Improving collaboration, breaking down silos, and innovating better. What does that all mean?

I’ve been in the Enterprise 2.0/Social Business space for almost 5 years now, and have been both on the customer and vendor side of the table. What most people are guilty of, is really not knowing what the heck they want to do. I was guilty of it too. I thought Improving Collaboration and Breaking down silos were great business problems to solve. It was until recently that I started focusing on the business value of Enterprise Social that it hit me. Most people talk in jargon and have very little insight into the underlying business problems that they are trying to solve. Don’t get me wrong, they know their business problems, but in most cases haven’t connected the dots between problem and solution. Why? Because it takes a lot of analysis and thought to develop that understanding and most of us lack the time to do it.

Over my next few posts, I will examine this jargon and help people understand each of these, very vague, clearly misunderstood, terms used around social collaboration inside of companies and help people help their organizations to get past the jargon to provide real business impacts.

Improve Collaboration

Let’s start with perhaps the most overused jargon in Enterprise 2.0 terminology Improve Collaboration. What does that really mean? Does it mean that we should all be working with each other on everything? If that’s the case, we need to understand that collaborating usually slows things down because it involves scheduling and interacting aligning expectations, and establishing a method for collaborating. Sometimes it’s by bringing different perspectives together that creates the best work, but ultimately this takes longer, especially if priorities are not aligned. I don’t know too many people who would actively choose to slow things down.

A simple example

Now, let’s look more pragmatically at a typical enterprise collaboration between two different sales teams. Each team is incented to deliver against a quota. A salesperson on an account is presented with 2 options:

  1. Collaborate with other sales/product teams to provide a complete solution to a customer (Estimated duration 4-8 weeks, Total sale value: $1,000,000, Credit against quota: $150,000)
  2. Work independently and deliver only the product that I’m responsible for to a customer. (Estimated duration 1-2 weeks, Total sale value: $125,000, Credit against quota: $125,000)

As you can see above, while option 1 would probably be best for the customer and the company, it requires a lot more work and only provides marginal benefit to the individual who is responsible for the sale. Many executives want option 1 to be the answer, but often don’t have the level of understanding in why it’s not the one that is typically executed on.

What I think people expect when they want improved collaboration is to work with each other to get better results and do it faster. While today’s social business tools are making this more reasonable, we cannot overlook how people are incented and understand that those objectives will drive their behaviors.

Picking a tool

Let’s assume that a company figures out how to incentivize people to work together. The next big challenge is figuring out how to collaborate. A typical company has many ways to collaborate:

  • In-person meeting
  • Phone/Web Conferencing
  • E-mail
  • IM
  • SharePoint (or equivalent)
  • Enterprise Social Network
    • Blog
    • Wiki
    • Discussion Forum
    • Microblog

Aside from IT and tech-savvy workers (typically a low percentage of the workforce), few people really understand the difference between the tools and where each provides greater benefits over the others. I can’t begin to tell you how many times I’ve answered the question. “What’s the difference between a blog and a wiki?” Now, take a company with just 1,000 workers and throw in all of the choices and you can see why collaborating is challenging. Now, imagine what that’s like in a company with 50,000 or more.

Getting to the business value

While collaborating better may be important to business leaders, we need to look more closely at what collaborating better really enables in the business that they can’t do today.

Faster – Get the work done faster so that we can: Close more deals, get products to market faster, beat the competition, etc.

Better – Output better quality work so that we can: Improve customer satisfaction, win more business and beat the competition, etc.

So executing faster and better is important to the business. It enables things like higher revenue and lower cost while improving satisfaction for many stakeholders such as customers and stockholders. This usually is what people want when they say “Improve collaboration”.

As you can see, there is a lot behind improving collaboration that is often unspoken or not understood. As you work with people who say they want to improve collaboration, ask them, “What exactly do you think improving collaboration will enable for the business?” But before you do, make sure you are ready to lead the conversation to understand the true value that the person is looking for.

In my next post, I’ll examine what “Breaking down silos” really means.

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