Collaboration and Communication Revamp How We Work
By Samuel Greengard
As the digital age unfolds, it's increasingly clear that communication and collaboration are at the center of organizational success. The ability of employees, business partners and customers to interact across technologies and channels increasingly determines whether an enterprise flourishes or flounders.
"The dynamics of business are undergoing significant change," observes David Nichols, IT Transformation Leader for the Americas at consulting firm Ernst & Young.
To be sure, building an organization that fully connects to communication and collaboration tools is paramount. Not only must organizations select technologies and systems that enable real-time interaction—often among multiple groups of employees and spanning numerous devices—business and IT executives must revamp business processes and workflows to reflect a changing environment.
As Mary Hamilton, managing director of Accenture Technology Labs, puts it: "The environment is changing from simply enabling communication and collaboration to embedding it into the enterprise."
"Many organizations have already rolled out communication and collaboration capabilities, and there's recognition that these tools are extremely important in today's business environment," Hamilton says. "But understanding the business drivers, identifying the key stakeholders and actually changing the way people work is a significant challenge. Moving from initial excitement to widespread adoption and use takes time and effort."
A growing array of channels is creating new challenges and opportunities. Over the last decade, unified communication has matured, instant messaging and chat have gone mainstream, social media has exploded in popularity, and video conferencing has become as simple as clicking a button on a computer or mobile device. Most organizations now depend on these tools in one form or another, but the key is determining how they're used in combination, and how employees and others tap into them.
Saideep Raj, global managing director of Accenture Technology, believes that communication and collaboration have evolved from a more passive way to interact with mission-critical tools. "The availability of everyone, everywhere changes the equation in a profound way," he says. "It is embedding point-to-point real-time communication in the enterprise."
But along with all the potential comes a need to create "top-down governance around these capabilities and how people use them," Raj adds. This is especially true as bring your own device (BYOD) and the consumerization of IT ripple through the enterprise communication space.
Effective collaboration has emerged at the center of business and IT for LeasePlan, an Almere, Netherlands company that leases more than 1.3 million vehicles in 31 countries, including the United States. The 50-year-old firm has more than 6,000 employees scatted around the world and offers banking and other services.
"In the past, it was extremely difficult for employees to find relevant information and exchange knowledge," explains Wim De Gier, senior global project manager for LeasePlan. "We knew that we had to find a way to stop reinventing the wheel and benefit from the expertise that already existed."
The firm needed to connect experts and gurus across internal divisions, departments and countries. "We wanted to ensure that knowledge could be spread across all groups," De Gier says. The list included contracts and documents, project management teams, and areas of financial, legal and other expertise.
A previous Lotus Notes Domino directory provided only part of the firepower needed. So, LeasePlan turned to IBM's social technologies for workplace collaboration. It started with a pilot program in 2009. Two years later, the company rolled out robust collaboration tools across the enterprise.
The social technologies tools offer the company a straightforward and streamlined way to meet in online spaces, interact through internal social media functions, view and share blogs, engage in video chats and switch on unified messaging. Many features are available on mobile devices as well.
Although offices and employees are free to interact in their native languages, enterprisewide communication must take place in English. In addition, the company has created extensive guidelines and established standards for creating videos and other content that cover everything from how to create a profile to best practices in communication and interaction online. It engaged in an extensive marketing campaign to inform and educate employees about the benefits of the system.
"The system has led to a culture change and fundamentally altered the interaction among people in geographically distant regions," De Gier reports. "People are communicating with each other in a way that wasn't possible only a few years ago."
The Message is the Thing
Ernst & Young's Nichols says that organizations must embrace collaboration tools and use them in a smarter and more targeted way. Not only do these systems help unlock productivity and trim costs, they also usher in fundamentally different ways of thinking and interacting.
What's more, younger workers who have grown up with a steady diet of video, text messages and 140-character posts are demanding these tools—and increasingly hoisting them on the enterprise via BYOD. "The infrastructure and tools have gotten to the point where there is zero latency and maximum portability," Nichols says.
Success revolves around building systems that can deliver any message to any device or person at any time and in any place. This includes, for example, unified messaging that syncs across devices to create a stream that's visible anywhere and at any time.
In addition, "The days of massive manuals and knowledge bases are over," Nichols says. "People expect to obtain desired information and knowledge in small, digestible chunks on demand. They also won't accept long ramp-up times. They want to switch a device on or use an app without any learning or delay."
Within this new environment, it's also crucial to understand the demographics of the groups using the systems and how the technology and tools map to processes. "Not everyone collaborates in the same way," Nichols points out. "It's important to understand how a job function works and provide the right tools and environment. A highly structured and uniform approach no longer works."
Accenture's Raj adds: "It's important to create the right incentives to drive the desired behavior. And it's necessary to put the right controls, security and privacy protections in place, especially when you're dealing with partners and customers."
Make no mistake, communication and collaboration are transforming organizations. They're remapping the way people connect to information and each other.
"It's no longer about the CIO or IT department tossing out tools," Accenture's Hamilton emphasizes. "Organizations must integrate technologies to create a more efficient environment that fits today's digital enterprise. When done right, collaboration tools can turn an organization on its head and provide huge gains."