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Collaboration— A management unicorn

This article appears in the issue June 2015 [Volume 24, Issue 6]

Have organizations become the business process equivalent of peer-to-peer computing? Enterprise software applications have for more than 50 years meshed with what I call traditional organizational structure. Employees went to a location, performed work and then returned home.

At a recent meeting in Washington, D.C., I learned that holding a meeting on Monday before noon was difficult. Meanwhile, Friday was the preferred day for employees to telecommute in one government agency. As it turned out, I was available on a Monday morning and a Friday. The fix was to schedule a videoconference. The person responsible for arranging the virtual meeting is still struggling with fluid schedules, employees who work from home or contractors juggling several clients at a time.

In one of my weekly forays to Topsy.com, Apple’s (apple.com) social media indexing and search service, I noticed that one article had attracted nearly 1,000 retweets a few days after it appeared on Business2Community.com. “How to Encourage Employee Independence” (business2community.com/human-resources/encourage-employee-independence-01198078) by Alexandra Levit resonated with me.

Levit writes, “Remember the old adage: ‘Give a man fish and he’ll eat for a day. Teach a man to fish and he’ll eat for a lifetime.’ When it comes to your team members’ productivity, it’s in your best interest if they are as self-sufficient as possible.”

Fostering self-sufficiency

The advice in the analysis, on the surface at least, seems reasonable. Let me highlight the tips offered by Levit, a blogger for Intuit (intuit.com):

? Give them a blank piece of paper. The idea is that employees should be given a task and then figure out how to, in the words of the Cable Guy, “git-r-done.”

? Demonstrate your confidence. The thought behind this statement is that trust is important.

? Don’t check in too much. The nagging grandparent approach to management is a negative.

? Resist the urge to step in. When an employee veers off the track, let the accident happen.

? Be tolerant of mistakes. If an employee botches a job, be a coach and a teacher.

? Solicit feedback. I like the idea of speaking with employees. The flip side is to listen.

How does knowledge management fit into a workplace in which employees take independence as a core principle?

In my experience, enterprise software is only now being adapted to the needs of mobile, at home and contract workers. Companies like Salesforce.com demonstrated the value of allowing a person making multiple sales calls a day to have a comprehensive contact management system available anytime or from any location. But for some business processes, the workflows are a shotgun marriage between multiple partners. Some of them live and work in one location, and others are the business equivalent of a long-distance, on-again, off-again relationship. The research teams can meet via Skype (skype.com), but some work has to be performed in a specialized facility with experienced personnel in the lab each day.

Technology is not enough

I read a Harvard Business Review (hbr.org) article that illuminates what strikes me as a significant challenge in knowledge management. “Why No One Uses the Corporate Social Network” (hbr.org/2015/04/why-no-one-uses-the-corporate-social-network) by Charlene Li moves knowledge management software from center stage to a stand-in for a minor actor’s role. Li is founder and CEO of Altimeter Group (altimetergroup.com) and the author of The New York Times (nytimes.com) bestseller Open Leadership.

In the Harvard Business Review article, Li writes: “Collaboration depends on trust, and it’s crucial for leaders to learn how to do this in the digital era. The tools themselves matter less than the ability of leaders to describe the intent and purpose of the tools. Simply putting a technology platform in place won’t suffice—you must think through how the organization will change and how you will lead it into and through that change. Unless you have a magic wand, the fairytale world of collaboration won’t happen simply because you plug in a technology. But you have something better—a leadership vision, strategic objectives and the passion to guide your organization through the changes ahead. Rely on these foundational leadership skills and learn to extend them into the digital world. If you can do that, then collaboration will find its place in your organization.”

A recent report from Real Story Group (realstorygroup.com) presented data from a survey of business entities. One of the findings summarized in “Is There a Swiss Army Knife for Enterprise Collaboration?” (realstorygroup.com/Blog/2828-Is-there-a-Swiss-Army-Knife-for-En

terprise-Collaboration) suggests that Li’s “plugging in a tool” does not accurately describe the collaboration software approach in companies. Real Story reports: “Using the data from our industry survey, we crunched the numbers for organizations having more than 1,000 employees and found that they are employing multiple social collaboration software products—on average, 2.6 in an organization.

What I find interesting is that Li and Real Story’s analyst Kashyap Kompella appear to sidestep the reality of collaboration among today’s workers, whether in a traditional office or roaming the badlands for companies in need of products and services.

Social media explosion

Twitter (twitter.com) and WhatsApp (whatsapp.com) are performing command and control functions for many workers. In 2009, Sharon Gaudin wrote in Computerworld (computerworld.com/article/2521159/e-commerce/business-use-of-twitter-facebook-

exploding.html) that business use of Twitter and Facebook (facebook.com) was exploding. A report from Palo Alto Networks (paloaltonet

works.com) revealed about five years ago that Twitter usage doubled in less than a year and Facebook usage rose by 192 percent. Since that article, WhatsApp has become available, captured hundreds of millions of users and was acquired by Facebook.

How can SharePoint (microsoft.com) collaboration or systems like the aging Lotus Notes (ibm.com) change the behavior patterns of many employees? As the workforce incorporates more young workers, the likelihood of replacing consumer-centric collaboration habits with enterprise collaboration tools strikes me as a difficult task.

Consider the 2009 article by Gaudin. Against that background, the analyses presented by Li and Real Story Group seem to be oddly disconnected from the reality of collaboration styles, methods and software. The marketing of enterprise software seems divorced from the “real” world, which is not a fictional story. The real world is what employees do as they take advantage of the exhortations to operate independently. The disconnect may be reflective of fundamental changes in how knowledge, information and work is performed in many organizations.

Silicon Valley-centric companies represent one end of the independence spectrum. At the other end of the spectrum are enterprises that fabricate hardware. In the middle of the spectrum are organizations being pulled by opposing forces. The traditional approach allows for centralized controls and use of management techniques that would be familiar to J.P. Morgan were he alive today. The other force is the dispersed work method that replaces top down management with trust and the aforementioned independence.

Challenging times

Knowledge management systems are positioned to play a pivotal role in organizations. Knowledge management software, whether provided by Microsoft (microsoft.com), OpenText (opentext.com) or some other firm, combines employee work role information, content access and workflow components. At this time, the knowledge management systems with which I am familiar are not tightly integrated with the most widely used social media systems. One obvious threat to traditional knowledge management system vendors is that Facebook will accelerate its push into commercial accounts. It could build on its corporate advertising system. Rumors of Google’s interest in Twitter continue to surface. Could Google blend Twitter with its business services and expand its footprint in commercial accounts?

Knowledge management solution providers face a number of demographic, technical and financial challenges. Changing a system built around the premise that employees work for a company that has a number of centralized facilities can be expensive and consume considerable time. Changing the behaviors of employees regardless of how they work or where they work is likely to be an even more difficult task. In fact, the knowledge management vendor cannot do that job without the licensee of the knowledge management software doing the majority of the change management work. The financial challenge is likely to be a significant obstacle. Today’s business climate does not make it easy for a software company to fund

massive new projects. When a firm like IBM (ibm.com) announces a billion dollar commitment to Watson, for example, a technical

initiative captures headlines and becomes a major business story on television news.

Action plan

What are the actions a company committed to knowledge management should consider taking? Let me highlight several tasks that may help an organization make informed decisions about knowledge management’s most promising functions, collaboration and information access.

Who uses the available systems? How often? Why? Under what circumstances? Answering those basic questions will provide a factual base upon which decisions can be taken regarding specific vendors’ products.

Next, the organization committed to knowledge management may want to revisit the actual costs of the knowledge management systems and compare the fully loaded direct and indirect costs with the original cost estimates for the knowledge management system. In my experience, comprehensive cost analysis for knowledge management and related information-centric software is not readily available.

The organization needs to find out what its employees are doing with consumerized social media. Asking direct questions is not likely to provide objective data. Surveys, focus groups and one-on-one conversations are often subjective or skewed because “independent” workers don’t have time to participate. The solution is to implement a software system that converts user behaviors (clicks) into actionable reports. Oracle (oracle.com) has technology acquired via its purchase of the intellectual property assets of Tacit Software, although other firms provide similar capabilities.

The companies making knowledge management software have challenging work to do. The companies licensing knowledge management software have difficult tasks to perform. The employees, contractors and consultants will do what they do. ?


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