Here’s a question – do we need technology to help us become more effective at collaborating in the workplace?
Many people – and I am going to take a chance and suggest mostly of a certain age – might bristle at such a suggestion. We all like to rate ourselves as perfectly competent in the collaboration stakes – who hasn’t claimed to be a ‘great team player’ in a job application, after all?
And anyway, what has technology got to do with the old-fashioned skills of talking to one another and having a face-to-face conversation to get the job done properly?
Well there lies one of the difficulties. What if the people you need to speak to are not available for a face-to-face? We have telephones and email, yes, but I think we all know they’re not entirely satisfactory replacements.
The traditional answer to this barrier to effective collaboration is to arrange lots of meetings, to have agreed times when everyone who needs to be involved gathers together to share progress, discuss strategy and agree next steps. But even this is problematic. How much of your working life do you think you have spent planning for, travelling to and waiting for meetings? How many have you left wondering why you bothered at all?
From the perspective of efficiency and achieving a smooth, seamless continuum of operations, meetings are not the ideal collaborative solution. They create breaks and bottlenecks in workflow, and there is only so much you can cram into an hour a week. Surely truly effective collaboration should be something that happens all the time, regardless of which office or department you work in?
This exposes a more fundamental challenge to meaningful collaboration – the way we organise ourselves in the typical workplace is just not conducive to teamwork beyond the confines of our immediate teams. This article explains it well – we tend to organise into clusters, allocating different groups different tasks and responsibilities and then relying on some kind of abstract mechanics for all the pieces to work together.
But, as that article makes clear, these are purely abstractions that bear little relevance to the operational needs of the business. There is no reason why, in preparing the next big project, that Amy in business solutions and James in finance should only get an hour week to ensure their respective obligations marry in the final plan. These are artificial barriers that get in the way of collaboration.
It is through technology that we are finally making strides to remove these impediments. So-called collaboration platforms – think Microsoft Teams, Slack, Google Hangouts – have a clear communication element. By combining instant messaging, file sharing, voice and video calling and conferencing, they aim to offer channels for colleagues to contact each other and share ideas/output as and when required, outside the restrictions of the weekly meeting.
Communication is important, but it is perhaps the ability to share information efficiently and effectively throughout an organisation that is most critical for collaboration. The concept of a Knowledge Hub has emerged as a term to describe having a shared set of digital resources which are accessible to anyone in an organisation at any time.
The term is popular in the public sector – here is one example – probably because public sector organisations are often very large, with workforces totalling thousands of employees dispersed over a wide geographic area. But the principles of a Knowledge Hub can benefit collaboration for any kind of organisation.
Instead of storing digital files on individual computers or even individual office servers, why not make use of Cloud technology to create a single shared library? Not only does this mean that information can be accessed by another user even if the file owner is not available to tell them where it is, it also means you can access documentation anywhere you like – perfect if you fancy taking an afternoon to work from home.
And instead of having dormant files sat on a computer which only one user can work on at a time, why not have shared access and editing privileges? It is now possible for groups of people sat in completely different offices to all be working on the same document at the same time as they talk through what they are doing via voice messaging, video or IM. Think of the time that could save.
And instead of completed documentation just being squirreled away somewhere and forgotten about, how about realising its potential as a valuable business asset by making it accessible and available to colleagues? They say data is the new currency in business, and that every piece of information has a value.
Creating searchable resources such as Wikis, how to guides, FAQs and operating a forum where colleagues can ask and answer questions all contributes to better information sharing across a business. Expertise and best practice is distributed more widely and individuals are better equipped to do what they need to do by being able to draw on the knowledge of the group.
Used in these ways, technology is able to break us out of the closed system mindset that still dominates our thinking about workplace organisation. With barriers removed and connections established between everyone, collaboration can flourish.