6 top tips for using digital to foster extreme collaboration in your workplace

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You might recall reading about Atos, a major European tech player, whose CEO Thierry Breton rolled out an 18 month plan to ban internal email. It sounded slightly mad, but it’s working — in part because it forces people to work more closely together and explore less static forms of communication.

Here’s the thing, Breton could come to be seen as a leading figure for a new way of organising employees and projects. Forget employee of the month, we’re entering the era of team of the month and, if you do it right, it’ll never be the same team twice.

The reason turning off email has worked so well for Atos is because we live in a time where there technologies that make email look like a slow lumbering dinosaur. Think about how much time you spend emailing your friends versus how much you spend interacting with them on social networks, or instant messaging services. Why should work be any different.

According to tech research company Gartner, applying this logic to the workplace could help foster a culture of what it calls “extreme collaboration”.

Doing so, it says, can “dramatically innovate the way people behave, communicate, work together and maintain relationships — often across wide organizational and geographic boundaries”. That’s what makes this form of collaboration so extreme. It shatters internal company boundaries that would have once been impenetrable.

The research comp

1. Foster the use of virtual, web-based collaboration spaces in people’s daily jobs
One way to spur novel forms of collaboration is to select an activity currently handled through traditional methods, such face-to-face meetings or email, and encourage it to take place in a virtual, likely web-based, collaboration space instead.

These environments are easily accessed and almost always available. Virtual environments used to host such spaces can range from process collaboration environments to social networks or on-premises collaborative and social media tools.

2. Exploit the value of near-real-time communication addiction
Let’s face it, we’re addicted to our devices and the communication tools on them: instant messaging, social networking and texting. Gartner reckons that businesses should embrace and encourage such behaviour.

Establishing real-time communication habits in the workplace enables a freer flow of information and more proactive notifications, so that people can respond more quickly to unexpected events.

More formal communication channels that run up and down the organisational hierarchy, or through defined email and need-to-know distribution lists can result in significant delays and frequently don’t convey the intended message clearly enough. Real-time communication can help smash through the hierarchy of a business, which is frequently the cause of the delays.

3. Use crowdsourcing and popular social media tools to foster communities and collaboration
One good way to kick-start the mind-set for extreme collaboration is to host a “tweet jam” to trigger a dynamic community to brainstorm on a problem. This involves simply setting a time and topic, and encouraging people to participate and get working.

Unlike a conversation in a meeting room, everything is captured so there’s a clear record of what was discussed, who contributed ideas, and which participants excelled at facilitating discussions and problem-solving.

Crowdsourcing is also proving to be very effective for bringing together people — who often didn’t previously know each other — to tackle shared problems.

4. Reward collaboration
Traditional management styles are ineffective, largely because they discourage collaboration by rewarding individual efforts to deliver specific, one-time outcomes, rather than rewarding collaboration and team efforts.

You should instead reward collaborative behaviour that contributes to resolving complex problems, in addition to rewarding individual who’ve delivered the good.

Design performance evaluations and incentives to foster teamwork and reward exceptional collaborators. The use of collaboration technologies also makes it easier to track collaborative behaviour and see how successful it’s been.

5. Use social network analysis to measure collaborative behaviour
Another way to measure and reward collaborative behaviour is to track how people interact. Social network analysis (SNA) can help you monitor people’s social network influence.

You have to foster a culture of openness, trust and mutual respect and SNA is a technique to help identify strong social networks where a foundation of trust and respect exist.

Once such networks are identified, you should try to leverage these relationships by asking these groups of people to pool their collective strengths to address some critical challenges. Other social, mobile and cloud technologies will also provide new ways to track how and where people have collaborated and to measure what happened.

6. Plan group events to kick-start real-time communication and collaboration
A few simple steps can help force people out of their “comfort zones” to experiment with new ways of collaborating and interacting, including:

  • Designating mobile-video attendees at meetings. Mobile video tools allow people to attend meetings via their mobile devices. This use of mobile video is a dramatic breakthrough compared with videoconferencing, which requires dedicated facilities. Although perhaps not appropriate for larger groups or longer, sustained participation, mobile video is particularly effective for bringing key experts into the conversation when needed.
  • Use game play to spur new forms of collaboration and creative interaction. Gamification is a great way to spur engagement in collective problem solving. Experimenting with game-based techniques can shake things up and get people working together in new ways.
  • Consider turning off email for a defined time period. Email is the dominant means of business communication, but it’s a poor collaborative tool — and an overused “crutch” that keeps people from using more collective and interactive approaches to solving problems.

    To break the habit, organisations should try turning off email for a defined interval of time, ensuring that alternatives are in place and easy to use. Such experiments will force people to use social networks and real-time communication in ways they haven’t before.

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