Bringing things together

For business, the traditional elements of people, processes and technology prop up all plans, yet it’s time for a look at how people collaborate and the type of voices heard, writes Quinton O’Reilly

For businesses, the three elements that allow for a successful work environment are people, processes and technology.

When brought down to its most basic level, that is the crux of business operations. Yet delve a little deeper and more elements come into play.

For any successful team to operate, good collaboration is essential to complete tasks and projects. The reasons for this are clear for all to see, yet this can’t just be solved by getting the latest collaboration tool, it’s a factor that’s defined by the type of people you have working and their methods.

Collaboration is also designed to help foster creativity and generate ideas that can lead to new opportunities, but for it to be truly successful, you need a diverse range of views, not just to help identify potential blind spots, but find solutions that might not have been explored before.

Software changing the rules

Before you start looking at the people, it’s worth mentioning first just how much the tools used to encourage and foster collaboration have evolved. Many services used by businesses are now optimised as Software as a Service (SaaS) offerings, meaning that there’s less infrastructure for companies to invest in and more benefits.

Since one of the most popular SaaS services is cloud-related, it means that collaboration can happen anywhere that has a decent internet connection, not just in the office.

It’s something that Paul Merry, workforce and digital transformation principal at Dell Technologies, says has significantly changed the workplace dynamic.

“I’d say the balance of collaboration is now very much in the hands of the individuals in organisations rather than the technology provided, be it internal or external,” he said.

“On that, I’ll make a distinction from what we used to do which was communication and what individuals now expect which is collaboration. They’re all focused on collaboration.”

What these kinds of collaboration tools have allowed is the level of creativity that you would have found in face-to-face meetings or brainstorms to happen more often. If you can pitch ideas or suggestions anywhere, then you give yourself and your staff members more opportunities to be creative.

Merry says that creativity has always been there with staff members, it’s just the number of ways to express it has increased.

“Personally I would say that I think it’s just allowed that creativity to continue,” he said.” That creativity has already been there, but it mainly came out when you had a face-to-face interaction or you’re around a whiteboard.

“Now the technology supports that and allows that creativity to be there with virtual teams as well.”

Part of what helps these methods of collaboration are the shared design language apps and services used. Many enterprise-level tools share similarities with consumer and personal tools like Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn and it’s probably no accident that services gravitate more towards this philosophy.

It means that for different age groups and generations, the effort needed to get people on the same page with tools isn’t as great as before, says Niall McConnell, the commercial director of Convergent.

“A lot of the collaboration tools are very intuitive and mirror a lot of the intuition that comes from common tools like Facebook and LinkedIn for example,” he said. “Irrespective of their age, the majority of people are comfortable using those types of technologies.

“Even though a 25-year-old and 55-year-old are different in terms of a lot of their mindsets and work processes, the transition is a little bit easier than a lot of organisations think because of the fact people are exposed to this technology anyway.”

People power

Before you start looking at the tools necessary for collaboration, it’s crucial that people are placed at the core of every decision. These are the people who have an in-depth knowledge of their roles and are best placed to say what works and what doesn’t.

Therefore, Merry strongly recommends putting this front and centre before you choose or invest in a new tool or project that you might feel benefits your workers.

“The critically important thing is, you have got to start with a very deep understanding of the individuals because ultimately this creativity comes from a collection of human beings,” he said. “You have to plan everything around how you can best support those individuals to do what they know best, to get their daily job done, and to help them work around obstacles.”

The idea behind that is to make sure the collaboration tools do the heavy lifting for employees and teams, so they can both focus on the important tasks at hand and ensure that collaboration is a simple process.

Michele Neylon chief executive of Blacknight Solutions

Also, Merry says not to overcomplicate the process. Most of the time, good enough will suit the company and while you can aim for perfection, you shouldn’t let it overrule decisions because you have a perfect vision for how it should work.

Creativity can also come in the form of using tools in a different way than intended, and the answer to that isn’t to correct them, it’s to evaluate why this is happening.

“When someone is using a solution you provide in a slightly different way, the first question has to be ‘why are they using it in that way?’,” said Merry. “[It’s] not to try and bring them to the way that you envisioned.

“Every individual knows their job role far better than [others] and if they’re using the solution we provide in a certain way, we have to say ‘why is the way I envisioned it not quite working for you’.

“It’s human-centric planning and it’s taking advantage of hitch supporting toolset so the natural collaboration that’s already there and you’re not there to introduce collaboration.”

Once you start to realise this, the concept of people planning becomes easier to grasp. Everyone has their own little quirks and methods that help them complete the tasks set out to them and understanding both individual and broad levels of work is key.

For Chas Moloney, the director of Ricoh Ireland and UK, your aim isn’t to introduce a broad method of working, but to customise methods that suit the team or teams you have.

“It’s understanding how people work and how they want to work,” said Moloney. “You do need to understand that people work in different ways.

“Therefore in terms of building collaboration platforms or tools or culture, a full understanding of how people work is the critical thing . . . the most important thing is to get the buy-in from senior leadership and the board of directors, or whoever it might be.

“Without that desire to change, to create an environment where people will be more productive, and without an understanding that different generations and different types of people and different types of workplace, the office, the train, if leadership don’t understand that . . . then you’re doomed to fail from the start.”

The buy-in is critical because if users can’t see the benefits of adopting a new approach or system, then the chances of it succeeding are greatly reduced. Yet you shouldn’t be blind to what approaches work well right now.

If there’s an approach that is working really well, that should be taken into consideration too.

“You do need that buy-in, but critically if someone says ‘this works really well, I don’t want to change’, then we probably got it wrong,” said Moloney. “Because if something is working really well, that should be part of the forensic examination, digging into how the processes of how the organisation work.

“If someone has a great idea or found a way to do something really productively, then 90 per cent of people, if they understand that, will buy into it because it means they can get their work done and move on to more valuable work that will add value.

“That’s why, from my perspective, the forensic examination of how people work in terms of the processes, the environment that they work in and looking at the technologies that they involve, is critical to success, but that’s secondary to having the leadership in the first place.”

Planned collaboration

Among all this talk of figuring out people is the underlying idea that you shouldn’t introduce tools for the sake of having them. When it’s said out loud, it’s pretty obvious, but much like meetings which serve little purpose other than to waste time, collaboration tools that are there will only seem to be a hindrance.

At the very least, make sure whatever you’re planning or introducing connects to other areas of the business and isn’t an isolated entity. If that happens, then you can end up with gaps in knowledge regarding progress with a project or document, and the inability to search back can mean certain ideas that could work for other areas can get lost.

“You’re not just collaborating for the sake of it, there’s a point for the collaboration,” said McConnell. “If the information isn’t available instantly for the people to be able to collaborate, then it’s useless.

“From the information management side of things, sorting that out needs to be done in conjunction with implementing collaboration tools. It’s not just about talking, it’s not just about messaging, it not just on a messenger, generally you’re just going to say ‘you’re looking at a document, I’ll do that and you’ll do that’.”

McConnell recommends using a collaboration tool that is their own and under their control. That way, the data and history of collaboration, like different version histories of a document, is kept to the one place and can’t be confused with a similar document in another system.

Chas Moloney, director, Ricoh Ireland and UK

If there is confusion over who has the latest version of a document or the type of changes that are made, that’s cause for concern. Also, having ownership over your data and knowing where it is located, both physically and digitally, is always a good thing.

“The best practice for an organisation to do is to implement a collaboration tool that is their own, and that means the collaboration tool is under their control,” he said. “Things like comments or shares relates to information within their organisation. For example, if you wanted to communicate by email, you’re referencing that piece of information in your email.

“If you want to collaborate on that piece of information, you’re accessing that piece of information and collaborating with it, unlike a situation like with Slack where you’re bringing something in, you’re talking about it and it sits outside there and you’re bringing it back into the organisation as an updated version.

“There’s a lot more to it than just saying it’s collaboration, there’s a lot of consideration organisations have to give in terms of where this information is going and where it’s kept. Not just from a data protection perspective, but from a usability perspective.”

The big part is planning and making sure that the major players involved in the business – that includes stakeholders and those who will be adopting these new changes – know why it’s happening and how change is going to occur.

Merry mentions that from research, you’re six times more likely to achieve a successful planned outcome if you’ve planned for the people-related elements of the change at the beginning.

If nothing else, that may encourage businesses to think about how the processes and technology connect with the people.

“If I see a transformation [plan], the first thing I look for is if we got the right balance between people change and technology change,” said Merry.

“I stress the significance of this, the clarity of the vision at the beginning is really important and having a plan to show that you can sustain that all the way to the end where you can add the value [is crucial].

“Transformation programmes generally, they either don’t have the clarity at the beginning so you can’t articulate to stakeholders why you should do this or frustratingly halfway through before they delivered the business value to stakeholders, they lose that vision.”

Constructing for diversity

For all the talk on collaboration and brainstorming, it’s not worth much if you only have the same, limited viewpoints pushing a business forward. Nowadays, a diverse range of views is becoming more important, not just in demographics, but gender, nationalities and backgrounds.

The more viewpoints and perspectives you have, the greater chance at innovation that you have.

For Kathy Schneider, the global CMO at Sungard AS, innovation comes down to three main things: diversity, skills and collaboration. Yet the overall shortage in talent is currently impacting the industry and is a big issue for businesses.

“When it comes to education and choosing career paths, the tech industry has a severe image problem,” she said. “Science, technology, engineering and maths (Stem) subjects form the bedrock of the tech industry, however, these subjects are typically considered as requiring some innate ability and proclivity towards being techie.

“They are also not effectively linked to their potential applications in the workforce, for example, graphic and product design, financial and marketing analytics, music production, other creative subjects. Furthermore, the promotion of Stem-related role models in the media pales in comparison to role models for subjects such as communications, politics, sports and business.”

For examples of those trying to make an impact in this area, Blacknight is one company that has made significant efforts to improve its company so that it’s welcoming to anyone who has the skills.

After going through a human rights impact assessment, a process that helps identify, predict and respond to potential human right impacts of a business operation, its owner and chief executive Michele Neylon says its percentage of male to female employees is “closer to 60:40” and it takes the necessary measures to help them achieve a work-life balance.

“We got several staff who changed their time and work schedule to facilitate navigating around childcare and work,” said Neylon.

Niall McConnell commercial director of Convergent

“It’s more of a philosophy and approach rather than a concrete set of things. We can look at things like some of the metrics people look at outside, like are there differences between salaries between men and women doing the same job. In our case, no.

“If we have someone who is first-level tech support and who’s female, they’re earning the same as their male equivalent.

“The kind of things we’re doing is with maternity leave, we will top up the salary to the full amount so anybody who’s on maternity leave gets their full salary for six months. They are the kinds of things we’re conscious of and keep an eye on.”

Gender diversity is an area that Neylon places a great deal of focus on, not only in terms of representation, but also with the structures in place. The company itself has fewer than 50 full-time staff, yet it takes a number of measures to ensure that its staff members have the necessary flexibility.

There are certain limitations. According to Neylon, not every role or person will be suited to remote working, but providing it shows that staff can strike a better balance without compromising on their work ethic.

“The one that’s more interesting is things we’ve had to implement in order to allow for that gender diversity because while Ireland is a lot better than certain other countries. We still have a long way to go, especially in the tech sector to try and make that tech sector and business in general more welcoming to people regardless of their want to have families.

“If you look at the entire start-up culture, there also needs to be an emphasis on work-life balance and allowing for people to work who might not fit into that traditional nine-to-five role, who might need the flexibility to start work later in the day, who might need certain other kind of things so they can deal with things like childcare, dropping kids into school and collecting them.

“On top of making sure there is a diverse range of people on board, you also need to create an environment where staff members can speak up without feeling like they could be punished for it.”

Moloney mentions that for collaboration to be successful, people need to feel like they’re being listened to, as well as feeling comfortable in their working environment.

“In too many organisations, people are saying I’m not going to voice my opinion because they’ll criticise me for it,” he said. “For this work, you have to have the culture where people feel confident expressing their view, even if it’s one that leadership doesn’t want to hear.

“If you have a culture where you’re constantly looking to improve, constantly asking how do we innovate our organisation, how can we continue to look at ways to add value to our business, leadership has to accept that sometimes they’re going to be told [something they don’t want to hear].

“They have to accept that and work with people who are on the front line, who are dealing with customers, who are the best people to listen to because they spend more time doing their role than anyone else in the organisation.

“That’s where you need to look at change management programmes to bring this consensus of views together and then come up with a recommendation that everyone feels they’re part of.

“I may not have the recommendation that I wanted, but at least I was part of the participation in that recommendation and that very much comes down to culture and leadership accepting that they should listen to their employees and make decisions based on that.”

For addressing the diversity side of things, Schneider mentioned reaching out to those who mightn’t see themselves as tech people. While Stem is important, it’s not essential for starting a career in the tech industry.

Breaking down that barrier could lead to people from different backgrounds embracing tech and help foster a more diverse talent pool.

“Yes, these subjects are useful for highly technical roles, but by no means should this act as a general filter on entry into the industry,” she said. “The technology industry is comprised of a variety of different non-tech focused roles which are equally as crucial.

“The tech industry overall is also interested in salespeople who can truly understand a customer’s business challenges — not just technical or IT challenges — and build a strong relationship based on good listening and proactive engagement.

“Human resources is another interesting route into the tech space, which often has the challenge of how to retain, grow and acquire talent when the company is growing very quickly or adapting to a major technology shift or consolidation — two traits not exclusive to ICT, but common.”

Keeping the motivation going

The ability to collaborate from anywhere would allow people to take their work outside the office from time to time, but it’s worth considering who will benefit most from it. Not every role is suited to remote working and not everyone has the required self-discipline to make it work, said Michele Neylon of Blacknight.

“Psychologically, some people are better suited to it, it isn’t going to work for absolutely everyone,” he said. “It will work for certain roles, but it won’t work for everyone and that’s okay.

The changing nature of work means that fewer people are tied to the office desk, but in some cases, being on-premise is the way to go, be it because of their work requirements or how they work.

“Looking at it across internally, we have multiple teams dealing with different parts of the business and for some of those teams, it’s completely normal that 20, 30 or 40, even 50 per cent of staff are working remotely at any given time.

“That works fine because of the nature of what they’re doing, but for other ones, due to the way they’re working and what they’re working on, it doesn’t lend itself as easily to that.”

Culture shift

One part of business life that new collaboration tools have allowed is remote working. The ability to work from home or anywhere else shouldn’t be underestimated by businesses as more workers are looking for it to help work-life balance. Simply because people have different life commitments and may require flexibility.

It also means another important element comes into play: trust. If you don’t have that, the idea is a non-runner.

“Yes, you can work from home on Tuesday, I’m not managing you via presenteeism as I trust you,” said Chas Moloney, director of Ricoh Ireland and UK. “That’s a cultural thing as well. I’m measuring you by outcomes, not by the fact that you’re sitting at your desk in your office.

“Even if you’re sitting at the desk in the office, can you guarantee that they’re delivering on the business or are they on Facebook or Twitter or doing the shopping.”

The other part is that those working remotely will have likely got through a change management programme, Moloney said, so they understand what they’re doing, how it works and therefore feel like they’re part of the decision process. All of this ties back to placing the people at the centre of your decision-making.

“When you’re adopting a technology platform or collaboration platform, because people have been part of the change management programme, they understand why it’s been brought in, and how they can use it,” he said.

“They understand the value it brings to them so when I’m sitting at home on Tuesday as per your example, not only am I continuing to add value to my role within the business, I’m helping others add value to the business despite the fact that I’m working remotely.”