Really understanding Collaboration as used in Business Technology

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I wrote the following article a month or so back and it gained a lot of appreciative remarks. It’s a follow-on from my post entitled ‘Mind the Gap and the Accidental Technologists’, in which I highlighted the difference between the way a business manager wants to use business technology to solve new front office business […]

I wrote the following article a month or so back and it gained a lot of appreciative remarks. It’s a follow-on from my post entitled ‘Mind the Gap and the Accidental Technologists’, in which I highlighted the difference between the way a business manager wants to use business technology to solve new front office business requirements from the way an IT manager is required to use IT to manage the back office business requirements. It’s a long and unusual piece for a blog but hopefully it will be worth reading – look forward to hearing your comments/discussion!
Work to Live, or Live to Work, or Collaborate to Succeed?
A hundred years ago this question would never have arisen, the ideas that there was a neat segregation between work and leisure was an alien concept. A skilled man such as a blacksmith lived the life a blacksmith working when work was available. Move forward a decade or so and our blacksmith started to do some work for a local man who wanted to build and sell cars, each car was roughly the same, but certainly not built in a standardised way out of interchangeable components. It took Henry Ford to create the production line and in so doing create standardisation in work and the concept of fixed working times. By accident perhaps this change in the means of product introduced a lot of other changes that changed most people’s way of live.
The resources necessary to achieve this new rush of lower cost serviceable products into the market led to large multinational enterprises and to the rethinking of the administration side too. The basis for the modern office in terms of departments, roles and work flow for the huge amount of paperwork necessary led to the need for the rigid hierarchy and procedures that endured till the advent of the PC and IT in the late eighties and early nineties. But the rules are changing; the death of GM is one aspect, killed by the overhang of the sheer numbers of people it employed in the past versus the number it needs today. The interesting point about that piece of GM past history is that GM in the auto industry pioneered standardisation of corporate management and hierarchies with strong financial reporting lines, strange how it should reflect both the beginning and the end of the era of such standardisation. The other side of the story is, of course, that people didn’t want to buy the vast numbers of generic standardised mass produced cars from its brands that had previously made it successful. Personalisation, specialisation, customisation, are all the words that sum up what is wanted today.

All of this spills over into the office where an entire generation has found themselves having to work harder, and for longer hours as increasingly the old certainties and structure have melted away making success seem increasingly to be achieved only by losing work life balance. Why has this occurred? Because we are still tied to the model that assumes that what we do is regulated by and driven by this past mechanism created around standardisation of products and procedures, where as increasingly we are challenged by events, circumstances and requirements that simply don’t belong to this era. We all work longer hours in our efforts to find answers to questions that just don’t fit with our theoretical roles and tools. We know the world has changed more than perhaps ever before since 2000 so should it be surprise that we are facing the need for, and the adoption by some already of a different working pattern?
There are three major factors in the creation of this new wave of activity; first technology which has connected the world, second globalisation which is the result of a connected world providing the ability to do business anywhere it makes commercial sense, and third, and most important the change in the expectations and capabilities of people. In the space of a decade technology literacy has increased many fold, personal technology is now frequently better than that provided at work and most of all we have learnt how to find exactly what we want to buy, an not settle for ‘standard’ product stocked in the local geographical area. If we stay with cars then a BMW Mini is supposedly available with enough personalisation options to provide every European with a different version. Somewhat different from making a choice on a handful of options as is still the norm with some makes.
Look at the airline industry over the last ten years as it has shifted from standardised pricing and product to a vast array of possible carriers and airports with fares and packages seemingly negotiated individually to match everyone’s personal pocket and travel schedule flexibility. It seems in almost every market place the picture is repeated, hardly surprising that the workers and managers in these enterprises are struggling to deal with this impact on their hither too regulated procedural working place. Especially in today’s tough market conditions business has to be flexible to be competitive and survive. Yesterday’s business mantra to do more of less, meaning focus on a handful of winning products or services, has been replaced with a market demanding less of more. It may be the same core product, but the variations take a lot of organising, and seem never to endure long enough, or in enough volume, to warrant making a full scale investment in changing the procedure.
And that’s where collaboration starts to come into it. We are all familiar with and frustrated by, the never end tide of emails, colleagues searching for someone who knows the answer to their latest challenge. We are collaborating in the sense we have moved from the systems and procedures to enlist the help of other people in doing our work, but at the same time we lack efficient and effective means to achieve results. In reality this is a disruptive approach for collaboration as the ratio of those who can help to those whose time is being wasted is far from favourable, with the resulting time wasting leading to frustration about time available to be able to actually do your own work.
At the same time as we are desperately hunting for the personal expertise to help we are experiencing richness in finding content as never before. The world wide web, search engines, wikis, etc, as well as a range of business information and knowledge management tools, are all there to help. So why are we struggling? The answer is execution, and good collaboration practice supported by the right tools allows the right data to be turned into an effective and deployed decision that is every bit as effective as an optimised long standing procedure by harnessing the experience of the right people.
In private life, the use of social networks illustrates how this works, though the word ‘social’ immediately frightens business managers and usually results in their refusal to countenance anything to do with the topic! The term is meant to describe the interaction between people, not necessarily the introduction of their social lives into their working lives. The first use of the web was to organise content, and its accessibility; search engines allowed this to be extended to include indexing and the ability to rapidly find reasonably relevant content. But the content of the web is dynamic, constantly changing and updating, leaving challenges as to what should or should not be used, and worst of all to know the latest content on the selected topic. RSS solves this problem by tracking the page and sending notifications as to the latest updates so we are always aware of current status.
There is a direct comparison in web 2.0, originally so called to draw attention to its focus on people rather than the content of the original web. indexing of people into groups around their interests, experiences, capabilities, etc is a key capability of any social networking site or tools, to help those with shared interests to find each other. It’s the equivalent of tagging and search for content, just as micro blogging is the equivalent of RSS. When know which people are of key interest then it’s possible to ‘follow’ their activities by receiving a string of real time updates. Whether these people are ‘friends’, celebrities, or colleagues working in the same project team doesn’t matter, the principle of being able to remain updated as the their activities is the same. The business challenge with this as with so many of the new collaboration capabilities and the way they are used, is to be able to recognise the business value and accept that increasingly their more expensive knowledge workers cannot totally separate their work and social lives.
Some amount of private social activities within ‘working hours’ is for many enterprises, and their conscientious workers, as acceptable as working in ‘private time’ to achieve business deadlines. Just as the blacksmith would have stopped work from time to time to talk to people he knew who passed by and would have continued to work as long as needed to complete the jobs on hand. Such conversations would have played a part in finding out about others requirements and getting new business on the basis of the familiar ‘did you know’, ‘I will contact them’ conversation. This introduces one of the two major points about collaboration as the term is now used in connection with the technologies of web 2.0 as opposed to the capabilities provided by a past generation of collaboration tools.
‘The strength of weak ties’ was the term coined by Mark Granovetter in what many now regarded as a seminal work defining ‘social’ collaboration to describe the kind of interaction that our blacksmith was using with those passing by for both to learn more about what was happening around them. Previous IT collaboration tools have focussed on ‘strong ties’, the building the capabilities for relationships between known people around known topics in a manner that provides a structure to deliver value. This remains an important aspect of workflow, but if we return to the demands of emails from across the enterprise and frequently beyond, then its clear that something different is needed. Something that allows for unknown, and unstructured, contacts to find each other for a one off interaction that will create value, and this is the principle of ‘weak ties’.
Today, thanks to the internet and the web, it’s possible to visualise the business, and indeed the consumer, world as a mesh of connections between people, (as well as content, enterprises, and procedures) and that success is to be able to use this network to find the right people with the right experience and expertise to give advice at the right time. Collaboration across this mesh is unstructured and relies for navigation upon the principles of social networks in which people characterise themselves in various ways. The more people enrolled in social networks with their interests, expertise and experiences logged that are accessible then the better the opportunity is to find an optimal response. It is at this point that a reversal of the usual business principle of structured, closed – and well focussed groups starts to apply – limit the people and you’ll limit the experiences that can be used.
To many business managers this deliberate defocusing seems entirely contrary to their training and experience, just as for many professional IT staff this new world runs contra to the accepted centralised, one version of the data, model of IT. And that is the second important factor that social collaboration introduces in the form of a new working model that can make the most of this new connected world. The introduction of the PC and the internal network heralded the start of matrix working, the ability to for a person to perform their particular activity not only within the confines of a single department, but across the enterprise. This flexibility was coupled with redesigning business models to optimise processes horizontally across the enterprise, instead of being broken up to suit boundaries of more vertical hierarchal managed departments. email was used as a key tool in the support of matrix working and many early email directories listed not just people by name, but by role as well. The stability of the external business environment allowing for the optimisation of internal working practice in alignment to the business processes.
The highly dynamic external markets of today have drastically changed much of this, with the emphasis on the ability to maximise events and circumstances quickly, and to re orientate to the next situation as it arises. The relative stability of a person with a specific role, and all that goes with this such as data, working in multiple procedures that matrix working is still working in some areas of the enterprise, but clearly not in other areas. In broad terms using IT to automate and administer the so called ‘back office’ transactions with accuracy at the lowest cost continues to work effectively because stability is a key attribute. Those charged with running these areas are faced with strict audit and compliance standards, to say nothing of legal requirements relating to certain data, not surprisingly they feel the need to ‘protect’ the enterprise from this new wave of technology which seems to undermine their highly important task.
Those facing the external world in the so called ‘front office’ areas such as sales, marketing, supply chain, etc, now find themselves confronted with an ever changing set of events that their roles demand that they must master. In fact success depends on not just understanding what is going, but actually being able to optimise these circumstances to create competitive wining positions. The speed of change means that it is almost impossible to redesign and recreate enterprise rules and procedures fast enough to keep up. At the same time enterprise wide emailing to look for help is at best a time wasting diversionary activity for many of the recipients who should not have been involved, and at worse, little better than flipping a coin in terms of the accuracy of the resulting replies. Traditional collaboration tools are very definitely a help, but only when the team and the activity is identified, then they provide a structured working environment for the team in which to execute.
The challenge is that the external markets and events are both unstructured, as are the people who are involved in them. That is not to say that the individuals are themselves without specific responsibilities to their own enterprises, but there is no formal organisational chart across all these connected enterprises trading together. Add the increasing number of direct consumer channels and their wish for wanting products and services ‘their way’, and the idea of being able to build and operate structured processes with people in specific roles within these processes is obviously flawed. The concept of social collaboration is to enable the people to make themselves, their expertise and responsibilities known to other people. This is not new; in fact it’s the very basis for traditional physical trading market places and still persists in some commodity markets. What is new is to move the ability to recognise people, even if they are unknown to you, in a huge global virtual market, or at the first stages at least to be able to achieve this within a large multi discipline enterprise and its customers.
Large enterprises increasingly have to be able to leverage their internal intellectual property and expertise as the key to competitive differentiation and execution; as such they need to be able to move across their own internal barriers by creating the equivalent of internal trading markets to enable their best people to be available. It’s the next logical step in extending the flexibility of capacity that matrix management introduced towards the flexibility of expertise using collaborative management. Matrix management was a necessary element in the shift in business models driven by business process re-engineering utilising the then technology revolution of the PC and Networks. Collaborative management is an equally necessary element in the adoption of enterprise 2.0 business models driven by a further technology revolution.
Does this mean abandoning the investment and best practice that IT has created to automate the back office? Certainly not, this is as necessary, or even more necessary, as before to ensure that an enterprise is in control of its transactions. The truly successful enterprises are those that have already realised that there is a new market facing challenge, full of opportunities to gain more market share based on freeing their best staff in the ‘front office’ to use their expertise collaborative, and that in addressing this using a variety of new technologies and working practices they must ensure it is also integrated with the back office systems.
Did it work for you? Your posts are always welcome!

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