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Choose tools to prevent communication overload

Social media platforms can improve collaboration, but organisations need to be careful not to swamp staff with messages

Communication is vital, but too demanding a volume of emails, phone calls and interruptions brings information overload and distractions. Maybe there are better ways to communicate? Innovative communications technology offers many options, but while organisations are rightly focused on improving team productivity, communication and collaboration, introducing new ways to communicate and share information is a disruption in itself and will always be a challenge.

But there is a different way to approach this. The consumer effect and impact of social media and mobile devices in particular have dramatically shifted expectations of services and user experience. Basic business roll-out is no longer sufficient – technology needs to appeal to personal aspirations as well as business aspirations. With the right appeal, adoption, usage and therefore sharing and collaborative actions soar.

Communication overload

If firms can harness this, it should boost productivity, but there is still a risk that the result might remain as communication overload, just with a new set of tools. Choosing the best approach to use is a balancing act of user experience, popularity and flexibility, combined with enterprise control, security and resilience.

The three fundamental elements that are present in all social platforms are: content (a repository or way to share), communication (typically unstructured timelines or flows), and control (mechanisms to restore order or grouping). Arguably, these are all present in “traditional” communication and collaboration tools, but the difference that enterprise social platforms aim to bring is being simple and engaging, so that adoption is driven through social interaction – something that individuals want to use, rather than feel they have to. Differences in emphasis remain, and organisations need to work out where their priorities lie in order to establish which systems might fit best.

Keeping track of information is a constant challenge in any organisation. Information held by individuals or groups can be hard for others to access, so bringing it all together in one accessible place should be hugely beneficial. Tools for storing enterprise data, as well as electronic document management systems, have been around for some time as internal systems of record keeping, but there has been an increasing shift to more interaction, external sharing and collaboration.

There is no shortage of tools to do this. Simple file and folder sharing using cloud storage, such as Dropbox, Box, Google Drive, Apple iCloud or Microsoft OneDrive can be a start, but many will need more structure and control. Secured external sharing and traceability is a strong focus for some, such as Clinked, Huddle and Tresorit, whereas others, such as SamePage or Beekeeper, focus more on the mobility of access, as too does the current Microsoft SharePoint, across many types of devices and form factors. Unily DXC aims to take this a step further with its experience engine, which profiles and segments users so it can tailor the experience to their needs.

Cloud-based solutions should be accessible anywhere, but organisations where mobile is the first port of call for access would gain from technology designed for the reduced capabilities and stringent needs of mobile users. Support for multiple data types and formats is also a factor, especially when they need to be accessed on various devices. The likes of Confluence, Podio, Redbooth and Jostle aim to store and provide easy access to rich media, such as images and video, but it is important to know storage limits.

Flexibility is key as operational processes and requirements will differ for each organisation, but the more that controls and structure are applied to content, the better it can be matched to the business processes to which it relates. The ability to create and employ controls or workflows to manage and audit the flow of information is essential for some industries, and is very useful in most others, as long as they can be created and deployed simply.

At its most basic, this means there has to be a way to create groups or teams to manage access through content management and delivering some controls through task or to-do lists, both of which are common in most enterprise social media tools. Some apply further operational control to align better to business processes. Workzone is highly customisable and has approval workflows and task sharing, as does Intranet Connections, Nuxeo and Zoho Connect. Others, such as Bitrix24 and Clarizen, offer a task-oriented approach that will be familiar to users of project management tools.

The flow of communication as messages oriented around conversation starters, areas of interests or groups is a distinguishing factor of social media platforms. When applied to the enterprise, the goal of most is to partially replace the burden on “legacy” communications methods, such as email, by providing timelines and flow threaded together based on topics or processes that matter to both the individual and the organisation.

Slack has found traction as an email replacement in some organisations, but for many, email still lingers, adding to communication overload. IBM Connections integrates existing email and calendaring systems around enhanced content management, making them easier to integrate into more traditional working practices. Other message stream-oriented platforms, such as Jostle, have tried to simplify by decluttering irrelevant content or messages that are out of date. Some, such as Jive, Mango Apps and Xwiki, do this by providing engaging portals to simplify access to pertinent and frequently accessed organisational information.

For many organisations, enterprise social media deployment starts with messaging, centred around presence indication (are you online?) and instant notification and response (you got it and I know you did). As the deployment grows, a hub of individuals congregates, quickly sharing short messages, as exemplified by the way Yammer and other short message systems develop. Although, once acquired by Microsoft, Yammer’s purpose could be confused by the other overlapping Microsoft collaboration tools of SharePoint and Teams.

An overabundance of communication tools will not help anyone, and some platforms have emerged with the aim of providing a more cohesive whole, integrating other applications, accessed as part of a common platform. With its consumer social dominance, Facebook is a strong contender. Its Workplace product is familiar, connects to existing work tools and, as with all social models, grows in value as more in the organisation make use of it.

Overfamiliarity could be an issue for some organisations, especially if it makes it harder for staff to separate work and life, but an integrated platform may still be helpful. There are other social media tools offered as platforms, such as Sprinklr, whose unified platform brings together the diverse aspects of internal and external engagement across an organisation, and Flock, which offers a mechanism to plug in existing productivity and other social apps.

Beware user resistance

All social platforms grow organically and virally through the grassroots of user demand, which might be a little slow for some organisations intent on improvement. But typical enterprise IT deployments are top-down and can feel imposed, leading to user resistance, rather than wholehearted adoption.

Organisations looking to get the most out of deploying enterprise social media tools need to work out user-centric ways to encourage adoption, rather than simply imposing, delivering basic training and then expecting employees to switch. There are many ways to do this. Most companies have key individuals who are recognised by their colleagues as leaders or drivers of adoption of new and useful technology. If these people can be developed to act as champions to “seed” a user community, then that can attract enough attention and curiosity to get others on board.

If suppliers offer services or tools to boost adoption, investigate these. For some staff, the gamification part of social media could be a draw. Rewards, prizes and competition may not drive everyone, but for most, it will work better than mandating or imposition.

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Rather than simply training on “how to use”, a better approach involves “why, and how to get the best out of collaboration”. Some suppliers offer startup or concierge services to stimulate adoption and usage of their offerings, and these may be much more effective than hoping for the best, or an edict from senior management.

Add business value

To add business value, platforms should combine the best attributes of social media freedom and variety, with enterprise control, structures and focus on outcomes. Any platform has to be universally used – and liked, rather than just tolerated. Communication timelines need to be relevant, personalised and concise, as social media delivers, but this time without any “ad” intent. To support diverse, flexible, remote and mobile workplaces, they also need to deliver multimodal and mobile messaging. For the firm, this must be secure and robust, or it will not adequately replace “old-fashioned” methods, such as email.

The goal of deploying an enterprise social media platform has to be to improve collaboration and reduce dependence on traditional communications where they have become cumbersome or overloaded. But this will only happen if the improvements deliver benefits for both individuals and organisations.

 Rob Bamforth is an independent analyst.

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