Monday, May 16, 2011

Effective ways to collaborate

(This is a summary of a conversation held in the Linkedin Hub Generation group)

In recent months, as a result of being away from the office visiting Kenya and the UK, I have come to understand even more the importance (and occasional draw backs) of social media-based collaboration tools.


At Zipipop we have been using social-media tools to communicate and collaborate for over four years. The main day-to-day tool we have been using is the internal micro-blogging service Yammer (see end note about Podio), which basically functions as a shared, continuous notification and discussion space – like a closed version of the Facebook News Feed. This is really a core part of our operations, since we are often out of the office running workshops or collaborating with remote workers. So my movements between different countries was fairly seamless – provided, that is, I had reliable access to 3G mobile internet. 

When the connection is unreliable (as it was in the UK Lake District) email comes back to prominence as a more workable solution, but otherwise it was much more productive to work in one central micro-blogging space. In addition, Yammer shows who is online, which helps generate a sense of presence between you and the office. However, in the long run it is not a replacement of face-to-face time, since a regular physical presence is still necessary to remain fully in touch and influential.  

I have noticed, however, that the sooner organizations adopt online spaces as their core means of communication the more effective they can operate when employees have to be geographically separated – since people get used to making decisions online rather than relying totally on physically meetings and "water cooler" discussions. There is a general trend towards fragmented working spaces, so organizations should consider the negative effect of people feeling "left out" if they don't have access to the ongoing organizational conversations. It all comes back to transparency. And the more we can adopt the best-practices of online culture, the more time and travel costs (financial & environmental) we can save, and the more opportunities there will be to balance the demands of work and private life. Here are some handy tips on keeping remote workers motivated and in the loop.

Antti Virolainen pointed out that with these new tools his company Avoin yritys can work effectively while being located in two different Finnish cities. And that sometimes the effort of writing can help people to focus on the essentials.  They recommend IRC chat and the immediacy of instant (no accounts required) collaborative writing services; such as or

They (and Zipipop) also make good use of collaborative Google Docs, but they require the participants to have Google Accounts. From a psychological aspect Antti thinks that the stimulation derived from a change of scenery while working abroad can help you work effectively. I would second that since being on a train or in hotel can sometimes have less intrusive distractions – providing more time to focus. Check out this provocative video from the Jason Fried on "Why work doesn't happen at work"

Antti Poikola is also a fan of Etherpad-dervied services and suggests mixing them with Skype for efficient simultaneous group collaboration; however, he also warns that you need team members who are proactive in taking responsibilities, since there is no natural daily incentives induced by physically present colleagues. Another downside is the "ever growing digital mess" being created by the plethora of tools available. I would suggest that over the coming years we will see a settling down of the most popular tools in the same way that all new industries goes through an explosion of competing options and standards in the early stages.

Juha Mattila, CEO of Reality Creating Media, brought up the importance of having a dedicated Community Manager to help make sure that people continue to use the tools and processes set up – since it is difficult to be both CEO and the Community Manager. To support the growing consultancy work Zipipop is doing related to the Community Manager role, I created this presentation

Sometimes it is just simply takes time to get everyone on board with a new collaboration tool; for example, Google Calendars is a crucial part of Zipipop's operations and we now use it consistently; however, it took us about six months to get to this point. You need to be persistent and patient in getting everyone on board – and you need to set a realistic transition times, but at the same time sometimes you have to be quite firm and say this is where the project is being developed and you are either there or you are not – otherwise you can end up in an unhappy limbo of people mixing up spaces and creating more work. 

The efforts required to adopt internal social media collaboration tools will be greatly rewarded in the long run, and companies that don't make the effort will start to be seen as out of touch (which in this case would be quite literally). 

The ability to praise people in real-time (often by simply clicking a "like" button) can be hugely supportive – rather than leaving it for days or weeks when it becomes more awkward to do so.  As Napolean said; "A soldier will fight long and hard for a piece of coloured ribbon." Although recognition is important, however, in the Harvard Business Review 10 Break through Ideas for 2010 they uncovered the surprising, but obvious when you think about it, result that "supporting of making progress" (above recognition, incentives, interpersonal support, and clear goals) was the most important thing managers could do to make their employee more motivated and happier. By adopting these new tools you should find it much easier for you and your organization to support and help staff be more efficient and satisfied – which can only be a good thing all round : )

However, if these new tools are not used judiciously, they have the potential to have negative effects: they can become disruptive and demotivating. To find out more read this Mckinsey Quarterly article: Recovering from information overload – Always-on, multitasking work environments are killing productivity, dampening creativity, and making us unhappy. There are definitely some issues here we need to address if we wish to make the most of the potential, but a bit of guidance and some commonsense will allow you to unlock the benefits and avoid most of the downsides. 

From experience I have noticed that collaboration efforts often fail if there is no genuine community being catered for. What constitutes a community and how they can be build up is a whole different kettle of fish we can explore later. But for now I will leave you with what I see are the 4Cs of collaboration: Community, Communication, Cooperation, Co-creation.

Happy collaborating!

*At Zipipop are currently testing out and enjoying a similar micro-blogging service called Podio. In some ways very different from Yammer. Full report on the pros and cons to come later. 

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported License. Original author's Richard von Kaufmann and Hub Generation must be mentioned when the content is reused.

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