The broadening collaboration gap

One of the basic principles upon which all of our research at Freeform Dynamics is based is that there is no such thing as ‘Average Inc’. Whether we are talking about organisational structures, business processes, corporate culture, IT landscape, level of regulation, etc, there are clearly many factors that define values, priorities, constraints, and ultimately behaviour.

This in turn limits the value of many of the more subjective discussions that take place in the industry around the relative merits or otherwise of new ideas and technologies. The notion of an individual product or solution being ’the best’, or even better or worse than anything else, typically doesn’t make sense unless you define the context in which adoption is being considered. And when we turn our attention to perceptions, the organisational environment and context plays a big role in determining the degree to which the relevance and value of a given type of solution is appreciated.

An example of this was illustrated recently by Josie in her recent blog post discussing how well BT is tuned into the needs of its customers when it comes to unified communications (UC). In this, she illustrates how the presence of a collaborative culture can increase the chances of UC adoption by between 5 and 10 times. This makes sense as those who value effective communication and collaboration are much more likely to be interested in ways of ways of enhancing interactions across the workforce, as well as with customers, suppliers and partners.

But what of those organisations at the other extreme with highly individualistic cultures in which minimal collaboration and sharing tends to take place? After all, quite a few of these exist.

The problem is that most of the messaging we hear from vendors and advocates in this space starts with the basic assumption that improved collaboration is a priority for all organisations. Indeed many prefix their pitches with a discussion of how the world in general is becoming more collaborative and interactive, almost as if the business community is homogenous in its ambition, direction and action.

Unfortunately, this is simply not the case. In a study we conducted in the middle of last year, for example, we found that at least 4 in 10 of the larger organisations interviewed placed no real priority on driving improvements in this area. While this finding in itself is significant, the picture becomes even more interesting when we look at which organisations are increasing the emphasis on sharing and collaborative working, and which are not.

What we can see here is not only a collaboration gap, but one that is getting wider. In a nutshell, those organisations that currently operate in highly collaborative manner are generally looking to drive even more collaboration. At the other extreme, while some recognise the imperative to get better, the majority of those with a highly individualistic culture are either standing still or moving backwards (just look at the red and amber segments on the bottom bar above).

To me, this is all a little worrying, as I see a lot of preaching to the converted going on out there, which is only going to reinforce this dynamic. I have already discussed the problems associated with advocates and evangelists not really appreciating what goes on outside of their echo chamber, and failing to connect with the mainstream. With vendors, it is more a case of business motivation, in that it is natural to direct your promotional material and sales force at those that are more likely to buy collaboration solutions. Along the way, many organisations that probably have a greater need than most to enable a more collaborative working environment, but do not realise this, are being left out in the cold.

Of course you could take the view that if an organisation doesn’t appreciate the value of improvements in this domain then it deserves to be left behind, and I have read comments to this effect on various blog posts recently. Personally, I would prefer vendors and advocates to act on the principle put forward at the very beginning of this post, i.e. that environment and context are extremely important when trying to drive enlightenment, motivation and action. The trick is to move the discussion from a subjective to an objective footing, talking less about generic benefits, and more about specific scenarios that organisations of different kinds can relate to easily. My own view, as previously discussed, is that this objective approach is relevant regardless of the culture and environment currently in place.

Meanwhile, improved communication and collaboration will become even more of an imperative for many in the economic downturn (discussed in context here), so a more inclusive approach could be argued to be particularly appropriate in these challenging times.

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