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Corporate Culture, Not Technology, Drives Online Collaboration

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917103_working_together_3Recently, Simon reported on a couple of interesting studies looking at the use of collaboration technologies in the workplace, Forrester’s “The State Of Workforce Technology Adoption: US Benchmark 2009” and Frost & Sullivan’s “Meetings Around the World II: Charting the Course of Advanced Collaboration.” Both reports have great stories to tell about the current state of collaboration technology acceptance within corporations. However, both reports skim over what is perhaps the key element in driving online collaboration within an organization: Corporate culture.

It is not enough to just deploy the latest collaboration tools, whether that is Microsoft SharePoint (s msft); Office Communications Server; Google Apps (s goog); a corporate VoIP telephony system; mobile devices like the BlackBerry (s rimm) or iPhone (s aapl); or the latest online collaboration tool reviewed on WebWorkerDaily. The challenge is getting people using them — and for that you need a collaborative corporate culture.

Some integral elements of a collaborative corporate culture include:

  • “Come-and-go-as-you-please” schedules. If your company is doing a seat check every morning in its cubicle farm, you don’t have a corporate culture conducive for much online collaboration. While “face time” is an old school management crutch, today’s workforce runs at a different pace with alternative work schedules, telecommuting, offsite contractors, and a myriad of employee personal commitments can foster what I like to call a “come-and-go-as-you-please” schedule. A collaborative culture helps do away with the age-old myths of the value employees get by spending time roosting in an office.
  • No knowledge archipelagos. An old IT contractor colleague of mine once coined the term “knowledge archipelagos.” A knowledge archipelago is formed when employees hoard institutional knowledge, whether it is key documents on employee’s local hard drives or crucial  information in their heads, much like an archipelago of islands. Organizations that have a central repository of information  — off local hard drives and individual’s email inboxes — don’t have knowledge archipelagos, meaning that you don’t have to run down somebody to get access to their information. Sharing of project artifacts and corporate information online is integral to a collaborative corporate culture.
  • Presence beyond the office (and regular office hours). I once had a client consider that if I was online via AIM, Yahoo Messenger, Google Talk, or Windows Live Messenger, regardless of the hour or day that I was available to discuss work topics. While this attitude may seem invasive to some, it can make you more conscious your personal online time after hours. I’ve worked with other clients where IM wasn’t part of the mix during or after work hours. Again, it’s all about the culture.
  • Technically savvy employees. Through my career as a consultant, the organizations I saw excel at online collaboration and remote working had a very technical savvy employee base, which shaped the corporate culture because a majority of them were early adopters, and lived a large part of their working day online. Their needs and work schedules fed into corporate culture and had an influence into the acceptance of online collaboration in the corporate culture.
  • Supportive management. A true collaborative culture requires a supportive management team that wants their workers to be accessible to each other through multiple channels and realizes that traditional working modes won’t attract and retain the best talent. It also helps if these managers are early adopters and are champions for online collaboration and the benefits it gives to workers. The management team should also champion the environment, and be technically savvy (not just falling for the latest Web 2.0 tool fad). Another quality of supportive management is that they aren’t shy about recruiting employers or contractors outside of commuting distance from their nearest office.

Culture is key to successful online collaboration and that is an element that is often times hard to capture in reports and surveys. Web workers seeking new opportunities need to seek prospective clients and employers where the corporate culture is more than just four walls and a cubicle farm and there is a strong track  record of online collaboration and remote working already in place.

What elements of corporate culture do you see driving online collaboration and remote working in your employer and clients?

Image by Robinsonma from stock.xchng.

22 Responses to “Corporate Culture, Not Technology, Drives Online Collaboration”

  1. Great post Will. The culture required to support collaborative tools is non-existant in many companies, especially larger ones where people are seen as mere resources. I fully agree with you in that you need a collaborative and tech savvy culture to make the tools work, rather than vice versa. With the emergence of social media my hope is that companies understand that people are social beings, and start engendering more social actions in their cultures.

  2. Interesting article. I think a large part of what’s going on is the fairly obvious–companies are demanding more time, and employees fearful of losing their position/responsibilities are giving it to them. This inevitably leads to a burn-out, and employees reach a point where they’re willing to say, “okay, I’ll work hard, but I need a balance, too.” Hence the flexible hours.

    New cloud-based apps like OnState that facilitate internal and external collaboration are being rolled-out specifically to address these market issues (see For example, employees may be willing to take a call while at home in the evening, but in turn they’ll want to not begin work until 10 a.m. With OnState’s system, the customer does not know where the employee is, as the employee can collaborate at any time, using any device, from any location. This type of virtualization enables greater collab (for example, as you cite, messaging with clients after hours) while encouraging employees to seek a balance (e.g. cutting out the commute, flexible hours, etc.).