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The Case for Collaboration

In the rush to get employees working together, talent managers risk overlooking the critical human factors that can make or break collaboration initiatives.

October 3, 2011
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Canadian telecom Telus faced a set of challenges familiar to many organizations. On one hand, the notoriously cutthroat telecom market was pushing it to develop innovative products and services faster and more efficiently to compete for customers.

On the other hand, despite being recognized as one of Canada’s Top 100 Employers, surveys were showing the British Columbia-based company’s 35,000-strong workforce was looking for a more engaging, empowering and collaborative work environment.

Faced with that familiar set of pressures — increasing competition and rapid market change on one side, a dispersed global workforce with shifting expectations on the other — the company set out in 2008 to transform from a hierarchical top-down model to a more open one.

“We wanted to be, if you use Renee Mauborgne [co-author of the business book Blue Ocean Strategy] language, a blue ocean organization as opposed to a red ocean organization, which denotes a much more innovative and collaborative organization to try and outwit your competitor,” said Dan Pontefract, senior director and head of learning and collaboration for Telus.

Telus is not alone. Many organizations, large and small, global and local, are implementing employee collaboration systems to boost innovation and create a more agile and responsive workforce able to compete in a fast-paced, volatile global business environment. But in the rush to implement systems, from off-the-shelf products such as Salesforce Chatter and Microsoft SharePoint to vendor-provided add-ons to the existing talent management system such as Saba’s People Cloud or custom-built, in-house tools, many talent managers are overlooking the critical human factors that can make or break workforce collaboration initiatives.

The Case for (and Problems With) Collaboration

Like Telus, many companies are implementing collaboration initiatives to boost innovation and employee engagement. Some have specific objectives in mind, such as decreasing production cycle time, boosting operational efficiency or improving customer service scores. Whatever the stated purpose, collaboration systems should do two basic things: help workers find answers to problems and connect them with others capable of helping them, said Josh Bernoff, senior vice president, idea development, Forrester Inc. and author of Empowered.

“People connection to information, information connection to people — that’s really the heartbeat of any one of these collaboration systems,” he said.

Led by Bernoff, Forrester is implementing its own internal collaboration system, the HERO Platform, for the company’s 1,200 employees. The system aims to create HEROs, highly engaged and resourceful operatives.

“Unlike the superheroes that we hear of in comic books, being a HERO in a corporation is not a lonely activity,” Bernoff said. “You need a lot of help. You need to find people who are experts in everything about the company from corporate communications to technology to finance. Without a system that really eases that connection, you are not likely to succeed.”

Most employee collaboration tends to take place by email, with an assist from the telephone, instant messaging and video. A corporate intranet provides a place to post and share documents and information. Forrester’s HERO Platform created a social interface on top of that intranet featuring news feeds, community and group functions and discussion features much like those familiar to many users through Facebook and other consumer network sites. The aim is to help employees more easily make connections with others and get access to the information, people and resources needed to be successful.

Bernoff and the HERO implementation team analyzed the Forrester organization before implementing the system to identify specific needs and capabilities required, such as making sure it was accessible to the company’s mobile, dispersed workforce. But like many shiny new corporate objectives, some organizations shoot first and ask questions later, implementing systems without clearly defining objectives and communicating them to employees.

“You don’t just send an email to everybody in the company and say, ‘Collaborate — click here for our collaboration system,’ and then expect it to work. It’s a rollout and it takes continual planning,” Bernoff said.

On top of that lack of planning, some organizations fail to find and empower the right leaders to see the implementation through. There needs to be a leader, widely and deeply connected throughout the organization, who cares about and monitors it.

“The people in the IT department are not in a position to be successful with that by themselves,” Bernoff said.

Even a successful launch of a new collaboration system is no guarantee. Looking back at collaboration activity six months later, activity on the new system often dwindles, Bernoff said, and people have drifted back to the way they were doing things before. It’s rarely a technical problem with the collaboration platform and if it is, bugs are fairly easily fixed.

“The people element is much more likely to be a cause of failure than any technical issues,” Bernoff said.

Top-Down, Bottoms-Up Implementation

Technology is important to successful collaboration, but it’s not the most important element. Management commitment is necessary but it’s not sufficient either. What’s most needed to successfully implement collaboration initiatives is a sophisticated change management plan.

“You need to get people to do things differently,” Bernoff said. “You need them to think about using this system instead of email because email is typically the default.”

That shift, while simple in theory, is complicated in practice. When the launch is over and the bloom is off the rose, talent managers need to ensure the system remains interesting and engaging. That includes a plan to attract people and help them see the personal and professional benefit to using the new system not just at the start, but continually. A new system should have a clear plan and program in place to roll it out piece by piece, enticing people into the dialogue along the way.

“By programming it that way, you continually reinforce that it’s worthwhile to go back, and bit by bit you change people’s behavior to use the new system,” Bernoff said.

Measurement of usage of the new system is important, but Forrester also looks at other factors such as number of ideas generated, efficiency metrics and reduction in email volume. Whatever the measurement strategy, it’s important that incentives are aligned to reinforce and reward the plan. At the very least, if there is not a direct incentive to collaborate, make sure there is no active disincentive.

“If you are on one hand telling people, ‘We need to cooperate more, we need to work together,’ but you’re paying them individually — you’re paying them to beat out the other person — don’t expect that you’re going to get any substantial collaboration at all,” said Rodd Wagner, co-author of Power of 2: How to Make the Most of Your Partnerships at Work and in Life and a principal at Gallup. “You’re going to get people saying the right things and doing the wrong things.”

Beyond capturing interest and managing the change needed to employee behavior and corporate systems, it’s also important that collaboration initiatives are part of a broader, well-defined organizational strategy. Success lies in the objectives.

“At Telus, we would never have thought of just releasing collaboration tools and technologies without our overarching leadership framework, the Telus Leadership Philosophy,” Pontefract said.

Moving from top-down hierarchy to a model that promotes leadership at all levels forms the core of that framework, all with the end goal of empowering individual employees to serve customers better. The collaboration tools and systems operate as part of a workflow to help others work better together, and they’re tied into Telus’ current state and future direction. Success is measured against two objectives: internal employee engagement scores and the company’s net promoter score, a customer’s likelihood to recommend Telus services to others.
“The collaboration tools are important but are not greater than the leadership framework itself, which inspires and pushes a collaborative behavior,” Pontefract said.

Organizations need to beware that they don’t present the collaboration initiative as a fait accompli. Development and the subsequent implementation needs to be a mix of top-down corporate direction and bottoms-up employee involvement, Pontefract said.

Over the course of nine months, Telus convened work groups, conducted Web chats and initiated discussion forums, eventually garnering input from more than 1,000 people that contributed to the development and direction of the leadership framework. Beyond generating ideas and commitment, that sort of involvement demonstrates the desired collaborative behavior.

“It would be hypocritical if we came up with it on the back of a napkin and then went top down [and said], ‘Here it is,’” Pontefract said.

At Forrester, Bernoff and his implementation team deployed a “honeypot” strategy, identifying early adopters of the system and enlisting them to build communities of practice to attract more users.

Telus took a similar tack, recruiting stakeholders from business units as change ambassadors to take the collaboration principles, leadership framework and new connected model to the organization at large. The company then shared collaboration stories and models of the new leadership philosophy in action through case studies and employee communications.

“Some of this you might have to mine, some of this you can make part of your focus groups and your rollout strategy,” Pontefract said.

Teaching Collaboration

Beyond the technology and plan, it’s also important to remember to teach others how to better collaborate. People are naturally collaborative if they don’t perceive a threat and they feel like their partners are looking out for them, said Gallup’s Wagner.

Even with that natural orientation, it’s important to help people be more deliberate about collaborating with one another. Some people need more coaching than others, particularly people in sales roles where competition is more natural.

“You can turn up the volume on their natural cooperative instincts and just make sure they do not make a misstep — in many cases an unintentional misstep — through lack of communication, through not appreciating the differences between the two of them and how their collaborator’s working style may differ from their own, by making sure they have a discussion somewhere along the line of what their goal is and why each of them, maybe for separate reasons, value that goal,” Wagner said.

Open and honest communication doesn’t guarantee better collaboration but it increases the probability of it, he said. Leaders also can play a critical role by modeling the collaborative behavior they intend to create in the organization, starting with the CEO.

“They talk very directly about how they are collaborating with other individuals, and they are mature and confident enough to talk about what they do well and where their collaborators fill in the gaps,” Wagner said. “There is this expectation in a lot of companies that the CEO needs to be everything to everyone and an awful lot of CEOs play to that and are quite afraid to show any sign of weakness.”

Assuming the plan and technology are in place, leaders can accelerate collaboration initiatives if they speak about their own partnerships and how they incorporate them into their own leadership strategy.

Don’t ignore traditional ways of teaching people to work together either. Telus launched an e-learning course as an introduction to collaboration. Not everyone will read a corporate blog post or attend a focus group, Pontefract said.

When it comes to employee collaboration, many companies are looking for the switch they can flip, but the reality is developing and implementing initiatives that will deliver results is a marathon, not a sprint.

“You have to be prepared over a three- to five-year period to put those key principles in place, to get ambassadors and change agents on board,” Pontefract said. “It’s like a 162-game baseball season, you’ve got to keep going up to the plate, you’ve got slug it out, you’ve got to play those nine innings every day.”

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