How can businesses collaborate more effectively?
As a company grows, individuals tend to develop specialist roles and knowledge. The result can be that vital data and experience ends up locked away on individual devices and in individual heads. A smart approach to collaboration can reduce the bottlenecks of knowledge and expertise in your business, and help your staff work more effectively.
The benefits of collaboration
“When you shift to more collaborative ways of working, the biggest thing you gain is time,” explained Pete Tomlinson, product director at Eclipse Internet, one of a handful of Office 365 partners. “Employees waste time reinventing the wheel, because they don’t know that someone else already has the solution.
“The second thing is customer responsiveness. When a customer calls, you can give them a better, faster answer if you have access to all the information, rather than having to seek it out from a colleague.”
Chris Martin, CTO of conferencing specialist Powwownow, agrees. “If employees can learn from each other’s expertise, it makes their work, and their thoughts, more well rounded,” he said. “Campaigns can start to become more naturally integrated across the company.”
In bigger businesses, collaboration can help with team co-ordination. “We do a lot of work in retail,” explained Tristan Rogers, CEO of collaboration consultancy and developer Concrete. “So a client might have head-office staff and store staff, and they don’t know what each other are doing. If they had visibility of each other’s requirements, they could organise themselves better.”
No magic bullet
“Collaboration is a buzzword,” noted Rogers, “but it’s not a solution in itself. To benefit, you need to identify the specific problem you want to solve. There’s no super software that makes everyone telepathic.”
“It’s difficult to move into a world where everyone knows everything.”
In reality, collaboration callsfor cultural changes just as much as new technology. “There’s a big gap between intellectually believing in collaboration and genuinely wanting to change people’s ways of working,” Tomlinson said. “Collaboration means you have to give up the idea of being the one who has this particular information, or who knows this particular customer. The knowledge that people accumulate over years becomes part of their identity in the workplace. It’s difficult to move into a world where everyone knows everything.”
Done right, however, collaboration can align with employees’ own interests. “In business, we’re judged by our personal output,” observed Rogers. “If I want to get a pay rise or a promotion, that comes down to my own performance. So if I’m really busy and running late, I won’t be spending time telling everyone about it – I’ll be busy putting out fires. The trick is to appeal to selfish motives: if I have a tool that will make my life better, and it just so happens that it’s an online platform, then you’ll know that I’m running late, and can adapt your plans accordingly. When everyone is using the platform for their own benefit, you’ve created a collaborative network by default.”
Starting to collaborate
If your business is genuinely ready to collaborate, the first step is to start moving important information out of the silos it naturally collects in.
“Word files, PowerPoint files, Excel files – these are all pre-internet inventions,” noted Rogers. “The content we create gets locked up in these little suitcases on our hard disks, where no-one else can see it. Compare that to something like Twitter: on social media, you write something, and it’s immediately seen by everyone.”
Tomlinson agreed: “In a normal small business, typically 80% of the company’s data resides on individual people’s devices that only they have access to. In fact, today there are often two or three silos per person – they might have notes on their phone, but other information on a laptop, and an email archive on their desktop.”
“Office 365 has become a very easy way to get all your data into one place. With SharePoint you get version control, and your files can be accessed from any device.”
Moving to a new way of working can involve a degree of compromise. “It depends how much unpicking of existing processes you have to do,” noted Rogers. “At Concrete, when we move a new customer onto our platform, a lot of their knowledge and information is all packed up in those ‘suitcases’, and you can’t say ‘just re-enter it all’ – they have work to do. So we might start by taking all those files and setting them up in Box or Dropbox. “Then once you’ve identified the problem, you’re in a much better position to establish what the solution looks like. You can ask: is what we’ve got okay, or is there an opportunity to move towards a better future?”
As Pete Tomlinson points out, the standard tools are evolving in ways that make collaboration less painful. “Office 365 has become a very easy way to get all your data into one place. With SharePoint you get version control, and your files can be accessed from any device. It’s relatively easy to adopt, and there’s enough familiarity to it that culturally it tends to be accepted by the users. Of course, there are many different ways to collaborate – you might alternatively be looking at AWS or Azure, but Office 365 is probably the easiest way in.”
Ultimately, since the goal of the exercise is to empower employees, the solution must be sponsored by those who will be using it. “The technology available to us now is so available and so easy to use that it’s no longer an IT decision, it’s a business decision,” said Rogers. “In the UK, staff sometimes don’t recognise the power they have in decisions like this. The IT department can help with the implementation, but when we’re talking about changes in business behaviour, that has to be business-driven.”