Team Collaboration and Employee Engagement

Over the last few years I’ve been spending a lot of time talking to HR people about the way employees use technology to do their jobs. As someone with an IT background, who is often frustrated that conversations around the technology used to communicate and collaborate are too focused on cost of ownership and richness of functionality, rather than on whether the tools actually help employees to do their jobs more effectively, it has been refreshing. As an expert in HR said to me recently, “I don’t care what tools people use, I only care about what they do with them”.

Of course, such discussions also have their frustration – especially when business people say “don’t talk to me about choice of collaboration tools, in this organisation collaboration technology is something that is inflicted on us,” or IT pipe up in a meeting and say “so we’ll do that with Sharepoint as it is our strategic collaboration platform” even though it is not suited to the use case being discussed and so will end up not being adopted by the users.

I really don’t think this can go on. I see business people actively promoting Shadow IT to their teams because the solutions IT are providing are not fit for purpose, sometimes with IT turning a selective blind eye as they have no budget to address the need, and I see HR teams wanting to reinvent their workforce and the way they work, but knowing that they will fail if employees continue using last generation technology.

What is clear to me is the IT must become actively involved in the design and capabilities of the digital workplace if they are going to create a workforce that can respond to the consequences of digital transformation and the business disruption it brings. I’ve been talking for a while about the fact that business need to move from a “tools outward” model (deploy the platform and see how people use it) to an “employee inward” model (design employee journeys to maximise productivity and the value that employee brings to the organisation). It is time for HR to start thinking about the entire employee experience (not just they way they engage with HR processes) as leaving the tool choice to IT is going to become a drag on the organisation transformation required for the digital age.

One of the areas where we have failed to help with this change is in the way we use the term “collaboration” to encompass all forms of employee to employee interaction, resulting in a “one tool fits all” mentality which doesn’t match reality – and certainly doesn’t fit with the way the Mobile, Social, Cloud, Analytics and Cognitive enables tools that people use in the private lives have evolved.

To illustrate this, I’ve been using the contrast between team collaboration and enterprise wide employee engagement. No-one can doubt the need for good team collaboration tools – and, indeed, the tools in this area are finally improving significantly as team start to move from email, Sharepoint and Skype towards platforms like Slack, Box, Cisco Spark and Watson Workspace.

However when organisations try to use those same tools for organisation-wide engagement, they hit a problem. Team collaboration tools are all about focusing on the current activities and not getting “distracted” by things outside. These activities are limited to those directly involved or with a need to know. By default they keep content private, only sharing final team deliverables.

Lack of Engagement

The solution is an enterprise engagement platform.

Engagement Platform

The benefits of enterprise wide employee engagement are manifold. The best known exponent of this is John Stepper with his Working Out Loud movement – building relationships that matter to create a collaborative, innovative culture. Opening up to engage with the rest of the organisation (and beyond!) provides easier access to expertise and knowledge, enabling better decisions and helping get work done faster. But I believe the benefits go far beyond improving individual productivity.

Engagment Platform Benefits

When conversations happen beyond the team, they enable ideas and insight to flow up and across organisations – the most obvious benefit being increased innovation, more effective management and less nasty surprises. Similarly these conversations help understanding flow down an organisation, so every employee can make every decision in the context of the organisations goals and strategy as well as their tactical needs. They spread awareness across different business units, departments and teams so that the actions employees take every day are aligned with the strategy at the top and the actions being taken in other parts of the organisation.

This requires the opposite to silos – it requires open, transparent behaviours. It is what enables agile, outcome focussed teams to coordinate what they do instead of creating potential conflict. It helps avoid unintended consequences and provides early warning of an approaching crisis.

That is not to say that an enterprise wide engagement platform can replace a team collaboration platform. It can’t. But the same is true the other way round. Trying to use a team collaboration platform for enterprise wide engagement simply will not deliver the desired results.

Of course, deploying an engagement platform will not, of itself, deliver these benefits. People have to use it in the right way. That requires a cultural shift, supportive leadership that truly leads and personal change of behaviour. But we know that behaviour change is hard, so it requires well designed tools that support and encourage this change.

Fortunately, we already have engagement platforms that have been proven to support this way of working: enterprise social networking tools like IBM Connections – although we have traditionally done them a disservice by calling them collaboration tools. They deliver a very different user experience to team collaboration tools but, because their scope is the whole enterprise not just a single team, they require a level of commitment and organisational change that goes far beyond something IT can deliver alone.

But it is exactly this change that HR must think seriously about as it tries to build a workforce fit for the future.

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