We have reached the limits of individuals’ productivity to the point where employees are saying they are too busy to do their jobs. Business leaders are now recognising that team performance needs to be optimised to drive productivity and growth. It is unreasonable to expect individuals to have all the expertise required to keep on top of everything and so the challenge is to broaden the collective knowledge through teamwork.
But how do you go from a star-driven culture where people work in silos to one of sharing and collaborating? On one hand, your subject-matter experts must immerse themselves in their disciplines to stay at the cutting edge. But on the other hand, they must share their expertise to solve the complex problems and build the internal knowledge and resources that other employees and customers can benefit from.
The Teamwork Challenge
One of the reasons that teamwork has been so challenging is that many of the tools haven’t been in place to support a more collaborative working style. Unless everyone is working on the same system, or the systems integrate seamlessly between themselves you will always have a challenge to get meaningful engagement and collaboration between individuals and teams of people. If you look at the two most familiar tools for business communications you have the phone and email. Both of which are used by individuals, teams and multiple parties but they are far more effective and efficient for 1-1 use and for small teams than they are for larger teams.
• The telephone – is simple to use & effective. The reason it is universally used is that it doesn’t matter what make or model you have, whether fixed line or mobile, people know how to dial a number or call from a directory, and anyone and everyone has access to one to communicate. If you take away the simplicity, like adding multiple parties onto the call for team discussions and suddenly it becomes harder to set up and engagement drops. Standard telephone systems generally don’t support good teamwork so companies ended up deploying conferencing technology that scaled better, could simplify ease of use and drive better engagement.
• Email – is again a very easy tool to send messages and attachments both within an organisation or externally. Users don’t know or care whether the recipient is using Microsoft, Google, IBM or another platform – it just works! But, as far as getting groups engaged, collaborating on documents and working in teams it is not very efficient, albeit often the only tool available. Email spam just makes everything harder as it clutters inboxes and makes identifying the relevant messages even harder.
You could add voice conferencing and video communications into the list of technologies used by many companies, but user adoption as a percentage of the entire organisation, although increasing every month still falls miles behind the use of the phone and email. So, although most people recognise that the phone and email aren’t the most effective tools for collaborating, there is as yet no dominant replacement!
Collaboration For All Generations
Part of the problem is that the older generation (who are now working into their 70’s and 80’s) need to unlearn some old ways of working, embrace diversity, inclusion and collaborate better to drive team productivity in this new era of work. Millennials (who will represent 50 percent of the workforce by 2020) are the ones driving the pace of change for workplace communication and they are leading with a preference for mobile, social and visual communication.
The challenge for businesses is that because they are not offering these tools, employees are resorting to using consumer-grade apps to get the job done. Many of these apps are powerful, intuitive, zero cost and raise their productivity, but at what cost? Do their managers have visibility and control over what is being said, what documents are being shared and where the information exchanged is being stored? What happens if passwords are lost, the employee leaves the business, or their manager wants to report on activity?
Just like dress codes in businesses over recent years, communications are changing to become less formal. Certainly, the younger generation is happier contributing in small bites, sharing their work, ideas and opinions, but what about everyone else? The vision is for all of this collaboration to happen in one place, to reduce the need to send long email threads with multiple attachments, and minimise wasted time in endless meetings (although there are still many benefits of face to face meetings) and the travelling to those meetings?
The future of productivity is about unleashing the potential of teams. Working collectively on a task can boost performance significantly. And as teams become more distributed in the modern workforce, collaboration is the number one factor that companies need to implement.
A recent joint study between the Institute for Corporate Productivity (i4cp) and Rob Cross, Edward A. Madden Professor of Global Business at Babson College found that companies that promoted collaborative working were 5 times as likely to be high performing.
One challenge to overcome is that we tend not to collaborate when there is little incentive to do so. Most talent management systems are designed to reward individual achievement, not team accomplishments. Indeed, many specialists resist sharing their unique knowledge and niche expertise because they perceive their knowledge gives them increased job security. The trick is to find ways to recognise and reward individuals, teams and leaders who engage in productive collaborative behaviour. We need to create the right culture so that collaborative behaviours flourish especially for the employees who are tempted to look out for “number one”.
It isn’t easy though to collaborate effectively, everyone is busy and people are reluctant to cede control over projects and relationships. It is often engrained within them to work in silos or with small familiar teams.
Up to a third of value-added collaborations come from only 3% to 5% of employees – Harvard Business Review, 2016
So How Do We Enable Team Collaboration?
For collaboration to work over the long term and be successful it requires a sustained commitment to transforming the organisation’s culture, processes and technology. This starts with modelling the kinds of collaboration you want to see take root. Leaders must be fully engaged and invest time with the key implementers of the strategy and support them. Also, employees want to see their leaders and senior colleagues behaving in the prescribed way. This will mean that executives themselves will have to follow the rules that they are trying to promote including:
- Encouraging new behaviours and cultures
- Installing the chosen collaboration applications onto their laptops, Macs, Smartphones and Tablets
- Setting up their profiles and rules so that they can be contacted or colleagues are visible who can deputise when they are busy
- Sharing their presence and availability to encourage appropriate communication whether via messenger, calls or video
- Adding themselves to virtual teams and groups so that they have visibility of discussions, can engage, contribute, comment and support decisions
- Remove the plaster from their camera so that video actually works
As for which technologies and applications your business should use, that is a very broad topic and depends on where you are starting from in your collaboration journey. Many organisations have invested in some form of IP Telephony or Unified Communications platform and some have introduced web-based teamwork applications from a range of vendors. But more often than not, only the basic functionality was installed, user adoption of the key apps was low (because the culture wasn’t embraced) and the original advocates gave up promoting the benefits.
The enterprise collaboration market size is estimated to grow from USD 26.68 billion in 2016 to USD 49.51 billion by 2021 – marketsandmarkets.com, Jan 2017
In part 2 of this series, I will explore some of the products and technologies available and discuss what some businesses are doing to drive change. It is fair to say that the range of options available to businesses has transformed over the past 5 years. The world’s leading vendors who are known for communications have stepped up to offer powerful functionality that is far more intuitive than ever before, and there are a growing number of entrepreneurial companies introducing some incredible pioneering technologies which we will start to see adopted.
It is universally recognised that improved collaboration offers businesses the opportunity to tap the full range of talents of their people. Done right you will have a more engaging and motivating environment that maximises employee skills and experience, strengthens relationships and empowers them to innovate, solve problems and be more productive.