I’ve recently been on some client projects involving online collaboration, or at least trying to get online collaboration happening. There are many reasons why online collaboration won’t work, and here’s 10 of them… and what we can do about it.
To set the scene a bit, these responses are geared to be read by ‘the client’, to educate and persuade them to embrace online collaboration. The scenarios can be applied to online applications like forums, wikis, and other internal groupware applications.
1. We already collaborate offline, so we don’t need to do it online
That’s great if you’re already collaborating. If you and your organisation’s staff already have a culture of sharing learnings and information, committing spontaneous acts of assistance and feedback, then online collaboration tools should actually help you do more of the same. Realistically, all the collaboration applications around should support existing activities like these, not replace them.
2. No-one wants to be seen to not know the answer
A lot of online collaboration models rely on the assumption that everyone will be free to ask questions and have them answered. That’s fine if it’s part of a forum website with global reach (like Yahoo Answers), and with anonymous askers/answerers…but inside your own organisation? Who wants to look naive by asking ‘who looks after the Government client accounts’?
Solution? Give people the option to ask anonymously. This option could be set either at the user account level to apply to all questions, or at the point where the question is being entered. And if there are any instances where it’s possible to view all questions by a particular user account, it just wouldn’t show the ones tagged to be anonymous.
3. I – and my staff – won’t trust the content/answers/comments being posted
Ah yes, the issue of authenticity. People can often be suspicious of the validity of online content, since it’s well known that anyone can put anything online and call themselves an expert. Sometimes people need to be reminded that for closed systems such as staff intranets and internal applications, there are checks and balances in place. You already know who the people are in your own organisation. You will know who creates and edits what. There is accountability.
Using Issue #2 above, although you could make asking questions anonymous, any responses posted would always include the identity of the poster.
4. It’s a time waster/my staff should be working, not playing around on a forum/blog/wiki
Everyone has a story about how the company they work for — or a friend’s company — has prohibited and prevented access to sites like Facebook. But there’s plenty of evidence around now that online collaboration enhances teamwork, solves problems faster, boosts morale, and actually promotes the same healthy work practices that corporate leadership would have everyone doing anyway.
There are two issues here. The first issue is the word ‘social’ in social media and social networking. The word ‘social’ is kryptonite to the ears of managers, and is best avoided. Using words like ‘knowledge management, ‘knowledge captial’ and ‘intellectual capital’ is much better.
Secondly, there may be misconceptions about exactly what actions constitute online collaboration. Business applications can use the sorts of tools we find in (ahem) social media websites for employees to contribute work-related content. I would post photos of my pet dog on Facebook, but not at work; at work I would post photos of the new office in Melbourne for the Sydney employees to see.
5. My staff won’t share information, no matter what
This is more common in some domains than others, such as legal and accounting. After all, in a culture where advice has a hefty price tag attached, and accountability is paramount, why risk giving out opinions and factoids willy nilly? Often when asked to collaborate, some staff and teams immediately think of the big things, rather than the small things.
Usually collaboration isn’t so much about giving a thesis on competition law in New Zealand from 1994-1999… it’s about things like: ‘whose turn is it to buy the coffee?’ ‘Has anyone worked with the version of XYZ software?’ ‘The café downstairs has a special offer on banana bread’… and so on.
6. No time
This is fair enough, and true. Online collaboration tools should save time, not be an extra thing that employees have to find time for. There may be cases where employees have had systems thrust upon them with a mandate to use them, where it then takes longer to do certain tasks.
The right online collaboration system(s) should of course save time. Not often by replacing another system, but by exposing more of the information already captured in ways that are relevant to people right when they need it.
Some organisations may think that the risk of sharing the wrong sort of information is too great. Like Issue #3, there would be checks and balances in place to safeguard such confidentiality breaches.
It should be said that email is probably the biggest culprit of confidential information leakage of all time. Moving employees away from email (for work-related communication such as projects, cases, and business processes) and more towards using a centralised collaboration system like Basecamp — where all communications are around specific project assets — would actually be more secure.
8. Some people may not actually be qualified to give appropriate answers
This also relates to Issue #3. Risks of erroneous information publishing can be mitigated by using corporate-set expertise tags against employees’ user accounts, so that they can only ‘see’ and reply to questions and issues for areas in which they have a reasonable degree of skill and expertise.
9. Haven’t we already got an intranet?
The main problem with intranets since their inception is that they are designed ‘top-down’ and too corporate-lead, rather than placing each individual user at the centre of the online experience, which is why they’re infamous for not being used. Successful collaboration tools place the user and their work/role at the centre, solving their problems, not giving them new ones.
If your intranet already does that, great! But if you’re part of the other 99.9% of employees out there, it’s time you were using a new collaborative intranet.
10. It’s too expensive
Many organisations have been scarred by experiences dealing with Enterprise This and Enterprise That. It seems that putting the word ‘Enterprise’ in front of any software or web application automatically adds a couple of zeros to the licencing fees. Please avoid these at all costs. Break free from your hulking legacy systems and start light. Look at applications like Basecamp for project asset collaboration and sharing, Huddle, Google Apps and Confluence for groupware, Ning and the like for networking…the list is endless.
Fight the good fight
If you’re like me and often trying to sell the idea of online collaboration and its benefits, I hope this raises some interesting issues for you. It helps me to remember this great quote by Howard Aiken: “Don’t worry about people stealing your ideas. If your ideas are any good, you’ll have to ram them down peopl’s throats.”