How to Enable Collaboration: Follow the Desire Path!

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True collaboration can’t be forced, only enabled, but that doesn’t stop some organisations trying.  So here are eight rules, a manifesto even, to advocating a bottom up approach to building collaboration. I recently entered a competition that was inviting thought papers for a big conference.  The title was….               […]

True collaboration can’t be forced, only enabled, but that doesn’t stop some organisations trying.  So here are eight rules, a manifesto even, to advocating a bottom up approach to building collaboration.

I recently entered a competition that was inviting thought papers for a big conference.  The title was….

                 “How can we increase adoption of our internal digital platforms, Talent Portal and/or Yammer

A sensible question at first glance.  However, the more I thought about it the more certain I became that it’s the wrong question.  The question itself, I went on to think, is actually a symptom of the problem they have.   Fascinating.. So what’s wrong with the question and what does it tell us about how we really enable collaboration?

Rule 1:  Don’t focus on technology

‘If only people would use the technology provided then collaboration would be assured’ is what the question seems to say. 
However we should be thinking about technology as a tool to amplify the existing culture.  If there isn’t a culture of collaboration already then no tool is going to make it happen.  The culture comes from a wider set of values; openness, mutual learning, teamwork, or trust for example.
Better Question:  How do we create a culture of collaboration?

Rule 2:  Don’t force people to change.

It is very hard to get people to change behaviour, but the objective of the question is to get people to do precisely that.  “New ways have to be 10x better than old ones to take off”, someone said. 
So why place bets on getting people to shift to two new particular platforms.  A much easier and fruitful approach is to take the existing mechanisms for collaboration and look for a way to amplify them.
Better Question:  How does collaboration happen now and how can we amplify this?

Rule 3:  The clues are already there

Collaboration is already happening in a bottom up way, all the time and all over the place in your company. 
There’s an idea in architecture and planning of ‘Desire Paths’.  Wikipedia describes it as follows:

A desire path can be created as a consequence of foot or bicycle traffic. The path usually represents the shortest or most easily navigated route between an origin and destination. The width of the path and its erosion are indicators of the amount of use the path receives. Desire paths emerge as shortcuts where constructed ways take a circuitous route, or have gaps, or are lacking entirely.

The collaboration paths in your company are created in a similar way.  It’s about individuals organically deciding what works for them and getting on with it.  The footprints are the clues to how collaboration happens right now.
Better Question:  How can we detect the collaboration desire paths that already exist in our company?

Rule 4: Do no harm

Many collaboration initiatives are directive; ‘how we get people to use this particular tool or approach?’.  But this isn’t useful at all; a good rule is to do no harm first of all.  In many companies the policy relating to social media actively restricts collaboration.  Facebook, Twitter, Youtube, may be restricted by the corporate firewall.  Personal device use may be restricted in the office or personal emails not allowed.  Trust and freedom mean letting your team collaborate in the way that suits them.
Better Question:  How do our current guidelines and policy actually restrict collaboration?

Rule 5: Understand why you want collaboration

‘It’s about technology’ implies the question above.  It doesn’t consider why we want collaboration.
There are lots of reasons why collaboration is good for a business and for individuals.  A definition of collaboration is “To work together, especially in an intellectual effort”.
A quick spin around the web finds the following possible benefits…

  • Better Communication
  • Enabling Teamwork
  • Access to Knowledge & learning
  • Solving Problems
  • Intelligence Gathering
  • Creativity
  • Demand Generation

Better Question: What are the outcomes of collaboration that we would like?

Rule 6:  Ask not what collaboration can do for your company…

Ask what it can do for your people….  It’s the individual motivation that matters most, without that there will be no adoption of any tool.  The brutal truth for any company is that people work for ‘themselves’, not the organisation.  People choose to work and choose where to direct their efforts.  It’s the job of the organisation to create motivational levers that will align a person’s objectives with that of the organisation they work for.
So why should someone use a collaboration platform?  In reality they only will if it helps them achieve their objectives better.  Is it fun and easy to use?  Does it meet their social needs as well as knowledge needs?  Does it help them feel like they are part of a community?  Can they do their job better?
Why is Facebook so popular?  Answer:  because it is fun, and because it works.
Better Question:  What are the levers of motivation (clue: gamification) that our collaboration platforms can utilise? 

Rule 7: Collaboration does not just occur within your company boundary

It is not about just using a company’s own collaboration platforms.  This unnecessarily limits collaboration and its benefits.
Collaboration shouldn’t just happen within the boundaries of your organisation.  The knowledge that people seek is often further out than that. People typically use the WWW for inspiration and knowledge more than they do their own company’s knowledge portal.
People have networks that span organisational boundaries.  We often need to collaborate with client organisations; we have partnerships in both a formal and personal context.  Collaboration needs to support this.
Customers are not typically found within one’s own organisation either.  The customers, the ones we really need to share initiative with, are out there in the real world, so how about our collaboration platform includes every potential customer in the world?
Better Question: How does our collaboration platform support conversations with external stakeholders?

Rule 8: Don’t build it and wait, sow many seeds

The thought paper question is aiming big, ‘we’ve got two solutions and they’re going to work’ it shouts at me…
But, as discussed above, there are many desire paths for collaboration, different things work for different people and they’re all valid.  A large technology led mono focus collaboration exercise is doomed to failure.  A much better approach would be to seed support and collaboration initiatives in many places.  Bet on many horses and look for small changes and improvements.  This might sound a bit boring to a swashbuckling executive but it’s much more likely to work.
Better Question:  How do we identify the small things we can do to support existing collaboration efforts?

OK.  I’ll confess that it’s Capgemini, my company, who asked the question…  But I do hope that in a playful and maybe provocative way we’ve thought of some good ideas about how collaboration really can be encouraged and the types of question that may be more fruitful in its pursuit.  Oh, and my paper didn’t win!

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