Where's the collaboration in enterprise collaboration tools?

Enterprise collaboration tools can generate sales, reduce costs and connect dispersed workers. So why are companies hesitant to use them?

Using social media platforms is gaining steam in enterprises -- incrementally.

Lauren HorwitzLauren Horwitz

But even for organizations that have begun to exploit social media platforms for external use, distributing information internally with enterprise collaboration tools remains immature.

Enterprise social collaboration software is designed to enable social networking and knowledge sharing among employees. Collaboration technologies can also drive revenue and reduce costs. Industries such as healthcare and education have used collaboration tools to generate new products, and other companies have used these tools to improve business processes. Collaboration tools can also connect remote and geographically far-flung teams and promote better information exchange.

I'd like to be able to say we have some big fancy tool.

Laura Howe,
vice president of public relations, American Red Cross

But according to a May 2013 survey by Avanade Inc., a Microsoft partner and consultancy in Seattle, while nearly 75% of 4,000 responding enterprises use Facebook for collaboration, only 12% use a traditional tool like Jive or Salesforce Chatter for collaboration. And among those who haven't adopted social networking technologies, the majority said the tools would not help their company or fit their corporate needs.

"Organizations find tools … implement them, and then nobody uses them," said Shawn Shell, vice president of Hitachi Consulting in a recent SearchContentManagement podcast. "The biggest impediment is poor user adoption," he said.

Rudimentary collaboration tools

Nevertheless, some organizations-- even those that don't use collaboration software-- now see the value of the technology in high relief. At the American Red Cross, for example, a longtime pain point has been distributing the right information to the right people.

"I'd like to be able to say we have some big fancy tool [to communicate with internal teams]," said Laura Howe, the Red Cross' vice president of public relations. But in fact, the Red Cross uses basic tools like Microsoft Excel spreadsheets.

When Hurricane Sandy ravaged the East Coast in 2012, the social media team collected data from the Digital Operations Center -- a custom-designed Dell console that culls social media-based conversation from Facebook, Twitter, blogs and other social sources and uses social media listening tools to analyze the conversation -- and put it in spreadsheets to email to team members on the ground. Then data is disseminated to volunteers in the field, so people aren't duplicating efforts or missing key requests by acting on the same information. "We have spent the last year with our disaster recovery services group working on how to move that information more quickly internally," Howe said.

Chatter on

For some organizations, internal collaboration software has reduced the time that employees spend on tasks and centralized business processes.

Chatter news feed

Figure 1. Canto uses Salesforce.com’s collaboration platform, Chatter, to handle information about sales transations. The company also uses Chatter to communicate with customers and other third parties.

At Canto Inc., Salesforce.com's enterprise collaboration tool Chatter has become integral to the workflow for processing sales transactions. Canto is a provider of digital asset management software, with dual headquarters in San Francisco and Germany. Members of the team can communicate with each other about a sale. The sales team can send attachments, provide updates on a deal and communicate with partners and clients regarding transactions. Canto's chief financial officer, Hans Schaedel, said that Chatter -- which is styled on a Facebook-like feed -- has made communication far more efficient and transparent.

"You can identify the transaction from the thread, and it's immediately clear what we are talking about," Schaedel said. "It's much faster without having to look for the relevant facts."

Canto also uses Chatter to communicate with customers and other third parties without compromising sensitive data. Third parties have access only to the threads, data and documents that Canto permits.

But with multiple communication channels comes information overload, Schaedel acknowledged. And as a result, user adoption can suffer. Canto has reached 50% adoption with Chatter. Ideally, that would reach 70%.

We're already dealing with platform fatigue.

Lou Dubois,
social media editor, NBC News Digital Group

"People need to watch the [Chatter] newsfeed and email as well, so it takes some time getting used to it," he said. Still, return on investment has been measurable. Schaedel said that with Canto employees using Chatter rather than email, it has translated into a time savings of about 15%.

The right fit

Other organizations are testing multiple internal collaboration tools to find a good fit, but, as Canto's Schaedel noted, information overload is a major concern.

"We're already dealing with platform fatigue," said Lou Dubois, a social media editor at NBC News Digital Group in New York. Employees already use numerous applications and have to access all sorts of information all day, so Dubois worries that yet another application will just be ignored. People already have 15 tasks open on their computer, he noted. Internal collaboration tools need to be "useful to people, and sustainable," he said.

Despite these concerns, Dubois said that teams have piloted a slew of internal collaboration tools, including Microsoft's Yammer, which iss part of the SharePoint platform, Jive Software's tool, Google Docs, Basecamp project management software, Campfire chat and others. Because NBC has so many business units with different requirements, instituting a single collaboration platform like SharePoint wouldn't suit all units' needs. The company needs more variation to suit different business-unit wokflows and objectives.

NBC also has a project in the works to deploy Jive's collaboration platform in production, but that use is still in the testing phases. Dubois emphasized that effective internal communication is a challenge that "people are still figuring out. Things are happening in silos no matter where you go."

The secrets of success

Collaboration platforms can be costly and require user training and change management tactics to get the organization on board, said expert Dawn Lacallade, director of social strategy and content programming at LiveWorld Inc., a social content marketing firm based in San Jose, Calif.

For more on collaboration software

Social collaboration benefits IT?

Social collaboration guide

Choosing a social collaboration technology

She and other experts counsel organizations to get buy-in at all levels of the organization and to pick one or two tools rather than trying to cover all the bases.

Companies also need to develop strong governance policies and practices to ensure that information is shared appropriately and securely. Including collaboration practices in the context of a larger information governance strategy is at the heart of using data responsibly and securely.

As companies delve into enterprise collaboration, the prospects of success are great -- but only with planning and governance at the heart of the effort.

This was first published in December 2013

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