Don't Buy a Filing Cabinet If You Need a Heartbeat

One of the tricks to get right with collaboration is to be clear on your intent first, and only then to consider buying technology. That often doesn’t happen and the technology is acquired first, and if a sufficiently broad technology is acquired it may turn out alright, but I still greatly prefer having clarity of intent first. In other words, you need to know what you want to come true in the work habits of your employees, before Googling “collaboration technology” to see what you could spend your money on.

Take Kathy as an example. When she approached me about SharePoint, the intent was to improve communication and collaboration – which is great as a high-level intent, but inadequate beyond being a good conversation starter. As she continued to explain the background in the organization, however, it became clear to me that she needed collaboration technology to provide a heartbeat to the employees at her organization, not a repository for stuff they could access.

Here’s what she said: “I work at an educational institution. When I started working here in 2006, everybody knew everybody and pretty much saw everybody everyday. Now we have physically expanded the campus by over a third, the student population has increased 300%, and nobody knows everybody anymore. There are new faculty members, new staff positions, new software and hardware, and our tight knit little community is fraying. I think the answer is an Intranet and there is an IT guy whose personal goal it is to deploy SharePoint 2007. Some of us are already using a limited number of its features. How do I sell this to management?”

On enquiring further, I found that there were some SharePoint sites in place, but no one was using them. So I proposed that instead of focusing on SharePoint for document sharing and project work – which by their nature would bring together existing small and localized groups – that she focus on something that would enable people to talk more freely and openly, to facilitate serendipitous encounters, and to discover each other easier based on common interests. In other words, to start re-building a sense of common community across the now disparate physical community. What used to be shared by being together in person could now be shared by being together in the same virtual space. My recommendation was Yammer (or one of the similar tools – Socialcast for example) – because it focused more on enabling open communication and collaboration (recreating the “heartbeat” of the organization) rather than SharePoint 2007 which was more focused on sharing documents and managing projects (a filing cabinet). If the heartbeat worked and people could create a new sense of community, then SharePoint could make more sense at a later time.

Kathy’s immediate reaction was a great big “YES – that’s what I want!”

My question for you: Are you clear on the intent with collaboration at work?

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