Avoid these key mistakes for enterprise collaboration initiative success

A handful of common mistakes, including leading with social media technology and not aligning with business goals, often derail enterprise collaboration deployments, say users and experts.

Communication within a company used to be simple: You walked down the hallway to talk to a co-worker, picked up the phone or banged out an email. But those methods become less effective as companies grow and employees spread out around the country and the globe. In addition, the amount of information that workers must sift through has increased exponentially in many cases, while the time allotted to digest and formulate it has significantly decreased. For a growing number of organizations, the answer to those issues is implementing an enterprise collaboration software initiative.

But a collaboration system must work -- the first time employees use it. Make a significant mistake when putting together an enterprise collaboration initiative and it can fail, despite your best intentions.

For example, when media giant Gannett Co. rolled out an enterprise social media system for its USA Today business, the deployment wasn’t very smooth. Susan Murphy, national account director at USA Today, said that although Gannett had successfully implemented a social media enterprise collaboration software initiative for the corporate parent, things didn’t work as well at USA Today. As a result, the system often isn’t used by workers there, she said.

“We were never really involved in the decision” to deploy the collaboration technology, Murphy said. And without an explanation of the system’s potential benefits, she added, employees never understood why or how they should use it.

The example that Murphy provides isn’t unusual, said T.J. Keitt, a senior analyst at Forrester Research Inc. in Cambridge, Mass. According to Keitt and other industry insiders, when companies decide to implement an enterprise collaboration initiative, they often make a handful of common mistakes:

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Using technology to initiate collaboration. Before a system is put into place, a company needs to have a culture that encourages communication and collaboration. “The technology in and of itself doesn’t make anyone collaborative,” Keitt said.

Social business systems such as Jive and Yammer enable employees to have conversations, post project status updates, form groups, share documents and even establish networks with external partners. But these platforms are only the conduits for communication that should already be occurring. If it’s not, a shiny new tool won’t make it happen.

Implementing technology too soon. Companies might be tempted to buy a new “flavor of the month” technology, fearing that they’ll fall behind the competition if they don’t. But not all organizations are ready to roll out and use enterprise social media in an effective way.

According to Maturity Model for Enterprise Collaboration and Social Software, a report released last year by Stamford, Conn.-based Gartner, Inc., businesses might not be ready to take full advantage of the technology if they restrict communication, do not encourage enterprise collaboration across organizational lines or view social collaboration as more of a community undertaking than a business advantage. Instead of rushing out to buy software, companies should first examine their existing culture. If that culture does not already encourage collaboration, executives should explore strategies that could help transform it into one that does.

Not tying collaboration and social media to strategic business goals. Before deciding to use enterprise social media in a collaboration initiative, you need to know what business problems you’re trying to solve, advised Sam Loveland, vice president of worldwide customer engagement for software vendor Yammer Inc. in San Francisco.

Without that clear understanding of how an enterprise collaboration platform will be aligned with the organization’s strategic goals at both the corporate and business-unit levels, it will not be viewed as a useful tool, he said.

Not getting executive or mid-level buy-in. Creating a corporate culture that embraces social collaboration starts at the top, according to both Keitt and Loveland. “Senior-level managers need to do more than give employees permission to use social business networking; they need to be active on it themselves,” Loveland said.

Mid-level managers are also essential to the success of a social collaboration initiative, Keitt said.

“They’re the ones who tactically carry out the visions of the executives,” he said. “They must be encouraging and incenting.” If managers do not see the benefits of the initiative, all efforts could end up being blocked.

Making adoption mandatory. Collaboration can’t be ordered, Loveland said; if you tried, it wouldn’t work. Instead, he added, business leaders and IT and collaboration managers trying to instill a more collaborative culture in their companies need to show employees at all levels how such changes and new capabilities will benefit them and make their jobs easier.

Employees want to know what they stand to gain by taking the time to learn and use new technology. By aligning the potential benefits of an enterprise collaboration initiative with individual needs and objectives as well as corporate and departmental ones, the program has a better chance of resonating with each employee, Loveland said.

The benefits that enterprise social collaboration can provide are becoming increasingly clear, and as companies become more skilled at measuring their successes, it’s likely more organizations will want to implement such systems. By  understanding potential pitfalls, IT and collaboration managers can avoid them and better determine if, when and how becoming a social enterprise can help their organizations achieve business objectives.

Pamela DeLoatch is a freelance writer in the B2B and technology environments. She has written articles, profiles and case studies for numerous organizations.

This was first published in May 2012

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