Are We Asking Too Much of Collaboration Software?

Are We Asking Too Much of Collaboration Software?

#Atrium | Posted

In our last post, we talked about the busy, swirling market around social collaboration software. There are a lot of options in the market... but are we asking too much?

tl;dr: Yes. We are asking too much of collaboration software.

If you work in an organization of more than two people, you know the pain: sharing knowledge and collaborating on your work is absolutely essential to productivity. Our organizations are growing, becoming more geographically dispersed, and are increasingly reliant on virtual offices. On top of that, they’re producing a LOT of digital content. With this trend, the need to manage knowledge and collaborate effectively only gets more pressing…and more difficult.

Enter social collaboration software, the hero to our "information overload" villain; here to organize, project manage, and outfit us for full collaboration.

In the beginning we had listservs and discussion boards, but software collaboration really started with intranets, which as intranet godfather James Robertson notes, have 5 components: content (e.g. policy documents), communication (e.g. corporate news), activity (e.g. an expense form), collaboration (e.g. project wiki), and culture (e.g. noon hour jogging club).

These days we expect more from these tools though due to our experience with Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn and other “social” solutions that add two more important ingredients of the social web we have come to expect: Authorship, which is the ability for everyone to create content; and Connections, the ability to see the people behind the content and to connect with them in some meaningful way.

The (really) bad news is that your social collaboration strategy may fail. A recent Gartner study shows that 80% of social business efforts will not achieve their intended purpose. But that is true in part because we rarely state our true intentions.

The promises of the vendors out there are innumerable and lofty. But do our intranets truly expose trends in our organizations? Do they "create culture" through their collaborative information sharing platforms? No. Not on their own. At least not without the glue of an information strategy.

Often behind the scenes are hidden requirements or hopes we have for this software, including a way to escape the overwhelming quantity of email in our lives; a hope that serendipitous knowledge connections and ideas will emerge or that a good tool will somehow "create" a culture that actually doesn't exist; and a belief that "with enough information," trends will emerge. At the very least, we hope for the classic job protection of “CYA” that public forums provide.

When you look beyond the hype, it comes down to this: successful social collaboration software unlocks the knowledge that sits in the brains of an organization's employees. But even boiled down to that essential function, we are asking a lot of an IT tool.

We are asking of our software what is really the responsibility of our culture and business processes. And as a result, these tools often disappoint. And because of that, it's hard to get them prioritized in the company strategy, and of course, they are the easy scapegoats for organizational problems. Too often, these tools tend to be temporary in their popularity: we use them at first, but as our own failings and missed requirements emerge, they become less useful to us.

At Phase2, we are both the customers and the vendors of social collaboration software - we see both sides of the equation - including the potential. In helping our clients choose or build a collaboration tool for their organization, our strategists recommend some tough-love advice to our clients:

Do not ask of your collaboration software what you are not asking of your teams. Line up the business processes and cultural habits of your organization that you are willing to invest in and execute on, and then let the tool follow the process, not vice versa. Tough love says:

  • Don't build a wiki without a culture where employees can contribute knowledge that is used.

  • Don’t “pave the cowpath” of a broken process.

  • Don't invest in project management software that doesn't follow your project methodology.

  • Don't waste time on a document management solution if you don't have sharing policies.

  • Don't choose a social-media-for-business tool if you don't want your teams posting pictures of cats. [insert cat picture]

In short: Your teams can make good use of software. Your software cannot create productive people.

In the next post on this topic, we will lay out an argument for why open source can be a disruptive force in the social collaboration software space by helping organizations find the “right tool for the job” while avoiding many of the traps we see in the space.


Jeff Walpole

Jeff Walpole