Tuesday, September 2, 2008

Is any Business Benefit Gained by Adopting Collaborative Technologies Within the Workplace?

Not too long ago few, if any, in the workplace could really justify accessing the web from their workplace. Justification would normally relate to access to externally hosted services that added value to the corporation, or alternatively to conduct research or resolve problems, and for the IT department download patches and upgrades.

Over time applications have become thin client and have migrated to the web browser. Web access at work has become much more the norm – although there are normally limits to the sites that can be accessed. Of-course the web has evolved rapidly in the last few years, in particular with the addition of several web 2.0 services, such as:

  • Instant Messaging
  • Wiki
  • Web Logs
  • Social Tagging or Bookmarking
  • Social Networking
  • Ideas and interchange

It is argued that there is between a 2 and 6 fold productivity enhancement for any given large organization to adopt collaborative technologies. It can also be argued that early adoption will be progressive and lead to a corporation being at the forefront of an industry. Whilst the Internet is evolving the corporation must understand the business benefit each of these collaborative technologies bring and decide whether access to them is appropriate within their organisation, department, or workgroup. Any technology will only bring real benefit when it is intuitive, easy to use, and has a clearly stated value proposition.

When an organisation complements these technologies with unified communications strategy, that can operational and travel expenses, maximize employees productivity by better leveraging the ability to share knowledge in a online way, etc..

Instant Messaging

Is possibly one of the most prevalent tools in-use today. If used correctly it can allow a mechanism to communicate facts and actions in a timely manner. I have seen this empower communications between business partners, enabling corrective measures to be taken in a timely manner. The example I have personally seen was keeping open IM sessions throughout the warehouse picking process. The warehouse manager noted that the order for a customer seemed smaller than normal – turns out one item was short by a factor of 10 (e.g. 12 were on order instead of 120). The net result of keeping this communications channel open was rapid correction of a problem.

This represented an instant cost saving to the company as the normal impact of this error would have been sending an almost empty truck on an extra trip to add the extra items the following day (losing any profit made from this customer this week).

Ironic that the original connection was purely social between two long-term colleagues and friends.

Wikipaedia and Blogging

The biggest risk with the ability to ‘blog’ from work are twofold opening the corporation up to breaches of confidentiality and the risk of libel. Items on a corporate web-site are by definition published by the company, even if there is no official backing for the statement.

Certain tools have an innate benefit, especially when used inside the corporation, one example of this is the use of a corporate Wiki – which can be a great tool to educate new employees in the nomenclature, meanings, and procedures used in the corporation. It is ironic that the corporate Wiki is taking off just at the time that Wikipedia – the free encyclopaedia – is being slated as containing too much ‘fiction’.

We do live in an age of information. The problem is that more than half the information out in cyberspace is plain wrong or useless, just 0.01% is of any great value to any given situation.

One of the benefits that the Web Log, or Blog as it has become known, is the capability for anyone to publish whatever they wish. This writer has two separate blogs serving different purposes. To a large extent if Samuel Pepys were alive today he would be the master of the Blog and we would all feature in it. However the problem with so many blogs is that the standard of writing is generally low, and the contributions are often poorly researched and badly written. It could be argued that most add very little value to the corporation, but then there is the occasional expert blog that turns out to be the nugget in the rough.

IT people will know that there are blogs that have been created by experts on every piece of software available, and the workaround or fix is out there somewhere. It is often the first place they turn when they identify a problem. This type of blog can add value as it puts the developer in-touch with an expert (that is often one of the authors of the software).

The same could be said for business problems - blogs exist on a variety of subjects, e.g. implementing the International Financial Reporting Standards (IFRS), just perform a Google search on your latest pain-point and someone else may be able to identify the steps needed to be taken to resolve the issue.

Tagging and Bookmarking

The benefits from associated with social bookmarking are associated with drawing traffic into a website through search engine optimisation. The tagging is supposed to give a boost to searches and draw traffic to a popular site. Within a day of your submitting your website to these bookmarking sites, you can expect to be visited by all the major search engines. Social bookmarking sites claim to guarantee a lot of traffic to flow from these sites to your site. Submit a detailed profile where you can list all your web pages and also post links to your sites, thus it is a form of self-branding.

The question is who determines popularity? In the proverbial battle between Mac and the PC, or between Microsoft and Linux can be swayed one way or the other by a determined set of social-bookmarkers favouring one side or the other of the debate. This can make competition for the corporate website against those with an axe to grind. The biggest concern therefore is that other influence the final search ranking, so the benefits can be seen at the most as marginal.

Can the benefit of social bookmarking outweigh the benefits of paid links? The paid link will bring you to the top of a relevant search, but the cost has to be considered for a small business. It can certainly be more precise than the whims of a casual passer-by tagging the site (or anti-site). There are also other methods to promote a web-site.

On the flip-side sharing bookmarks with colleagues can have a business benefit. We can both be looking at the same site, in working towards a common goal (but on the other hand it is possibly simply to email the link – that is the way we always used to do it).

Social Networking

It is true that people use the telephone, the fax, email and the Internet for purely personal use, and most organisations have usually given some latitude here. However research has shown that in most organisations it is a small number of people are responsible for a large amount of web usage. Adding Web 2.0 applications, particularly Social Networking into the mix does allow more opportunity for overburdening the corporate network. It is this more than anything that concerns the average corporation.

Corporate applications, email, data messaging etc all place a burden on the corporate network, which needs to remain fine-tuned to maintain optimal performance levels. The traditional view is that any use of corporate resources for entirely personal purposes creates an unnecessary burden on the corporation – e.g. making that photocopy, taking the pen from the stationery cupboard are actually a theft, however few organisations are willing to prosecute any but the most flagrant of breaches. Abusing corporate internet access falls under the same category.

The flexibility of Social Networking allows the potential for some employees to use large chunks of time on-line communicating with their friends and forget that are expected to work. The biggest concern with certain sites, e.g. FaceBook and YouTube, that are well know for providing video content. It is this video based content that is starting to take-up a large percentage of Internet bandwidth. Is there any justification for downloading/playing the video from last Saturday’s party to show to your friends at work? Probably not.

However there is another side to the concept of Social Networking – professional based sites such as LinkedIn, and industry specific networking sites, like IT Toolbox, offer a capability to extend our professional network that is not inherently about FUN but has an over whelming business goal. The principals of sharing are present. The risks of libel and breaches of confidentiality also exist here as a statement once made is permanently published

If you have a pressing business problem then you are likely to obtain some advice on how to solve that problem, or be referred to a specific expert through business focused social networking sites, the end result a solution. However should we seek an external consultant before we look at the expertise within our own organisation? During my consulting days I remember engagements I remember days of consulting effort had been spent when the ultimate answer came from the subject matter expert ‘down the hall’ who the project team had simply forgotten to involve in the project.

For certain disciplines (e.g. Information Technology) there have always been on-line reference sources or bulletin boards to assist in resolving that problem. Professional networks do combine well with expert blogs in order to provide answers (that is one of the reasons why I record good answers onto my web log – to ensure that they are retained for history sake).

Recruitment seems to be one area where social networks are booming – hiring managers are cutting out the middleman. It is cheaper to place an advert on LinkedIn than to use a recruitment consultant, especially where senior executives are sought. Further more it is possible to research candidates, see the recommendations that have been made about that person in recent position that they have held.

Of course recruiters are not missing out on this game seeking business through the same channels as are a plethora of other professionals, demonstrating their wares to a wider audience than they would otherwise meet, if you need to connect with someone to assist your relocation to California, a graphic design professional in Canada, a writer in New York, then I can help you.

Collaboration within the Workplace

In the course of managing corporate change projects there is always a need to build on multidisciplinary competencies in order to deliver effective change. Corporate-wide projects need the ability to collaborate on a global scale, not to mention the necessity to involve external specialists. The need for collaboration is not new, it has long been accepted that success is bred through collaboration, it is simply a new generation of tools that are making it easier to collaborate, even if project members are not in the same time-zone.

It is recognised that collaboration tools work best in cultures of knowledge sharing and reward. External consultants often get listened to because they have an expert label but solutions can often be found in-house.

Collaboration is especially relevant to:

  • Change management
  • Corporate project deployment (e.g. ERP or CRM deployment)
  • Innovation
  • Staff development

The most important component of any collaboration within the workplace is the people involved in the project, in particular those within the business community who will become responsible for day-to-day operations. Behaviour is critical to the success of any activity. It is often necessary to break down boundaries and silos in order to achieve success.

Technology should be used as a means to facilitate collaboration, e.g. tools such as on-line file sharing can be a contributor to success. Collaboration provides team members the capability to capture and debate ideas as-and-when they occur, enabling team members to constructively challenge one another, or identify risks associated with the choices that need to be made. This can have an impact on corporate culture and values.

The anticipated benefits of collaboration are relevant to every organisation. Ironically the use of software to support collaboration is not new, but the extent by which we are able communicate effectively has grown with sharing across the internet.

The ability to collaborate on projects has been present for much of the last 25 years, it is the tools we use to achieve the results that have changed. I have been involved in many international projects, where the whole project is managed centrally without needing to board a plane. Teleconferencing has facilitated this, but what was once only available in the largest corporate domain can now be done from the average PC. It is the use of technology to share information more effectively that can lead to a performance improvement. Thus the means to encourage collaboration are extremely wide and becoming more varied.

For further reading on the challenges of collaboration I recommend the reader look at Tension in Collaboration by Bruce Lewin.

Co-locating teams (and the opposite distance working), web based project management tools, voice and video conferencing, do place a greater need on collaboration but the technology has to be shown to bring a positive business benefit to each individual organisation. It is possible to demonstrate benefit for a change project of any type, but it is more difficult to show the same benefit for other business teams.

Summary

Where an organisations is oriented to collaboration within their relevant marketplace, data sharing between all organisations within the supply chain is instrumental in assuring higher levels of customer satisfaction that may be translated to a better competitive positioning.

Another cultural issue that is evolving is the whole concept around ownership of knowledge, or even the data that supports it. Many years ago a CEO made a statement to me that I have always remembered “the most precious commodity we have in this company is the data that we own”. This has been a guiding principle for most of my working life. Collaboration is important for the success of the organisation, but it is information that allows the organisation to succeed.

There are many Web 2.0 technologies that are now being promoted as new ideas - that are in-fact as old as IT. Instant Messaging it is not a new – it was in use in the 1970’s (OK it was not as swish as modern tools, but the basis was the same - to communicate with someone on-line). Likewise discussion forums have existed as long as we had modems to connect to some form of on-line service.

For other Web 2.0 technologies there are clear benefits to be identified, but not for every worker in every workplace. There is a view that says people will do this irrespective of IT support. The issue however is not about IT getting in the way, but about the corporate officers setting the usage policy. Web 2.0 applications are no different than those before them; corporate officers must still be concerned that corporate resources are used effectively and do not negatively impact productivity or profitability.

What has changed is how we are leveraging these capabilities to change business. Enterprise communications and collaboration requires:

  • The right building blocks, including an intelligent framework to combine voice, video, and data)
  • A preparedness to share knowledge,
  • A workforce that is empowered to integrate and collaborate.

Cisco (amongst others) is researching mechanisms that will provide an integrated workforce experience, see Web 2.0 in the Enterprise for Cisco’s proposal.

I still believe that the best foundation is a business that is seeking to leverage collaborative technology in order empower their workforce and provide tools and knowledge that will facilitate growth.

Peter B. Giblett

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