Feature Story

The Journey to Greater Organizational Collaboration

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In Part Three of this four-part series, Cisco discusses how organizations can "cross the chasm" by aligning their collaboration efforts to their business goals.

Please see the previous installments in this series Part One: The Case for Collaboration, and Part Two: Cultivating Organizational Collaboration. Part Four will post Dec. 7.

Nov. 30, 2009

by Charles Waltner

Successful collaboration requires radically different thinking and behavior from an organization's strategic leadership, business managers, and rank-and-file employees. New habits need to be formed, new technologies scaled and new work procedures developed. The Cisco Collaboration Framework provides the guidance to make these necessary changes.

As for any long journey, it is good to have a roadmap. With this in mind, Cisco has identified three distinct phases that all organizations pass through as they develop new collaborative capabilities with Web 2.0 technologies. These are the investigative phase, the performance phase and the transformational phase (see sidebar for more information).

Most importantly, the Cisco Collaboration Framework provides guidance to help organizations "cross the chasm" of collaboration, making the critical leap from the ad hoc investigative phase to the strategic performance phase where organizations will gain major long-term business benefits from collaboration. The final transformational phase is the ultimate goal, where collaboration helps an organization achieve fundamental changes to its business models and expand its operational possibilities.

Creating a Collaboration Roadmap

To successfully develop the people, processes and technology capabilities necessary for new forms of collaboration, an organization must carefully align its collaboration efforts with its business objectives, says SBT Advisors' Francois Joanette , a management consultant who assisted Cisco in developing the Collaboration Framework.

By establishing a clear three-year vision for its collaboration efforts and an explicit one to two-year game plan for its strategy, an organization will be able to successfully identify, prioritize and sequence the initiatives necessary for establishing new business and management processes, Joanette says.

However, before attempting to "cross the chasm" with a strategic effort to become more collaborative, an organization first needs to assess its current capabilities. To complicate matters, attitudes towards collaboration can often vary widely within individual departments of a larger organization. But by making a careful assessment, an organization will know much more about the kind of capabilities it needs as it progresses through the three phases of collaboration, Joanette says.

To help with assessing collaboration readiness, organizations can, for example, survey employees about their attitudes towards collaboration, which can provide pointers to the missing ingredients an organization needs for effective collaboration, Joanette says.

He adds that organizations also need to take an inventory of their physical collaboration environments. What technologies are already in place? What is the network's bandwidth, and what tools are available to employees, partners and others in the enterprise ecosystem? Answers to these and other infrastructure questions will help organizations assess the practical limits of what new collaborative activities they can immediately adopt and what infrastructure investments they will need to make.

Identifying Collaboration Zones

To assess how collaboration can best help an organization reach its business goals, it needs to identify its collaboration impact zones, says Brendan Hynes, a principle author of the Cisco Collaboration Framework.

Impact zones are the building blocks of the Cisco Collaboration Framework. Collaboration zones are the highest intensity intersections of interactions, information and expertise in your organizational ecosystem of employees, partners and customers, Hynes explains.

Four dimensions of interaction need to be considered when assessing impact zones: reach, richness, openness and speed. These define the scope of collaboration for a given activity and where an organization might need to make improvements, Hynes says.

Much of the work in collaboration zones focuses on how to make tacit knowledge more accessible. Creating the necessary contact and trust for sharing knowledge is where Web 2.0 technologies can revolutionize organizational collaboration.

But simply identifying the existence of tacit knowledge in employees, partners or customers is not enough, Hynes says. Most importantly, organizations must determine which types of tacit knowledge exchange are most for improving their business operations. These are the collaboration impact zones that will provide the greatest return on investment by improving product quality, refining customer service, reducing production costs or efficiently accessing new markets, among other possibilities.

Communication Essential

While thoughtful due diligence is crucial for creating the roadmap for guiding an organization in its quest for greater collaborative capabilities, everyone in an organization needs to take that journey together, says Blair Christie, Cisco's senior vice president of corporate communications. She says that getting employees – or anyone, for that matter – to change their habits is extremely difficult.

"Cisco loves technology, but 'deploying' technology is much easier than 'employing' it," she says. "We have more than 60,000 people. That's a lot of different behaviors to manage."

Christie says that substantial collaborative changes to an organization require a comprehensive and constant educational and awareness campaign. While executives can inspire employees to change, they still need to be shown how to change.

For example, Christie's group started an internal Web site in 2006 to help educate employees about new collaboration technologies that were just becoming popular. The site also allowed employees to share ideas about using the tools and "let best practices bubble to the top," she says.

Also, in an unusual partnership for most companies, her corporate communications group has worked in close partnership with Cisco's information technology team to "be the megaphone" for the changes that new collaboration tools were introducing to the company.

By promoting new tools and changes in company processes or policies, her group was able to build awareness, acceptance and adoption with Cisco employees much like any company might promote its products or services to its customers.

"The act of communicating is half the battle," she says.

 Charles Waltner is a freelance writer in Piedmont, Calif.