.

  • Will they directly benefit the employee experience?
  • Will they increase efficiency internally and ultimately manifest outside the business (perhaps as improved customer experience)?
  • Our customers often tell us they want “to increase employee engagement.” This isn’t specific enough and there is no clear “why?”
    • This will also be a challenge when the tool gets introduced. Employees may not share the feeling that there is a worthwhile outcome to be gained from using a new collaboration tool.
  • An un-specific “why” will cause employees to question whether or notthey should bother engaging. Well defined goals aligned to the business, combined with a collaboration tool that is part of the “how,” will have a much stronger appeal to everyone.

Rule 3:  Take stock of existing relationships

Look at your company’s existing IT investments. What vendor relationships have been successful? Which tools are already widely used? Does it make sense, for example, to consider G-Suite if your company already has a significant user base? Vendor relationships and trust take time to develop—so look where the company has already invested. There are many exciting collaboration offerings coming from companies such as Atlassian, Box, Microsoft and Facebook. When you compare the tools, you’ll find much of the functionality offered across vendors is almost identical.  Look at which tools are already in use helping employee productivity.

We’ve also observed a dark side of relationships that sometimes affect vendor choices:  personal relationships. Sometimes personal relationships and favors are used to skirt formal and thorough vendor vetting efforts. Having worked with colleagues in other companies is good, but personal relationships should not be driving or forcing (in the case of among executive leaders) a vendor selection. When this happens, it adds to the natural disconnect that executives face every day as leaders of big companies. It’s hard to stay connected to any company’s daily operations.

Rule 4:  Harness diverse perspectives and tenure with an employee advisory committee

When you recruit your employee tools advisory members, reach out and invite people from many areas of the business. This diversity of users will represent a broader sampling of the company. In recruiting advisors, consider tenure. Workers hired in the past 6 months will draw from both their early experiences at your company and their more recent experiences at other companies. Employees who’ve been with your company 2+ years will have a richer, more historical perspective on what’s best for your company. Employees who are given a voice in the decision will feel valued and recognized when invited to contribute—so target your advisors wisely. Anyone vocal about existing tools or the problems can be a worthy candidate. Someone who has a lot of feedback (be it positive or negative) clearly cares enough to express it vs. leaving your company.  

Rule 5:  Embrace (or at least, Respect) Shadow IT

It’s hard these days to structure a tools ecosystem without coming to terms with Shadow IT. Cisco found the number of cloud services used in large enterprises had grown 112% between 2015 and 2016. The quest for efficiency and productivity is indeed king. But Shadow IT is something to be studied. It likely holds clues to use cases and business functions where employees took matters into their own hands. Learn why. Were they trying to eliminate friction they experienced using other company tools? Were they seeking efficiency; answering needs of unique workflow circumstances? Were they fed up with the long RFP process IT imposed on them? Understand what motivated the actions and take steps toward improvement, depending on what you find. Shadow IT is hard to make go entirely away, but understanding where it is rooted informs the relationship and perceptions employees have of your company’s IT team.

It really is about understanding & navigating people. Really.

The software makers and experts would have you believe tools and features can solve for everything, but the stark reality is that the failure rate for enterprise social networks is high. Businesses often don’t make the program investments they need to to mitigate the real adoption wildcard:  people. Involve employees in different levels of the tool selection and rollout process. Plan on investing in  strategic programming for the long term. Employees that participate in any of the above ways (being in the advisory group, being invited to share feedback and/or why they use outside services) will be natural ambassadors post- launch. With creative programming and team support, employees will have had a hand in creating something good for the business and its people.