CW500: How to succeed with enterprise collaboration

Unlike most IT initiatives, there is more to collaboration than deploying a platform and training. November’s CW500 Club panel assessed the challenges

Change management is among the biggest challenges an organisation can face. Big business software roll-outs have often struggled because staff were not given sufficient training.

But in many ways, collaboration cannot be considered like most enterprise IT projects, which tend to be driven by executive sponsors that push their pet projects down through the organisation.

Bonnie Cheuk, global head of digital, knowledge and collaboration at Euroclear, the settlement system for bonds and equities transactions, joined the company 18 months ago. She argues that collaboration is about people connecting with each other, whether on teams or across organisational hierarchies and the environment in which they collaborate.

“If you put collaboration tools in an organisation with an existing culture, you are simply reinforcing and amplifying that culture, which is very worrying in a top-down, hierarchical organisation,” she says.

In her experience, when a new collaboration tool is deployed in such an organisation, the requirement from the top management will be to push down collaboration into the business. “If you do this, you are just enforcing a collaboration culture,” says Cheuk.

Euroclear needed a way to better connect with its staff and make a strategic change away from being process-driven and risk-averse to encouraging people to break boundaries and develop new ideas. But the company did not consider its intranet or video-conferencing tools as ways to collaborate. Rather than focus on providing a whole suite of new collaboration tools, Cheuk said she repositioned them as a platform for change.

The collaboration deployment is not considered an IT project. Rather, she says, her team sits in business: “We are here to roll out a change programme. We do not call them ‘tools’. They are new ways of working.”

Buy-in needs to occur from the top down and bottom up, by using the collaboration platform and showing people the benefits of collaboration.

Cheuk says: “We took our senior executives through a multi-year leadership development programme to encourage them to communicate and listen and chat with one another in a different way.”

She also looked at redesigning the workplace to encourage collaboration. For Cheuk, collaboration is at the heart of cultural change: “We want the company to be a lot more innovative and let people have the courage to share their ideas.”

Addressing some of the challenges an IT department can face, she says: “You also need to think about different devices with a seamless experience.” As an example, Cheuk says that an IT administrator’s dashboard for the collaboration platform may show all is well, but users are complaining it is down because the network has a problem. “A more joined-up IT department can help.”

Read more about collaboration

  • A reference architecture from The Open Group aims to target infighting among suppliers to deliver interoperable IT.
  • This month's CW500 Club looked at how collaboration can be used to drive global productivity and information sharing.

Working out loud

Glyn Jones is CIO information principal at the Ministry of Defence’s (MoD’s) Defence Science and Technology Laboratory (DSTL). Speaking of his experience of rolling out collaboration tools at DSTL, he says: “Our problem was we wanted to break down silos given our history of having very secretive projects.” The organisation had a reasonable grip on formal information but, he says: “Informal information gets sent around people’s inboxes and is often not discoverable by the people who could benefit from it.”

Jones says he and his team managed to convince the organisation there was a clear business benefit in sharing this informal information. The goal, he says, is about working more efficiently. “When we do a piece of work, it is informed by the maximum amount of knowledge in the organisation.”

DSTL took a decision to implement an enterprise 2.0 technology stack and, significantly, change its culture to become more like an enterprise 2.0 business. While enterprise 2.0, as laid down by MIT principal research scientist Andrew McAfee, is now an established idea, DSTL is a relatively conservative organisation, so at the time it was considered new and innovative.

A number of trends helped to convince management that using social technology would be a good approach to take: social and collaboration technology being a part of modern information systems; books such as Don Tapscott and Anthony Williams’ Wikinomics and Socialnomics by Eric Qualman; plus the fact that since 2005, the CIA has used social technology to boost the way it analysed intelligence.

DSTL focused on two pieces of a technology: a cross-laboratory collaborative semantic wiki and a social business software platform to improve day-to-day collaboration. Jones began a 400-user pilot in 2013. This was not used specifically to prove a business case, but he says: “I managed to convince the business there was enough public literature on the benefits.” He wanted to show the doubters in the organisation that DSTL was not a special case compared with those businesses that had benefited from social technology. “We ran a pilot that was reasonably successful for a couple of months to prove them wrong and produced a number of good user stories to show the benefits we were getting from social technology.”

Following the pilot, DSTL rolled out collaborative working to 4,000 users over a six-month period in 2014. This year social technology is being rolled out to a broader community across the MoD, and in November DSTL began rolling out the collaborative technology to external business partners.

Rather than embarking on a large-scale training initiative for the 4,000-user roll-out, Jones says: “We did a staged roll-out to a relatively small group of people we could handle in terms of familiarisation [with social software].” During the roll-out they used core concepts such as “working out loud” and “smart listening”, to get people to understand the cultural change. He says 60% of the managers wanted a secret place to do collaboration: “But I took an approach that said: ‘This is a greenfield site. We don’t want to build a highly partitioned, siloed, over-permissioned infrastructure in it.’”

The future is already there

Quoting cyber fiction writer William Gibson, Adrian Malone, group head of knowledge management and collaboration at engineering firm Atkins, says: “The future is already here. In my organisation, we need to start being different now to be fit for the future.”

At Atkins this means looking at how to work more efficiently in an increasingly complex world by creating a new set of skills to complement the company’s existing skills. “It is all about people, culture, behaviour and mindset,” says Malone.

His key goal has been to think differently: “We are introducing new ways to think, and new ways to test and communicate ideas.”

Rather than simply roll out Office 365, Malone says he has tried to look at introducing new working practices empowered by new technology. The strategy includes wiki pages and product development rapid-start processes to get people to think differently in a digital space.

“We focus on capabilities rather than technology,” Malone adds. At Atkins there is the concept of the digital worker. The company has defined a set of digital behaviours, which joins the dots in terms of managing content. Explaining the concept, Malone says: “How do we spot the signals and patterns in volumes of data and respond in a way to give insight, which can lead to better ways of doing things?”

Collaboration at Atkins offers the opportunity for the company to provide a 24-hour service by working across time zones in a way that does not mean its staff need to work 24 hours a day. Clearly, while technology can act as a facilitator, enabling the geographically dispersed team to access the same information, “there also needs to be a shared context”, he says, where people understand where the project has got up to in order to work and collaborate effectively.”

From an organisational point of view, Malone says Atkins also created horizontal networks that span the vertical hierarchy of the organisation. These encourage communities of people with common interests and connect people together to foster collaboration.

Team spirit

Cheuk, Jones and Malone focus less on technology, technical challenges and implementations, and more on the idea that collaboration technology means transforming decision hierarchies to enable people to work more effectively. A top-down approach, as Cheuk notes, is not effective; nor can the CIO rely on a Field of Dreams approach – “if you build it, they will come” – where deploying a collaboration platform does not necessarily lead to people using it. Cheuk encouraged senior management to change, so they would be more open to other ways to make decisions that rely on collaborative techniques across the enterprise. At DSTL, Jones also needed to convince senior management – he used a pilot to illustrate that DSTL was not a special case, and so could benefit from collaborative technologies. Jones started with small teams to work on getting them familiar with collaborative working practices.

Atkins is not alone as an organisation required to collaborate globally. Increasingly, businesses across all sectors need to work with staff and an extended supply chain that is geographically dispersed.

Working seamlessly across organisational, cultural and geographical barriers will become a necessity, so CIOs needs to ascertain the role that collaboration will play in their own organisations.

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