"We've spent a fortune on collaborative technology, but no one is using it ... or if they are, it's for purely social, non-productive activities."
Sound familiar? It's a lament I've heard many times from organizations over the past several years. Most leaders are sold on the tremendous potential new collaborative technologies present to change the way work gets done: increasing productivity, stimulating innovation, and enhancing employee engagement. But realizing the benefits is proving to be a frustrating challenge for many.
Just gaining widespread adoption — getting people to use the technology — can present a major hurdle. Driving real changes in the way work is done can be even harder. Why is it proving so difficult? And what can you do to speed not only adoption, but the adoption of productive practices in your organization?
To understand the challenges of using collaborative or social software inside business organizations, begin by thinking about the use of similar technologies in your personal life. When we use Facebook, Twitter, Linked In, and most other personal social software applications, we share these experiences:
- We're usually invited to participate by people we know and trust.
- There are specific things we want to do with the other people involved, such as share photos, stay up-to-date on a club's activities, or develop a personal reputation.
- We get something back from participation: advice, practical information we need, a network to tap when times are rough, or the emotional pleasure of seeing others photos or hearing their news.
- We have control over who sees our information.
- The applications are intuitive — there's no training required.
- The applications are well-tuned to support the specific tasks we want to perform and their features are regularly rated and refined.
In contrast, the social software used in many organizations today has a distinctly different cultural context and level of performance:
- Often we're instructed to use it by someone in authority, rather than invited by friends.
- Little of what we actually get paid to do (or believe we get paid to do) requires information or input from the vast majority of other people on the network.
- Participation feels like dropping pearls into a black hole — there's often no sense of getting something in return for sharing an idea or suggestion.
- We have no control over who sees our information and little idea what "they" are doing with it.
- The site is unattractive and requires a manual to get started.
- The software is generic and requires a work-around to do the specific things we would really like to do.
These differences are at the heart of the adoption dilemma. Personal applications are finely tuned to the activities individuals already perform or would like to perform and to the people with whom they want to interact. They exude (even when it's not really there) a sense of control and choice.
In sharp contrast, corporations often approach collaborative technology by:
- Investing in technology with no clear intent or use in mind.
- Not customizing the technology to relevant work processes.
- Expecting people to collaborate within old organizational models and practices.
- Believing that people will use it because senior management told them to.
These approaches lead to poor adoption or sub-optimal use of collaborative systems in business. People either won't use the system or, if they do, it won't have a significant impact on the outcomes that count: productivity, innovation, and engagement. As one executive told me recently, "We've built a great deal of capability — and participation — but it only touches 1% of our productive activity because it's not part of the flow of the work."
Nevertheless, no matter how challenging, the use of collaborative technology for work will continue to grow over the years ahead because when it's used properly, social technology enables a very different level of performance. Your competition will shift the playing field in your industry by integrating this technology into how work gets done if you don't. This train is leaving the station.
How can you make sure your organization is not only on board but knows where it's going and gets the kind of participation that truly makes a difference in productivity, creativity, and collaboration? Make sure the social media in your workplace has the same characteristics as social media in your personal life:
- Strategy — a clear, specific purpose,
- Technology — designed around user behavior,
- Organization — supported by new structures and practices as necessary, and
- Personal Engagement — catalyzed individual discretionary effort.
This blog first appeared on Harvard Business Review on 2/16/2012.