The Implementation of Collaboration Tools Does Not Require a Change in Culture

I don’t follow the logic in arguments that a shift from email to collaboration spaces involves a change in “culture”. This article, Experts Tout Virtual Work Environments, for example (and it’s but one of many), includes these three paragraphs:

Virtual teaming presents some cultural challenges because it’s a new way of collaborating, said Randy Adkins, director of the Air Force Knowledge Management Center of Excellence at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Ohio.

“A lot of people aren’t comfortable with it,” he said. But moving people to a virtual office is “about change, adapting and doing things differently.”

Therefore, trust is crucial for a virtual team to overcome cultural resistance, he added.

My wrestling with such counsel is that “culture” to me signifies the big things in organizational life around what is seen as normal (shared norms), what is valued (shared values), and the like. “We have a culture of information sharing”, says one CEO, and that signifies a big thing. If you want to change the culture of an organization, if you can pull it off, you are talking about a significant effort over a significant period of time so that new norms and values become ingrained as the new default way of working.

The words above in the article … are not about those big things.

The C word is invoked so often in the context of collaboration tools that I fear the language is neutered. We don’t really know what we’re talking about, and since we want to prove that we’re not merely pushing product, we throw in the C word to make ourselves sound more than we are. But the C word isn’t what is really required … rather we need a change in work practices across and throughout the teams and groups we belong to and interact within.

You could charge me with arguing about words, and perhaps I am guilty of that, but words and ideas contain tremendous consequential power. If I tell one of my clients that in order to implement collaboration tools they will have to go through a “change in culture” initiative, that sets up a line of thinking and a chain of actions that is entirely different than if I say a “change in work practices”. The latter signifies getting, learning, appropriating and embracing a new way of doing what they are already doing using other tools.

My net-net is that if a team can run a project in email then they can run one in a collaboration tool. They don’t need a change in “culture” to make the transition, they need a change in “work practice”.

0 thoughts on “The Implementation of Collaboration Tools Does Not Require a Change in Culture

  1. I agree with almost everything you said, but there is a culture element involved– sort of the ‘that’s the way it’s always been done’ approach.
    The only way to break through this kind of group-think mentality is through demonstratio n and education.
    For example, it won’t be enough to *say* a collaborative solution like SharePoint is better for productivity. What has to be done is a demonstration of the inefficiencies an email system imposes (copying data all over the place leading to a ‘who has the latest version?’ imbroglio). Then a direct comparison on how simply wiping out this sort of duplication leads to a productivity enhancement.
    And if it takes a stopwatch to provide a real measurement, so be it. Once something, no matter how inefficient, has been demonstrated to work, then the improvement must be demonstrated to work better.

  2. Hi Michael, its difficult to disagree with the point that to switch from using email to using a collaborastion space requires a change in working practice, but I don’t agree that it doesn’t also require a change in culture. I started to explain what I mean in this comment, but it got too long so I switched to my blog
    Where I try and give some absract and personal examples of where I have seen culture being a big component of success.

  3. Collaboration tools do require a change in work practices. Whether that change will be easy or not depends on the extent to which those new work practices are congruent with other work practices and organisational behaviours (or culture, if you will). E.g. using a wiki to draft a document collaboratively (as opposed to word & email) in one organisation may be no big deal. For another organisation (where the document creation process has traditionally been secretive & protected) this may be a very big deal in deed.
    You don’t necessarily need to change culture to introduce new collaboration tools, but culture (“how we do things here”) will have an impact on your success in doing so.

  4. Michael –
    You can call it “culture” or “work habits” but is still changing behaviors and attitude. I think it easier to sell couched as a “change in culture” rather than a “change in work habits.” The latter implies that they are somehow doing their job wrong. We are just offering some different ways to work together.

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