6 tips for scaling up team collaboration tools

Don’t be afraid to push for wide-scale adoption of team collaboration tools. These six strategies from IT leaders will help your organization reach new heights in collaboration.

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Collaboration in the enterprise is nothing new, but the myriad tools available to organizations today, from simple chat apps to full-blown project-management platforms, are creating new opportunities and challenges for IT leaders and end users alike. Unfortunately, the abundance of collaboration software has led many workers to feel a sense of app overload, with ever more tools requiring constant monitoring and input.

If you think email is bad, try navigating a complex web of notifications and workflows across a handful of disparate apps, each of which carries its own strengths and limitations.

Many of these tools originate with small teams, growing organically across groups and departments — and sometimes duplicating or overlapping with tools used by other groups. As the number of collaboration tools proliferates across organizations, CIOs are trying to regain control by rolling out one or a few tools companywide, without interfering with viable, effective workflows.

That often involves making tough decisions, says Michael Cantor, CIO at Park Place Technologies, which provides data center hardware maintenance services. “A CIO will likely end up with multiple tools and will have to be strategic in identifying the best one for their organization, even if it means forcing evaluations and stopping the use” of some tools, he says.

John Peterson, director of web operations at custom apparel maker Custom Ink, says it’s important to listen to stakeholders and take their input into account as the organization selects the tool it wants to scale. “There are some applications that our engineers use religiously, which have become an integral part of their daily work,” he says. “Other tools, which may seem helpful in the abstract, could introduce more complexity than value.” To achieve scale, IT leaders need to understand how the tool is going to be used and who will be using it most frequently, he adds.

It’s important to note that not all businesses need to coalesce around a single collaboration platform, experts say. What works for one business unit may not the best approach for another. Scaling up the right tools for the right teams can dramatically improve productivity and communications where it matters most.

This dynamic is playing out in businesses of all types today, and as a result, IT leaders are learning to support team collaboration while implementing strategies and practices that bring these tools to scale. For organizations that are struggling to scale up team collaboration tools, we’ve gathered six tips from CIOs and IT consultants that will help businesses and their respective employees get the most value from their collaboration apps.

Make detailed end-user-centric plans for adoption

Thinking about adoption early in the planning process is key, says Joe Berger, practice director at IT consultancy World Wide Technology.

joe berger wwt World Wide Technology

Users need to understand how adopting a new collaboration tool benefits them, says Joe Berger, practice director, World Wide Technology.

“As you’re in the planning phases of looking at a new technology or rolling something out, make sure that there’s either budget included in there for an adoption campaign or methodology to make sure it’s considered as part of the deployment cycle and success,” he says.

Adoption plans for team collaboration tools are imperative because, unlike back-end systems such as data centers or storage, collaboration is so end-user-specific, Berger adds. “It’s critical to make sure the end user understands why they’re doing this and how it’s going to benefit them.”

To that end, organizations should take a holistic approach, mapping business cases companywide so that adoption plans can be tailored to the specific needs of every role in the enterprise, says Agustin Del Vento, founder and CEO of Change Champions Consulting. “Introducing a collaboration tool requires a true cultural change,” he says. “A new way of communicating and collaborating changes people’s behaviors that are deeply rooted in their routine work habits.”

Start small, slowly build momentum

While new tools generate a lot of excitement within an organization, starting with a small pilot group can help businesses learn the ins and outs of a platform on a manageable scale.

That approach worked well for Red Wing Shoes when it began using Microsoft Teams, according to vice president and CIO Marc Kermisch. “I do believe starting small with a single team, getting early wins, and building momentum and excitement about the product has eased our path forward,” he says.

And starting with a small group of employees uncovered potential challenges before they became widespread, Kermisch says. For example, when that first group started using Teams, employees got excited and created dozens of teams and channels that duplicated efforts and were eventually abandoned months later.

“Start off with a general channel before you start creating subchannels,” he advises. “Let the conversation dictate if you really need a subchannel. It makes sense if you’re running a big program and you have disparate project teams, but if you have eight folks on a team, you don’t need subchannels to manage your communications.”

Del Vento, too, cautions against scaling up too quickly. “Change is hard. People take time to adopt new technology,” he says. “Moving toward a collaboration tool… requires crossing a long bridge, and some people need to do this one step at a time.”

Lead by example

Setting expectations from the top down will dramatically improve the trajectory of any organization’s scaling effort. “Whenever you’re trying to get a new tool embraced by an organization like this, the CIO has to lead by example. If the CIO’s not using the tool, people are going to notice that,” Kermisch says.

marc kermisch red wing shoes Red Wing Shoes

When it comes to driving adoption of a new business tool, "the CIO has to lead by example," says Marc Kermisch, CIO, Red Wing Shoes.

When associates see executives using a new tool, they are likely to adopt it more rapidly. Kermisch’s hatred of email runs so deep that he decided to make Microsoft Teams his primary mode of communication; he’s instructed everyone at Red Wing Shoes to reach out to him only on Teams. His inbox is still a daily battle, but it’s improved now that most of his colleagues are using Teams as a primary means to contact him. Others at the company are having similar positive results, he says.

Mark Cressey, senior vice president and general manager of IT hosting services at Liberty Mutual Insurance, says his organization used a similar approach to build upon workers’ significant appetite for more collaboration and transparency. “Employees want to share their experiences and learn from others,” he says. “Our executive team turned to the Jive platform to deliver updates and talk to their teams in a more conversational way.”

Target early adopters and evangelists

Finding early adopters within your organization can also limit the amount of heavy lifting required to bring team collaboration tools to scale. “Look beyond the IT team for people in the business with a true interest in collaboration and technology,” advises Del Vento. Especially in enterprises that are spread across multiple time zones or countries with different languages, seeking out users who are receptive to change and excited to use new tools can drive significant traction.

Early adopters can effectively become evangelists within their own team or the organization at large. By selecting influential and friendly user groups, onboarding them on the application early, and helping them set up their environments, businesses can create advocates for team collaboration apps with relative ease.

“You cannot do this alone,” Del Vento says. “Enlisting the support of collaboration tool champions is essential to driving organization-wide change. “Think of a champion as an organizational influencer, someone who can inspire adoption at the peer-to-peer level.”

Once influencers are identified, Del Vento says, IT should engage them in regular conference calls, surveys and training sessions.

Launch an awareness and training program

“Scaling up team collaboration tools is primarily a change management effort that transforms how people work, communicate and collaborate,” says Del Vento. “As a change agent, you need to understand how people transition through change and how you can get them to buy in to new technologies.”

agustin del vento ccc Change Champions Consulting

"IT departments ... oftentimes lack a clear collaboration and communications strategy," notes Agustin Del Vento, founder and CEO, Change Champions Consulting.

Many workers are resistant to any change that impacts how they get their work done, but enterprises can overcome this challenge by designing an effective training strategy that addresses concerns and showcases how a new or yet to be fully embraced app can improve their workflow.

“While IT departments feel responsible for the rollout of new tools, they oftentimes lack a clear collaboration and communications strategy,” says Del Vento. “As a result, they take a passive approach and leave it up to employees to figure out how to use the collaboration tools without providing enough guidance or governance, or without defining an architecture that will tie the application to their existing communication and collaboration solutions.”

An engaging awareness campaign paired with short, focused training sessions will help organizations cut through the clutter and earn the interest of their employees, he says.

Berger agrees, noting that it helps to train on specific use cases that will resonate with users.

The awareness and training effort should include internal marketing communications that highlight how employees are going to use the tools. Some businesses hold contests or training sessions that invite people to approach the new tools in a fun and less formal environment, according to Del Vento.

Standardize early and often

If tools don’t work as intended due to lack of oversight or methodical planning, scaling efforts can end in failure. “Simplification is key, and standardization helps quite a bit,” says Berger.

For starters, take the time to consider who should have administrative rights, what naming conventions should be applied to the tool and what apps users will need access to within the platform, says Del Vento. “Every application will require careful thought about governance and security.”

Also important is reaching a consensus on core templates and formats. Employees who work on multiple teams or in multiple channels can become overwhelmed if each one has a different format and structure, Kermisch says. Scaling is difficult when different teams use wikis, documents, slides and storage folders without determining the best format for the goals at hand.

Don’t go overboard, though. Trust your colleagues to be smart and act professionally. “I would encourage leaders to avoid getting too caught up in concerns about tool overlap or the need to police the content,” Cressey says. “Don’t try to sit in a room and iron everything out ahead of time. Monitor adoption and usage as needed, and work out issues based on actual behaviors. Focus on solving the problem that your enterprise faces today rather than anticipating problems that may never come to bear.”

Cressey adds, “The value of allowing our teams to collaborate openly and in real time far outweighs the potential for misuse.”

Copyright © 2019 IDG Communications, Inc.

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