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Why virtual collaboration needs knowledge management

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IT is a trusted and valuable partner— and should certainly be involved in shaping the virtual work environment. But IT does some things better than others. When it comes to figuring out how tools work on a technical level and how to fit them into the infrastructure, IT is the best in the business. But successful virtual collaboration requires much more than that, including clear communication, tailored trainings, role modeling, and policies that help people get their work done without driving their colleagues crazy. Virtual collaboration is a lot more about people than it is about technology, so it makes sense to involve people-focused functions—such as KM, HR, and learning—in guiding the strategy.

Users need context on when, where, and how to collaborate

APQC found that organizations are significantly more likely to have established guidelines for how virtual collaboration tools should be used when KM, HR, or learning-focused personnel oversee the strategy. For example, these peoplefocused functions are nearly twice as likely to lay out rules and advice for collaborating on documents, selecting among collaboration options, and determining where to post questions and requests (see Figure 1).

In terms of document-based collaboration, that means clear processes for tracking changes and adding comments, which prevent documents from turning into a frustrating, ugly mess. For other platforms, it’s about when to use what (i.e., when to send an email versus set a meeting versus post a chat) and the best ways to find answers and expertise.

Importantly, APQC found that clear guidelines on where to post questions and requests are statistically correlated with greater effectiveness in team building and comradery in the virtual sphere. In addition to making day-to-day collaboration easier, rules help with the big-picture culture work that is so challenging in virtual workplaces.

While these guidelines are much more prevalent in organizations where people-focused functions are in charge, they’re not common even in those organizations. A lot of companies have a lot of work to do when it comes to putting norms and guidelines in place. But it’s clear that when IT is in charge, IT will focus on what it does best—deploying capabilities—and leave it up to individual leaders and teams to determine how those capabilities should be used. Unfortunately, individual leaders and teams are usually too busy to actually do that, and there’s rarely accountability for not doing so.

Proactive communication reinforces norms and guidelines

Even when organizations do set guidelines for virtual collaboration, they only make a difference if employees understand them. APQC found that virtual collaboration programs run by KM, HR, or learning teams are more likely to leverage an array of communication methods, from trainings and refresher messages to volunteer “super users” who role-model desired behaviors and help their peers with troubleshooting.

The biggest and most significant differences relate to proactive communication from managers and written handbooks and documentation. Organizations with KM, HR, or learning teams in charge are much more likely to use these approaches to ensure employees are aware of virtual collaboration guidelines (see Figure 2).

One likely reason for this is that people-focused functions are more likely to have communication, documentation, and influencing skillsets within their teams. These skills are much more integral to the day-to-day work of KM, HR, and learning teams than IT. 

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