Every business relies on collaboration. Whether it's between colleagues, the management and other staff or with external stakeholders and partners we all have to work with other people. And anyone that's worked in systems development knows that the more interfaces you have between systems results in an exponential increase in complexity. The same applies when getting groups of people to work together.
For five years, I worked in the Australian utilities industry. Broad consultation, involving potentially hundreds of stakeholders were a fact of life. Essentially, the process started with a small group of experts drafting a paper. It was then released to the world for a limited period of time where comments were sought. At the end of that period, the comments were collated, workshops were held with stakeholders to go through the comments and produce a revised document. It would then be released again for a second, and hopefully final, round of comments before being approved and released.
Although the process worked, it was long and linear. If someone wanted to inject something for comment along the way, the process didn't allow it. The scope for injecting new ideas was limited as the process was limited to specific items under consideration.
Dr Mark Elliot completed his PhD in 2007, looking at large multi-user collaboration systems. That work led him to creating Collabforge. In particular, the impact on Web 2.0 processes meant that new ways of collaboration between large groups of geographically dispersed people were possible. This changed the way governments, in particular could interact with stakeholders.
His work started looking at the development of the City of Melbourne's strategic planning process. “This ended up re-engineering the city's 10-year planning process for collaborative participation and a collaborative outcome. This wasn't just about opening up the consultation process but also the consultation mechanisms. This lead to a wiki-type of method” Elliot said.
One of the big challenges for Elliot wasn't a reticence to look at new technologies but trepidation in how to use these new tools. Companies said to Elliot that they knew “that they needed to think about social media and Web 2.0 but we're really not sure where to start. It's relevant to us but we're not sure what applies”. So, a great deal of Elliot's work goes into talking with senior decision makers and taking them on the journey. When he first started, clients would often commence by asking for a specific technology rather than looking at the broader issues.
“It was probably one of the biggest challenges we faced early on as the conversation often started with an assumption that companies were asking for a piece of technology when, in fact, what they're asking for a reworking of the whole process and how the technology marries up and how it;s going to be supported by their culture, values and norms” Elliot explained.
Elliot's approach is to start by getting key stakeholders together into a room for a scoping exercise. “This is for us to throw up the big opportunities and for them to respond and generate a collaborative dialog”. This is a change scenario which brings up a bunch of change management considerations, innovation considerations and the need to deal with business as usual as well”.
One of the biggest challenges with introducing a new technology is that there's often an attachment to the old process. So the temptation is to try and fit the new technology over the old process. “There's an aspect of action learning or learning by doing in order to understand the impacts of the new technology and what it can do. We specifically engage in three different spaces: tools and technology, business and social process and people considerations such as culture, values and norms. We walk through all of those to tease things out” said Elliot.
The cultural issues are interesting, and something all CIOs need to face. The newest generations of employees are coming out of an education system where computers were ubiquitous. Elliot explains that “it often gets looked at in terms of 'digital natives' and 'digital immigrants'. There are definitely patterns such as Gen Y just expect to collaborate and share by default. For Gen X, they tend to be the bridge between baby boomers and Gen Y. Baby boomers see all this sharing as adding complexity but they see that their new staff want this”. Although these are clearly generalisations, Elliot's observation is that the senior managers, who are typically baby boomers, need that they need to plan for these changes.
1 – Introducing new, disruptive technology means looking at business processes critically and not just trying to shoe-horn the tech over the existing process.
2 – Start by identifying the problems, not the solution.
3 – The biggest hurdles are unlikely to be technical. It's managing the change with the people impacted that requires the greatest focus.
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This was first published in May 2011