The Changing Face of Collaboration

All Work Is Collaboration

...Collaboration: The definition of the word is exactly the same today as it was 50 years ago, yet its business world applications are anything but. We're now fully immersed in the move toward a digital marketplace that's more interconnected than ever before, and while it's easy to feel apprehensive about the change, you really shouldn't. Social media and related tools can enable you to free yourself from productivity killers like mass emails and "status update" meetings - and that is a very good thing.

...Few in the business world understand this transition better than James Carlson. Founder of the media advisory group Bucket Brigade, Mr. Carlson is an expert in teaching companies to make the most of the many new tech tools available to facilitate collaboration between managers, teams, and clients. At the most recent meeting of ReSource Pro's Innovation Advisory Council, James and his colleague, HNI CEO and longtime RSP partner Mike Natalizio laid out their vision for the business of the future. Together, they see a more streamlined office culture powered by human ingenuity and - you guessed it - collaboration.

The Office-Less Future

...If you've been following our ReSourceful Thinking blog, you may have caught a conversation between Mike Natalizio and our own Patrick Coffee about Mike's successful move toward an "office-less" model.

...Coaches and advisors often talk about "thinking outside the box," but Mike has eliminated the box altogether. He works from a single laptop, has no physical office, saves all his data in "the cloud," and gradually reduced his email thread to the very bare minimum. Mike has transformed his side of the business into a travelling operation that can go to work at a moment's notice no matter where he happens to be. Yet he shares all of his ongoing projects and any related developments with his team members through internal social media forums where they can post feedback and status updates. No more dull mid-day meetings! Can you imagine it?

The Current Model Is Broken

...James Carlson began July's IAC event with a provocative statement: everything you learned in business school is wrong.

...Two crucial demographics shape your company: your employees and your customers. But the traditional ways of engaging these two groups are no longer effective, and the only real solution is to find better ways of getting your message across. You have to start with your own teams. One IAC veteran put it bluntly: "Collaboration is tough and the insurance industry is backward." How can a company that fails to facilitate effective messaging within its own operations differentiate its product for the buying public?

Culture Is Key

...Last spring's IAC meeting focused on the importance of building a great company culture from the bottom up. Facebook pages and Twitter feeds won't be worth much unless a sense of transparency and open communication spreads throughout your organization. Mike summed it up in July with a classic Peter Drucker quote: "Culture eats strategy for breakfast." No one expects insurance executives to immediately abandon their offices and shred their portfolios, but integrating new media tools and encouraging teams to share shouldn't feel like a radical change, and it shouldn't be hard to achieve employee buy-in. Eventually the cultural shift will grow to permeate everything you do.

... Drucker further captured this sentiment when he said,"Company cultures are like country cultures. Never try to change one. Try, instead, to work with what you've got." In other words, the act of taking small steps toward establishing a more open atmosphere within your organization can add up to big gains over time.

Are You Stuck in A Silo?

...Even the best-made plans for change often fall by the wayside, and James showed attendees why by outlining the typical business day: emails followed by meetings followed by more emails, each accompanied by a long list of questions:

  • Did you see that message?
  • Can you meet with me today?
  • Is our meeting confirmed?
  • What's the status of this project?
  • When will it be finished?
  • What are your projections?

...Any team member who spends a large share of his or her day fighting "fires" like these ultimately has far less time to spend on the innovations that will drive the business to the next level. The end result of such a system is a series of "silos" that surround and isolate team members, limiting their means of communication and turning each project into a solo effort. This doesn't exactly encourage innovation or productivity.

...Mike gave a great example of what not to do during his interview: a manager can spend weeks drafting a vision for the company, but unless other team members are involved in some way, they won't fully appreciate the effort or the final product. This hypothetical manager would see better results if he/she posted snippets of the project in the team forum so that members could get more excited about the developing vision.

Clarity in the Cloud

...Many insurance organizations have already taken the most obvious step in addressing these problems: moving toward a cloud computing model. One IAC attendee discussed using Microsoft Sharepoint software to involve team members in ongoing projects by storing all relevant materials in one "cloud" location, thereby eliminating the PDFs that were "clogging" company email accounts. Sharepoint is only one product among many, and it might not be the right one for your company. Some services are cheaper or more advanced than others, but remember that software is only a delivery system. As Mike put it, "You don't have to use the newest tools, but you've got to use what you have differently."

Don't Worry, You Can Take It Slowly

...The adoption of new technologies always includes a learning curve, and Mike suggests that most companies should expect a roll-out period of up to a year before such tools will be fully integrated. The good news is that you can put cloud products and social media tools to use over time, thereby mitigating employee pushback and general frustration.

...Organizations can start slowly with conversational tools like Yammer or Salesforce Chatter that allow team members to share internal communications like project status updates, relevant documents and general company news. The simple act of posting information on your latest initiatives may seem insignificant, but it will gradually bring your team closer together while reducing the need for department meetings and impersonal email chains. Mike says that Yammer is "...meaningful to our business as a soft way to stick our big toe into the water and to start talking about the business more openly."

...A more advanced example is Open Atrium, a free open-source intranet tool that serves as a private, secure, in-house desktop forum. It works for organizations of all shapes and sizes: The White House, the Department of Veteran Affairs, and the Department of Education all use it to facilitate communications within their teams. By writing an internal blog post on Open Atrium and gathering feedback as it comes in, a manager can empower his/her entire team to participate in the development of a given project. It's a great way to facilitate collaboration.

Consider the Possibilities

...Some of these changes sound dramatic, and resistance is understandable. But the old-school "Command and Control" management model is fading to make way for a more democratic workplace in which the value of individual employees is no longer based on the amount of knowledge they can store in their heads but the innovations they can share with their teams and their clients. Administrative work will eventually take a back seat to projects that deliver real value to the people who matter most: employees and customers.

...A few days after the event, one IAC attendee noted that she was "excited about the possibilities" and had already started creating shared "project sites" in the cloud to speed the development of upcoming initiatives. She later wrote that "I can see my email shrinking in the future." Sounds like a big step in the right direction.



Everything you learned in business school is wrong.
You don't have to use the newest tools, but you've got to use what you have differently."
Coaches and advisors often talk about 'thinking outside the box,' but Mike has eliminated the box altogether. 
Culture eats strategy for breakfast.