Interview transcript: Enterprise Collaboration in 2014

Recently I was interviewed for MNP's Impact magazine along with our CIO Scott Greenlay and national Microsoft practice lead Steve Maclean. While the finished product will appear in an upcoming issue of Impact, the raw transcript of my Q&A offers a deeper look at the social and organizational aspects of today's collaboration technology. I hope you enjoy.


Impact: Is collaboration technology necessary to business today? Why?

Eli: Yes, business is collaboration - the people we work with, our teams, suppliers, and customers. And modern technology is evolution. It makes people more efficient by increasing the strength and visibility of our connections, it suggests new connections, and increases the speed that we can form new connections.

So is collaboration technology necessary? Absolutely, this is an evolution that started with e-mail and a web presence in the late 90's. We've seen it grow into public conversations over social media in the last decade, and now those patterns are being absorbed by business in this decade. Microsoft's new mantra is "Work like a network," and those not doing so - those still working with last generation technology - are losing ground to their competitors. Companies not aggressively flattening their hierarchies and democratizing their knowledge landscape are losing out in knowledge retention, the ability to respond to changing market conditions, and in attracting talent. We evolve or die.

Impact: What is included under the category - email? Internet? Sharepoint? Chat programs and social technologies like facebook and YouTube? Unique programs created/written to satisfy the specific needs of a field or firm?

Eli: "Collaboration" is about working together towards a common goal. It takes many forms. Collaboration is the conversations we have with people, and increasingly with bots, as well as the information and principles that guide us in pursuit of our goals. To support our conversations we use all sorts of media - phone, e-mail, instant messaging, text messaging, Newsfeeds, discussion forums - anywhere we can have a two-way conversation. Technologies like Microsoft Exchange, Lync, and Yammer support these conversations, and also forums like Twitter, LinkedIn, and Facebook where we collaborate with our communities and customers. To organize the information we consume and create - we rely on document management, search engines, and the data in our business applications. SharePoint and Office 365 happen to give us a great experience for organizing, working with, and searching into this information, they are the hubs at the centre of our collaboration.

As we move forward, technology will offer better insights into our collaboration. Business intelligence has progressed from static reports to real-time, geo-spatial visualization - the same technology that lets news pundits wave at maps where the heights of each country reflects its relative GDP - is now available for the board room. These are powerful ways to make a point.

Technology that provides insight into "big data" is being applied to what we call "social intelligence." It lets us analyse the wealth of collaborative content being generated in documents, e-mail and conversations. We're moving from simple trending topics towards the ability to analyse and forecast public sentiment like the weather, or at least to make better sense of cause and effect in hindsight.

And where it's always been hard to get people to curate content - tagging and organizing it - auto-tagging and search-based applications are now picking up the slack. It is now possible to design a robust information architecture that behaves in a self-organizing way. That makes it easier to find what we're looking for. That gives us comfort that we haven't missed anything. That helps our clients make better decisions. That lets us re-use search-based views that provide a fresh experience for collaborators - like generating a list of recent white-papers we've written on Technology Risk, and putting that feed in a site where we're collaborating with a client on their own Technology Risk Assessment.

Impact: How can different needs be satisfied through different collaboration technology?

Eli: It starts with where the customer is today - let's call it their "collaboration maturity level" - and what we envision together as their ideal future. Past experience and insight into what's next helps us to provide a realistic, achievable roadmap as they mature into the organization they want to become.

Also, different collaborative needs can be described as problems of Virtual Distance. This is a simple, powerful concept in a terrific book called Uniting the Virtual Workforce by Karen Sobel Lojeski and Richard R. Reilly. There are 3 underlying types of virtual distance: Physical, Operational, and Affinity. When virtual distance increases we lose the ability to build trust, and that kills teams.

Understanding both a client's collaboration maturity and the nature of the gap in virtual distance helps us prescribe the right mix of change management and technology. For example, research shows that mentally we consider any distance over 30 metres as "far" - if your desk is that far away from a colleague then it might as well be on another continent. Many clients see productivity decline as their offices grow, and we provide these insights to help them understand why videoconferencing or enterprise social media can help them scale more effectively.

Collaboration tools range from the relatively impersonal and disjoint like e-mail, to real-time and personal like a quality video-conference. The ideal of course is face-to-face, and the key is understanding how rich an experience team members need to support their daily work. Many only need to move from file shares into a well-organized Office 365 site to realize cost savings, along the benefits of team sites, mobile collaboration, and spaces to collaborate with their customers. Another might need a social networking strategy to collaborate with customers, but are running on a static HTML website today, so they need to walk before they run. Think of us like trainers - we will get you there as quickly as possible without hurting yourself along the way.

Impact: What is the collaboration technology you’re most interested or excited about right now?

Eli: That's a two-part answer. I love working with SharePoint on Office 365 - true software as a service where I can focus on great business solutions and get out of the weeds of infrastructure and operations. And cloud-hosted SaaS ("software as a service") marks the start of a truly service-oriented world of business, where it becomes possible to collaborate from any device. Cloud and mobile are what I'm excited about today.

With mobile we encourage clients to build apps for phones and tablets that help people collaborate when they're not at their desks, and apps to strengthen customer relationships. Again, the first step is often helping our clients organize and manage the content they already have, and from there we can serve new channels and platforms with lower incremental costs.

Impact: How does this benefit business and what types of businesses benefit most?

Eli: Small and mid-sized business benefit the most from cloud collaboration. Where you once needed an IT shop and server farm to get in the game, now you can buy packages with collaboration, document management, and business intelligence tools on monthly subscriptions from $5 to $25 a head. Cloud is a great equalizer.

What many find surprising is that the biggest companies are the first to adopt new technology and cloud was no exception. Architecting and coding solutions for the cloud - even while staying self-hosted - offers the advantage of choice - to migrate when prices drop or current agreements expire. When we design within constraints needed to scale massively, the solutions are always more economical. Small business often wonders how they can be outmanoevered by big business, and the answer isn't luck or magic, we can help.


Impact: Can you share an example of how you have improved the business processes or profit for a client by introducing a collaboration technology to them?

Eli: Cloud is easy - most every client we introduce to Office 365 will see savings in under two years. Document management is easy - so many offices still use file shares and just moving that chaos into a managed environment changes lives. I've seen Yammer and Jive used as idea generators - global virtual water coolers for ideation - and watched those threads turn into new products and innovations. Sometimes it's more about closing virtual distance with old technology - understanding when people need to meet face-to-face versus virtually. I saw one client literally save millions per quarter by cutting back on contractor travel in favour of Lync, LiveMeeting and conference calls.

I'd like to talk about a misconception too. Too many people think workflow is the answer to every question about business processes, when workflow is often the wrong solution. Often the real problems are visibility and accountability - "where is my request at?" - and not "can we audit approvals?" If you audited approvals when the process was paper-based, maybe workflow will help. Or if you can use workflow to move files through an assembly-line process - without making people click on 20 extra tasks - you are probably on the right track. For approval, most of the time we find a status column is enough, and maybe we protect that column so only certain people can change it. We can still track who did what and when, but now we can focus on a better UX to answer "where is my request at?" and actually simplify the process rather than blindly "automating" it.

Recently this played out with a City department who wanted workflow for document management. They had an approval process where we prototyped an approval workflow, and it turned out was really a review process - no one ever rejected a file, they commented, passed it forward, and an analyst later made changes to reflect the comments. Why assign tasks when there are simpler ways to tell people something is ready for review? We gave them a leaner process, saved people about dozen clicks per file, trimmed training needs, and were able to spend more time helping them answer "where's my file?"

Impact: Technology is continually changing and at a very fast pace. Many business owners are overwhelmed by critical business matters – networking, accounting/financials, procuring contracts, developing or expanding on products – and introducing and learning how to use new technology can be cringe-worthy. How do you decrease the anxiety around new technology for clients?

Eli: Knowledge resolves anxiety, training and education empowers people and gives them confidence in the solution. First I get us speaking the same language. I help the client understand what I do, and I learn what they do. Whether through conversation, formal training, or workshops, the goal is for us to speak the same language. That is essential for us to align on the path forward.

I also think of it less in terms of introducing technology, and more in terms of helping people navigate what's out there in order to take the next step towards realizing their goals. Providing that value is job one. I need to learn their business so I can express a solution in a way that in turn allows them to express their business through the solution. It becomes seamless. At MNP I rely on my colleagues who intimately know the language and business of our clients. We also have a terrific Change Management team, and we know that change management starts with minimizing change and ensuring the technology fits as seamlessly as possible into the business.

Too many firms and IT shops gather requirements, drop a technology solution on a client, expect great things, and when adoption fails they blame the customer for not becoming SharePoint experts. When instead they've failed the customer by not taking the time to learn the business first and helping them through the change. You need to start by building common ground.

Impact: How do you support a client once you’ve introduced technology to them – how does your service to them continue?

Eli: The solution is never just the technology - it's also about imparting governance and processes for them to manage the technology as the content evolves over time. For example we don't simply deliver taxonomies, we deliver processes to manage taxonomies. I don't design team sites, I design mechanisms for team sites to unfold, evolve, to grow and be pruned. Continued service is typically to enhance or refine the solution, or to help them with the next strategic step on their roadmap.

Impact: What considerations (if any) exist for introducing collaboration technology to large national and international firms? For example: regulatory considerations, servicing considerations, language considerations, cultural preferences and comfort. How do new or changing rules affect the work you do, like the new CASL "anti-spam" law which affects how businesses can contact and communicate with the public?

Eli: We see these considerations no matter the size - if you are regulated then there will be constraints and requirements, if you serve multiple markets then there will be language or cultural issues, if you send out announcements by e-mail then you are affected by the new anti-spam legislation. At MNP all solutions consider regulation, risk and security, and our clients can rely on us to keep them informed.

The differences between large and small are usually more about agility and the time it takes to align people towards a common goal. To get from a mediocre solution to a great one might call for some innovation, and the rule of thumb with innovation - until you get it right - is to fail fast and early with a small group of people. So small companies are typically more agile, and more likely to innovate. In larger firms you can still drive innovation, but you need to accept that you have more people and levers to work with, and it can take longer to get large teams in alignment.

Alignment is key. The people who resist change are the ones you never gave an opportunity to tell you their hopes and dreams. You didn't include them, so they don't get a sense of ownership or responsibility in supporting the solution. An ounce of consultation gets you a pound of adoption. Even if you know the solution after the first two focus groups, do not stop until everyone has had a say.

If you hit pockets of resistance and leadership is willing to let them hold out, then my job is to walk them down the road I've already walked, and let them experience the results for themselves, as quickly as possible. It even happens that some factions doesn't come around until months after you've left, but when you understand collaboration in terms of a sound maturity model, you begin to trust that they will get there eventually through trial and error. So far, they always do.

Once people are aligned it makes for a powerful force. People innovate and push barriers on their own, and that's where you get the magic you could not predict. Then it's back to basic principles of the managed chaos that we call business: Align on the vision, empower your people, encourage the good patterns, and disrupt the bad ones. Which brings us back to governance, as good a place to end as any.


If you found this useful or it triggered new ideas it would be great to hear from you in the Comments.

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