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Collaboration requires tools and culture

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19 May 2017

Global Services

Blogs by author:  Global Services , We’re a leading global business communications provider

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Does your company have a chief collaboration officer? Probably not. Or rather, not yet. In the digital age, the need for swift and effective collaboration is greater than ever. Today’s digital employees deliver the best results in a productive environment, supported by collaboration tools that enable seamless switching between devices and technologies.

Communication has changed considerably over the past decade. Since fixed telephony and fax, we’ve evolved via mobile and email to chat, video and social media.

Dominic Elliott, CTO, Cisco Systems
Dominic Elliott, CTO, Cisco Systems

"Count how many different communication channels you use personally," says Dominic Elliott, CTO at Cisco Systems. "It is no longer just e-mail and SMS, but also WhatsApp, Facebook, Instagram and so on." Young people have mastered these forms of communication to perfection. When they enter the business world, they will continue to use these tools. "It is part of who they are," Dominic explains. "They will also use these tools in their jobs, regardless of ICT guidelines and security provisions." They’ll communicate outside the traditional corporate ICT environment.

The digital employee belongs to the so-called “shoulder bag” generation.

"The smartphone and tablet suffice," says Nicola Millard, Head of Customer Insight & Futures at BT’s innovation team. "The whole office fits in a shoulder bag."

Mobile, agile work is a reality today. Our study found that this flexibility is critical to the way digital employees assess their jobs. “For this new generation of workers, the freedom to work at a place and time that best suits them tops the wish list when considering the benefits of a job.” As a result teams are, by definition, working in a more virtual and distributed manner. "And so the support of such collaboration is essential," adds Nicola. "Such emphasis on collaboration is typical of high-performance organisations. But it isn’t magical, it doesn’t just happen on its own accord.”

The end user decides

As was the case with smartphones and tablets, it is the end-user who will usher in the use of collaboration tools in the corporate environment. The technology in this regard serves primarily as an enabler. Suppliers of corporate collaboration tools who get it wrong, should not count on any mercy.

 "The user experience determines everything," says Dominic. "You can have the best technology in-house, but if the user doesn’t find it easy and convenient to work with, then the music soon stops.” Moreover - and this is relatively new - the decision lies with the end user. "The employer can obviously say: use that tool, because it’s good for you. But that is not sufficient. If the employee is not convinced, then he or she will reach for something else without the IT department’s knowledge.  "So there you are, a company equipped with an expensive collaboration platform - perfectly managed and secured, including audit trail - that no one uses.”

Dr Nicola Millard
Dr Nicola Millard
Head of Customer Insight and Futures, BT

"Technology makes things possible," states Nicola, "but does not change behaviour." The implementation of a collaboration tool is therefore not enough to turn a group of employees into a solid, productive team. "The role of leadership is also changing, certainly in virtual teams. A manager’s job is no longer to exert control, but to create a certain drive. "The team must have a purpose, a reason for being.” That’s why Nicola compares the manager’s role to being a host. "Just like the host at a party, he or she organizes the party, knows all the guests and connects them to each other.” The manager makes sure that employees do not think solely in terms of themselves, but also in the interest of the company.

Greatest common denominator

Unfortunately, making people work together sounds easier than it actually is. And now the use of tools creates an additional layer of complexity. "Some employees use e-mail, others prefer to work with chat, and so on." says Nicola. Before you know it, they’ve created little islands that do not communicate with each other. "As a manager you must have everyone on board, so that everyone talks to everyone over the various technologies."

But above all there must be a communication channel that everyone is comfortable using. Video is a very immersive tool, but introverted types are rarely fans. The telephone – as has become apparent - often remains the common denominator. This is not a new or sexy channel, but one that everyone endorses. E-mail is certainly no alternative. "A horrible tool," says Nicola, "at least when it comes to collaboration. E-mail should be used to exchange information, and nothing else."

The goal of collaboration is to work more productively, and thereby make faster and better decisions. In the near future there is an expectation that new technologies such as robotics, artificial intelligence and augmented reality could enable new forms of collaboration. The media often interpret this in a negative way, taking the view that traditional jobs are under threat and will disappear due to new technologies. "I’m certainly not pessimistic about this evolution," says Dominic. "I grew up in a time when we still had coal mines and steel mills in Britain. The economy over the past thirty years has changed dramatically, mainly driven by new technology. And even though the population is much larger than before, we still have much lower unemployment rates than back then.”

We agreed that technology will never replace everything. "People remain better than machines," says Nicola. “I prefer to see technology as the solution for the things we would rather not do ourselves. Moreover, technology helps us to live longer and lead better lives. "

Office in Bermuda

BT and Cisco Systems are together bringing BT One Cloud Cisco to the market, a platform with a set of integrated collaboration tools. "In principle you can start with telephony," says Dominic, "and then subsequently add more functionality: chat, video, you name it."

But again, the tools are only the tip of the iceberg. The real change is rooted in new forms of collaboration and the management style this demands. "It will no longer be about the number of hours you spend in the office " concludes Nicola Millard, "it will be about the quality you deliver. Whether you sit at home, in the office or somewhere on a beach in Bermuda, basically makes no difference."