Collaboration Technologies and Organizational Change

It’s not unusual for web workers to get pulled into various efforts to get more people using a particular online collaboration tool. Maybe your company is implementing some collaboration software (wikis, blogs, forums) that employees are expected to use, or you are helping clients to use social networking software. In these situations, the software is always the easy part. Getting the people to actually use it is the hard part.

Those of us who use these social technologies all day sometimes tend to underestimate the fear, uncertainty, resistance, concerns and other issues from people who are expected to use them. These technologies are a huge change for many people. In many cases, we are asking people to go from being a passive consumer of online information to becoming a creator of content by posting discussions, comments, or other resources that anyone can view. At the same time, the organization is adjusting to the idea that employees are communicating more broadly and need to be trusted not to divulge any sensitive information. All of this requires changes in behavior, organizational processes, and a different way of thinking. Many people naturally resist these changes.

As a result of working with clients who are building online communities and starting to use social media technologies, I have been spending quite a bit of time thinking about some of the principles of organizational change management. I wrote a blog post about how organizational change management applies specifically to online communities, but it also applies more broadly to organizations implementing other online collaboration technologies. I don’t think that most companies spend enough time thinking about the impact of these changes on their employees.

leadingchange_largeFor those of you who aren’t familiar with organizational change management principles, the work of John P. Kotter is a good place to start. He has an eight-stage process for organizational changes, but it boils down to a few key points:

  • Have a strategy and make sure that your leadership supports it.
  • Help people eliminate obstacles and encourage people to take some risks.
  • Communicate over and over and over (once isn’t enough), and make sure that you share some success stories.

Kotter’s model is great for changes being driven from the top of the organization, and as a consultant, this is what I run across most frequently. However, grassroots change efforts can also work really well within organizations. I’ve seen this happen many, many times in my work at previous companies where the employees want to collaborate more easily, but for various reasons, it doesn’t make sense to work with management to do something official. This often starts with a wiki or some other collaboration tool being installed on a rogue server under someone’s desk. As more and more people start to use it, it gradually moves into the realm of official use.

Whether the change is coming from the top of the organization or from the bottom, the common element is communication. Many people aren’t going to “get it” the first time you tell them about something new. They will start to think about it, and will probably spend more time thinking about why they shouldn’t use it. Common objections that are often voiced about new collaboration tools include: “I’m too busy,” “it’s too much work,” or “I already have a solution that works for me.” 136936585_ac4aff6231_mThere are also some common objections based on fears about saying the wrong thing, or not being able to use the technology and looking stupid, that people won’t as readily admit to. These objections won’t be solved with a single email announcing the change or a solitary training session. It will probably take several conversations or several training sessions to get people comfortable with the new way of doing things. Most importantly, remember that this change will take time; it may take considerably more time than you anticipated to get people to adjust to it.

What tips do you have for driving adoption of collaboration technologies throughout the rest of an organization?

Photo by Flickr user Kaibera87, used under Creative Commons license.

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