The changing face of enterprise collaboration

Enterprises are turning to social platforms to optimise communication among their workforces. Computer Weekly looks at some examples

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As workforces become more mobile and less office-bound, the question of how to keep the lines of communication open in just the right way, and ensure  that things get done, is a test for many enterprises. Some are turning to enterprise social platforms for an answer.

But just how do these work best in practice? It is a broad category that is awash with an ever-evolving array of options, so the first challenge for those contemplating adoption is to know what they need and where to start.

According to analyst Gartner, too few workers know where to go online to engage with peers or partners. Only 16% of workers make daily use of collaboration tools, according to a Gartner survey of more than 3,000 workers in seven countries. Some of the remaining 84% may truly not have a need to collaborate, but certainly not all of them.

Collaborative workspaces, enterprise social networks, unified communications, workstream collaboration, content collaboration and employee communication platforms have all been introduced with fanfare over the past few decades and are all viable options with varying degrees of success and overlap,” says Craig Roth, a Gartner analyst with a focus on collaboration tools.

How 1610 embraced Facebook

One example of enterprise collaboration adoption is to be seen at 1610, a not-for-profit leisure trust that operates a range of sports and leisure facilities across 19 sites in Somerset, Dorset and north Devon. Rebecca Sawtell, head of marketing and communications for 1610, recently oversaw a project to embed the use of Workplace by Facebook across the organisation, which has an employed workforce of 200 plus many contractors.

“Adopting Workplace and embedding it into the business came about after lots of work at 1610 on employee engagement,” says Sawtell. “We have a young workforce and our existing intranet wasn’t getting the attention, plus it was mostly pushed-down messages.

“Finding a way to get staff involved was the key, and Workplace was identified as a natural fit. Because Facebook is a familiar platform, it also means that training on the basic functions is minimal for most staff. If staff are following groups that are relevant to their interests, it becomes easier to tailor messages and communication. The organisation can also park things that aren’t getting much pick-up, so live groups are always relevant.”

According to Sawtell, the forums on Facebook are a great way to maintain contact, such as uploading images and videos and sharing quick updates in place of email overload, and Workplace supplements 1610’s existing systems. “We still use conference calling a lot, and email, but Workplace gives us another platform. You can share best practice easily, use it to drive projects, and it’s also a means to start conversations internally and see what the needs are across the business.”

Chris Giddings, marketing manager at comms agency Synergy Creative, which worked with 1610, says the development prospects for Workplace matter, too, just as they do when thinking about any comms platform.

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“Like others, but not all, in the marketplace, this is a mature tech that will keep on being invested in by Facebook, and it is cost-effective, too,” he says. “But that engagement plan is still a must. We ran a teaser campaign for 1610 so staff knew what was coming, and we helped to ensure there were champions and influencers at every site, to help to get Workplace ingrained. It’s paying off so far, but you need to keep at it with continual engagement and monitoring of progress.”

RBS gains from early adoption

A mature and broader story about a corporate using enterprise social networks to good effect comes from the Royal Bank of Scotland (RBS). It is four years now since the banking group adopted Workplace by Facebook, driven by an aspiration to foster a more collaborative culture and more engaged workers.

Craig Hoey, chief workplace officer at RBS, says the underlying point in adopting the platform was to measurably accelerate performance. “Every business naturally wants to build a more open culture, and we had been trying various platforms with that aim and only partial success in the lead-up to launching Workplace by Facebook,” says Hoey.

“We were an early adopter and part of the attraction was how we could engage with Facebook and help to shape the product’s development in what was initially its pilot phase.”

This agility was crucial, and in part was made possible by RBS being a large enough organisation to partner with Facebook on these terms, says Hoey. “The programme was rolled out in an iterative way,” he adds. “One key to getting it established and productive was having internal champions in the organisation, and, connected to this, letting the staff set the agenda and work out how to use it to best effect.”

Now, four years in, about 30,000 RBS employees are set up to use the platform and 84% of the workforce use it weekly, which is a top-line measure of its impact, says Hoey.

“More fundamentally, it means we can innovate and crowdsource on a day-to-day basis. It has changed our working practices in terms of troubleshooting, customer engagement and more. Anything that was lost in processes previously is now more likely to work.”

Hoey admits that meaningful measurement of this impact in quantitative terms is sometimes hard to establish, but that is not the same as saying there is no broad and clear benefit.

“Having a digital collaborative culture has brought the leadership and the rest of the business much closer together,” he says. “Staff have a much clearer sense of the business mission and are far more likely to be advocates for RBS as a result.”

So precisely how did RBS get the programme on track? “Progress is not always smooth on a programme like this,” says Hoey. “You have to test and learn, but we came at things with an openness to our staff taking the lead. There was an education piece up front, too, for individuals to understand that this was a core work platform we were driving for and not a social add-on. It has been a journey, but we always knew it would be.”

Ask Archie chatbot chips in

Interoperability is also part of the picture here. In four years, functionality on the platform, and the availability of new tools, is inevitable. What change has that ushered in? “We have our Ask Archie artificial intelligence (AI)-driven chatbot plugged into Workplace now, as one example of evolution,” says Hoey. “That started as an IT and HR [human resources] tool, but now covers property and other areas of the business, too.

“Added to this, just the way that mobility has taken hold is also a big shift. The platform has gone a long way to enabling and establishing more flexible working practices and that brings a real benefit. It’s not just about moving process online, but engaging in new and often simpler and more human ways. People feel more connected than previously, even if they are often more remote from one another physically.”

There is also a strong customer benefit that flows from collaboration among staff, says Hoey – if the bank receives a customer query for which the answer is not immediately obvious, the platform will source answers quickly.

“Staff understand how easily they can connect with the right people across the organisation now, and that’s a real game-changer,” he says. “That sense of separation and silos that affects many large organisations is now gone.”

Gartner’s Roth believes that enterprise collaboration technologies have the potential to transform how employees work by eliminating barriers to collaboration, improving engagement, and accelerating the flow of information and ideas.

But, out in the real world, the devil is often in the detail. At 1610, Workplace by Facebook did not replace the organisation’s existing systems. And as RBS’s Hoey found out, progress on an effective collaboration system can be slow.

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