Collaboration: It’s about people and processes

Why collaborate? It’s a fair question. Although nearly every business that I encounter is talking about implementing or improving collaboration, they often don’t have a clear sense of what they are trying to achieve. The conversation goes something like this:

“We really need to improve our ability to collaborate.”

“Why?”

“There’s just so much information. We have to organize it better and improve access.”

“What options are you considering?”

“We’re thinking of hiring a consultant to help us expand our <insert current file sharing tool here> deployment.”

“How will that help you reach your business goals?”

“Better access to information will improve productivity.”

“How?”

Silence.

©iStockPhoto.com/Kalawin_Jongpo

©iStockPhoto.com/Kalawin_Jongpo

While it’s true that we often collaborate around information, we shouldn’t make the mistake of believing that collaboration is about information. Better access to more information doesn’t improve productivity unless it enables business activities that weren’t possible before (e.g., analytics) or accelerates existing activities. Real collaboration is about improving the processes that people use to get their jobs done.

This is especially true for collaboration at enterprise scale. You can’t just send out a memo explaining a great new information structure for your file sharing and expect thousands of people to adapt their processes to the new structure. The combination of entrenched habit and learning curve too often leads to inertia. Start with a focus on “information," and you’re doomed to failure. Start with a focus on “people," and you’re on the right track.

Let’s look at a relatively simple example: document creation and review. Merely making it easier to create and share documents in a central location can actually lower productivity and quality -- if the result is a proliferation of slightly different document versions. A true collaboration platform enables processes that help individuals create documents and get input from others while also providing version control and auditing -- so that everyone knows which documents are the latest and who worked on them.

Now consider how this supports records management, which we discussed in an earlier post. Records management has been practiced in businesses for generations, but today, the number of stakeholders involved in records management and how it needs to be done have changed dramatically. It’s no longer sufficient simply to establish better access to records via new technology. We need to understand the people and process sides of the equation. Which people in the organization bear responsibility for records management? How is their responsibility carried out and audited? How are their processes integrated with general business functions that are already in place (e.g., document creation and review, with version control and auditing)?

It’s great that so many businesses are jumping on the collaboration bandwagon. However, a collaboration platform works only if it’s created properly, and that means starting not with information, but with people and processes.

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