It Takes More Than Tech to Get Teams to Collaborate Effectively The many project management tools available are useful but don't substitute for healthy culture.
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Collaboration is a popular business buzzword these days due to the proliferation of mobile apps and enterprise social platforms such as Chatter, Yammer and Jive. In addition, Facebook recently unveiled a free version of its own Workplace collaboration service, along with updates to its Messenger app.
Yet moving past the latest tech hype cycles, it's clear that collaboration is just another word for teamwork. Effective teamwork requires strong employee buy-in, a collegial workplace environment and proper tools for shared project management.
Leaders who strike the right collaborative balance improve how work gets done. It's not enough to adopt technologies and a culture that make it easier for workers to communicate and share knowledge. Teamwork should ultimately become a business enabler, so it's critical to focus collaborative efforts on achieving real business outcomes that spur innovations and increase productivity. Again, the two essential ingredients for successful collaboration are the underlying workforce culture and the enabling technologies.
Uniting sub-cultures builds team culture.
"Organizational culture" is a misleading term because all organizations are comprised of many and various subcultures. So, the first step is identifying the norms that guide members of a certain group to form their processes, policies and behaviors, according to leadership consultant Roger Schwarz in an article in Harvard Business Review.
For instance, some teams tend to resolve their conflicts in open forums with shared information, while other groups prefer conflict resolution in private settings where people can express their views without fear of reprimands. Recognizing such group tendencies can help foster an understanding of a team's collective values and assumptions.
"If one team is particularly bound to its values and assumptions in a certain situation, the other team may decide simply to adopt that team's approach," Schwarz explains. "For example, the team that discusses conflict privately may begin doing it in meetings if the other team makes a compelling case for it."
Teams are made up of groups of people from diverse personal backgrounds with widely different skills who come together to achieve common goals. The organizational culture needs to reflect those divergent viewpoints and account for any group differences when tackling new challenges.
Oftentimes the dominant culture will seek to intervene and impose its own solution on a subculture's activities by applying institutional "lessons learned" – which is often nothing more than mistakes repeated. Leaders should be alert to such ingrained patterns, and instead seek to smooth out any differences by assimilating subcultures into the larger group dynamic.
Old tools, new tools, red tools, blue tools.
So many collaboration tools have emerged lately that it's hard for managers to sort through all their options and encourage user adoption. Perhaps the best method is to embed these technologies directly into the way work gets done, so that using new tools becomes a natural and accepted part of everyone's daily job.
There are many new enterprise social platforms, but these social tools are "always on," much like Facebook. As a result, they can become amplifiers of corporate "white noise" that feeds group uncertainty and delays quick business decisions.
More companies are bridging isolated silos of data with collaborative content-sharing tools such as Box.com or Google Docs. Other workgroups are incorporating business chat functions and real-time messaging tools such as Slack, WeChat and Skype. Global software development teams have been shown to improve their productivity by 20 percent to 30 percent through the use of new process and networking tools, according to research by McKinsey & Co.
Another collaboration approach involves anonymous crowdsourcing apps that allow co-workers to vote up or down on mutual project priorities. In this way, leaders can implement their team's top plan for a shared solution, generating greater alignment and enthusiasm from the front-line troops.
All these advances can be helpful, but most firms today continue to struggle with how to develop a coherent collaboration strategy. According to a recent report by Bob O'Donnell at Technalysis Research, 75 percemt of all communications with co-workers still depend on basic emails, phone calls and text messages. The Technalysis report also found that emails and phone calls still make up 66 percent of all external communications as well.
Meanwhile, only 8 percent of employees are using cloud-based storage services such as Dropbox with their co-workers. Likewise, just 19 percent of co-workers now use real-time document collaboration platforms such as Microsoft Office 365.
"Both the technologies and habits rooted in the 20th century are keeping the 21st century vision of the modern workplace from becoming reality," O'Donnell observed in a post on Recode. "From a software perspective, it seems that old habits die hard."Clearly, more work must be done to deepen collaboration and drive business productivity. At the same time, leaders should nurture more inclusive cultures to embrace diverse viewpoints and new ways of thinking. In so doing, entrepreneurs can effectively deploy collaboration as a competitive advantage to separate their firms from slower-moving rivals and score bigger wins in the marketplace.