While all organizations place significant emphasis on collaboration, few can articulate specific guidelines to achieve a true collaborative work environment. The following suggestions can help organizations create practical processes that encourage information sharing, promote personal and team growth, and support the organization’s specific goals and objectives.
Appoint a Chief Collaboration Officer
A chief collaboration officer is a steward responsible for creating structured collaboration policies, training and technical infrastructure. This individual might have a technical background, but more likely, brings leadership skills, management experience, strategic communications focus and an understanding of organizational behavior.
Conduct a Communications Audit
During the audit, review how key business stakeholder groups currently work with one another. Who communicates with whom? How do they communicate? How often? What mediums do they utilize—face-to-face, videoconferencing, audio conferencing? What role do information channels play? Is the staff aware of the full range of communications options? Is the staff aware of the best ways to utilize each medium? Does information flow upward, downward and sideways well?
Identify Specific Areas for Improvement
Take the audit results and pinpoint several specific areas for improvement. If, for example, the audit revealed that information does not travel downward well, consider providing managers with a training class to offer suggestions for communicating with staff. Consider implementing a quarterly or bi-annual all-hands meeting (perhaps using videoconferencing or streaming technology if the organization is large or geographically dispersed.)
Identify Tools and Processes to Meet Key Business Needs
To identify these tools and processes, the team must start with a solid understanding of the business functions and workflow, and then map communication tools and processes that will streamline the decision-making processes, include key stakeholders and physically facilitate the necessary functions. For example, an audio-conferencing-only solution is likely not appropriate for a product development team, which works with a great deal of visual content. If there are requirements to deploy consistent training programs across diverse geographies, a combination of videoconferencing, Web conferencing and streaming tools might be appropriate.
Create Communications Guidelines
Build a decision structure that provides advice on selecting the right communication tool. There are several important questions to ask: How many individuals will participate in the meeting, and where are they located? Do the meeting participants know one another, and how well? Is the subject matter controversial? Will the meeting participants be required to make decisions as a group during the meeting? Will participants need to take actions following the meeting? Will the meeting participants need to share data through PowerPoint presentations, diagrams or spreadsheets? Based on responses to such questions, employees can then select the appropriate communication tool. Several of these options include e-mail, instant messaging, webcasting, Web-, audio- and videoconferencing, and, of course, face-to-face communication.
E-mail overcomes boundaries of time and space, enabling users on different schedules or in different offices to communicate effectively. E-mail also makes it possible to communicate simultaneously with more than one person and to attach electronic documents, images or files. Of course, the ubiquity of e-mail has led to its overuse and, often, its inappropriate use. Because an e-mail message carries very little information about people’s physical and social characteristics and because it cannot convey subtle gestures or nonverbal cues, it can be misinterpreted or misconstrued, creating conflict
Instant messaging (IM) differs from ordinary e-mail in the immediacy of the message exchange and in the relative simplicity of keeping up a “conversation.” Because participants are part of a certain group or list, there is a strong sense of community and, in many cases, a strong sense of others that helps establish zones of effective communication. IM is a good medium for sending non-controversial information to a large group of people that would not arise in a face-to-face exchange
Web conferencing with audio provides an appropriate medium for incorporating certain visual elements into the flow of verbal communication, enabling participants to view a PowerPoint presentation, take a guided Web tour or collaborate on documents with others. In many cases, Web conferencing can even enable remote control of a participant’s computer. Web conferencing differs from video or voice over Internet protocol in that it involves sharing data over a browser while the parties use a teleconference. It is a relatively inexpensive and effective technology for group collaboration, offering a variety of features that facilitate the meeting experience
Streaming, or webcasting, delivers high-impact, rich-media messages to anyone with a PC and a Web browser. However, streaming is primarily one-way communication—from presenter to audience. If a topic requires interaction among participants, or even dialogue between speaker and participant outside the scope of a Q&A session, streaming is not the most appropriate mode of communication
Audio conferencing provides much more social presence than e-mail or IM. Participants in an audio conference can use changes in tone of voice, pitch or inflection, as well as conversational pauses and processing sounds (“um” and “uh”), to negotiate turn-taking and to glean additional information not carried in the audio alone. Unfortunately, the anonymity afforded by audio conferencing is its biggest drawback. In a recent survey conducted by RoperASW and sponsored by TANDBERG, a conferencing equipment manufacturer, 625 business professionals were polled to measure their attitudes and behaviors in regard to various meeting communication media, including audio and face-to-face meetings. They discovered that only 23 percent of respondents gave their full attention during audio conferences. Twenty-seven percent did other work, while 25 percent checked or wrote e-mail. Still others surfed the Web, played games and engaged in side conversations not related to the topic at hand. The bottom line: Audio conferences, while quite useful in certain business applications, also make it easier for participants to engage in other off-task or off-subject activities.
Videoconferencing is considered a good alternative not just to face-to-face meetings, but to audio or e-mail communications, as well. Video offers all of the unique benefits of face-to-face communication without the hard and soft costs required to get two people in the same room at the same time. With that said, videoconferencing should not be adopted as a replacement for face-to-face communication. And, of course, face-to-face is still most appropriate for tasks requiring greater interpersonal delicacy or for communicating difficult messages. For example, the subtle give-and-take that occurs during salary or contract negotiations often progresses more smoothly when both parties meet in the same room. However, when face-to-face communication is not available or feasible, videoconferencing produces the next best result. Discussions that involve complex issues also benefit from face-to-face, or simulated face-to-face interactions, as do decisions that must be made rapidly to accommodate an impending deadline
Face-to-face is the most efficient form of communication because participants benefit both from the meaning of the words, as well as the meaning carried by body language, such as gestures and facial expressions. In fact, a recent Harvard/Columbia study showed a 38 percent increase in retention with face-to-face meetings. Face-to-face is desirable for new relationships, renewing old relationships, communicating sensitive information or bad news and for resolving conflicts.
Develop and Implement a Training and Adoption Strategy
Provide opportunities to expose new users to the options, share success stories and, as appropriate, review new technologies under consideration for feedback. Involve a user committee in all major testing processes.
Create a Collaboration Portal
The portal can be a stand-alone entity or part of the corporate intranet. The portal should include best practice repository, tool access, templates, access to ongoing training and the ability to ask questions and make suggestions. Given the strategic importance of good collaboration, companies will be well-served to take specific steps toward developing good collaboration skills and utilizing collaboration tools.
Clearly, organizations and teams have many tools at their disposal to communicate and collaborate across the extended enterprise. The big question, of course, is how to leverage these tools to maximize their benefits and, ultimately, the ability of the organization to communicate effectively. As Andrew Davis of Wainhouse Research said, the enterprise is driven by its ability to make good decisions, and decision-making is enhanced by communications, and communications are enhanced by a comprehensive package of tools and technologies, thoughtfully applied.
Organizations must weigh the costs of using a particular medium against the richness of communication afforded by it. Trying to make every meeting a face-to-face interaction would be cost- and time-prohibitive, whereas relying fully on e-mail would cause confusion and erode relationships. Instead, a more balanced approach should be taken with a communication program to make it both cost-effective and optimized for every kind of relationship. For example, brand-new relationships should see more face-to-face meetings and more videoconferences (i.e., communications rife with nonverbal language) to build trust and rapport. As relationships mature, other types of mediated communication can be used to supplement the face-to-face interactions. However, even more established relationships deteriorate over time without the face-to-face interaction afforded by visual communication.
J. Kenyon Hayward is chairman, Wire One Communications Inc. Wire One Communications (a combination of V-SPAN Inc. and Wire One Technology Inc. ) is a leading provider of high-quality, reliable, end-to-end videoconferencing solutions that enable organizations to connect, collaborate and innovate. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.