At the conclusion of a recent presentation on user adoption strategies for new collaborative environments, one of the attendees asked me this question: We have lots of different collaboration products available to use. Is that normal and should we expect it, or does something need to be done about it? It was a well-timed question because a few days earlier I had mindmapped a blog post for The Smarter Office on that very idea—under the banner of how that situation can become a barrier to collaborative working. In other words, if you have too many different tools to work across when collaborating with other people, it can become a barrier rather than an enabler. While newer tools may individually decrease complexity in specific work processes, the proliferation of tools can together overwhelm people with higher complexity.
For example, consider the case of the information worker who is given the following collection of collaboration tools to work with—SharePoint 2010, Jive, Yammer, an extranet for working with partners, and Dropbox. What should these different tools be used for? While they each have a specific sweet spot, some of them have competing and overlapping capabilities. When do you share a document from SharePoint 2010 versus Dropbox? Do you use the activity stream in SharePoint, or the one in Yammer? What content and discussions should happen in the partner site versus a Jive community, and how do you correlate conversations across the two places? Having many tools and few guidelines available makes collaboration difficult.
As a reminder of first principles, let’s be cognisant that it’s easy for new entrant vendors to build new tools quickly, and with the proliferation of cloud-based offerings, it’s easy for someone inside your organization to start using it. What’s more difficult is for the incumbent vendors to rapidly incorporate newer single function products into their wider platform offerings that integrate many tools and offer some level of cohesiveness. It’s the tension between these two realities that causes most of the problem. In the short-term, there’s new and cool collaboration tools that someone brings to work, because the existing corporate offering doesn’t offer such capabilities. By the time the vendor involved has added the required capabilities, the “new little product” has taken on a life of its own, and people don’t want to give it up. And thus while the platform offering does now offer similar capabilities, people won’t adopt it because their working style is so wrapped up in the original product.
So what can you do about the proliferation of collaboration tools? Here’s three strategies.
First, if you have a good relationship with the people in your IT department, ask them why there is a proliferation of tools inside your organization, and what the internal roadmap is for bringing the tools together. Their answer may help you make sense of what the different tools are best used for, and the reasoning behind having so many competing and overlapping offerings. For example, you might be told that SharePoint should only be used for storing documents, Jive for communities of practice, Yammer for microblogging, and Dropbox for sharing files outside the organization. It’s not a great answer, but if they then go on to say that within 6 months NewsGator Social Sites will be available alongside SharePoint and that both Jive and Yammer will be removed at that time, you know you have a sunset clause on what they said.
Second, off-load the responsibility for keeping up-to-date with what’s happening across the different tools to an alerts or notification service that will push you an email message whenever something of relevance happens. Doing so means you can get rid of the nagging voice in your head that whispers that there might just be an update in one of the tools, and you really should do a round-robin check of them all to see what’s going on. With alerts and notifications, when there’s a new document in SharePoint, it will tell you. When there’s an update in a Jive community that’s relevant to your work, you’ll get told. If a business partner asks a question in the extranet, it will tell you. All of your alerts and notifications then come back to a single place, and you can act on those that require immediate attention, delete those that require no follow-up, and file in a “pending action” folder those which you need to get to soon but not immediately. Sure it’s not a perfect solution, but getting closer to a single list of current collaboration opportunities reduces some of the unnecessary complexity.
Third, ask which tools can be removed from the corporate collaboration tool set, or if they can’t be removed for everyone, which ones you and your team can stop using. If you can’t stop using them altogether, then perhaps you can stop using some of them to some degree. For example, given the list above, your team could decide to mainly use SharePoint for its own work, and dip into Jive and Yammer when the need arises. Or that it will make much greater use of a Jive community for its work, and will neglect the other tools except when there’s an alert or notification about an activity happening somewhere else in the organization.
In summary, there’s no getting around the proliferation of tools that are available to be used. By the time the current crop of tools have been integrated into a more robust platform, there will be a new collection of tools to deal with. But there are some pragmatic steps you can take to reduce the effect of the proliferation on your work, and I’ve explored three such strategies above.
What strategies have you followed to get around the barrier of having too many tools for collaboration?