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Collaboration is the secret of success in digital transformation

Phil Wainewright Profile picture for user pwainewright December 7, 2015
Modern connected business applications drive new patterns of collaboration into the enterprise - here lies the secret of success in digital transformation

Teamwork concept with hands and jigsaw pieces © Coloures-pic –
(© Coloures-pic –
Modern connected business applications are driving new patterns of collaboration into the enterprise, with HR, IT and Internet of Things projects being important drivers. Understanding those patterns and making sure they work well is the secret of success in digital transformation. But who will take charge to ensure that success?

Collaboration used to be something that happened within well-defined teams or workgroups within an enterprise. Think back to the 1990s, when the term for collaboration software such as Lotus Notes was, simply, 'groupware'.

But in the digital era, collaboration stretches across distance and boundaries to form dynamic teams whose members are drawn from different workgroups both within an outside of the enterprise. This has fueled the success of cloud collaboration platforms such as Google Apps, Office365 (including Yammer) and Box, over earlier more inward-focused collaboration and content management software such as Microsoft Sharepoint, OpenText and others.

These new platforms, delivered from the cloud, are inherently open to serving team members that may work for other enterprises or none, and make it easy to onboard and offboard team members as needed to meet shifting demands.

But collaboration is not just an activity that revolves around documents and projects. Connected business applications, delivered from the cloud to mobile devices, also enable workers to share and progress activities. Sometimes this happens through specific collaboration add-ons, such as Salesforce Chatter, SAP Jam, Microsoft's Yammer and others. But often it simply happens within the applications because everyone can view the same information and interact around it using external messaging and communications methods.

What we think of as 'self-service' is becoming a common example of this type of application-centered collaboration. An activity that used to be sent off to be done centrally — whether it's booking a vacation in an HR application or adding a new metric to a dashboard in a financials application — can now be done by the worker themselves, accessing the functionality in a cloud-based application to complete the task, often on a mobile device. In the best implementations, they have access to an HR or IT specialist as appropriate if they need help to complete that task. So the activity is completed collaboratively.

As more and more of our work activities become digitally connected, many more of these cross-functional collaboration patterns are surfacing. Now that shopfloor systems and physical assets are starting to be instrumented and connected through the Internet of Things (IoT), people in operational roles are starting to talk about the convergence of operational technology (OT) and information technology (IT). Here, too, collaboration patterns that never existed before are beginning to emerge.

Changing patterns of collaboration

Putting connected digital technology in place enables these patterns of collaboration, and in many organizations the collaboration emerges organically. But the unfamiliar nature of this cross-functional collaboration often challenges existing reporting structures and there is no guarantee that it will be successful. Proper change management planning is needed.

HR specialists that have delivered cloud HR systems are discovering the collaboration model assumes a flatter organizational structure, in which employees and managers perform much of the HR administration themselves, while HR professionals become advisors and partners to them. This can be a culture shock if not anticipated, as Catherine Leaver, director of global HR transformation at telecoms giant Telefonica, recently warned:

You cannot separate system change from broader organizational change. You have to adapt the two, and you have to deliver the two at the same time.

As soon as you start to implement your first modules, you will immediately have changed the process, and you will immediately have made some alignment of roles and responsibilities. If you ignore that fact, you will struggle to deliver the embedding of those processes.

Users taking charge of their own IT is often an unexpected side-effect of rolling out new cloud-based tools. At Rentokil Initial, an early implementation of Google Apps led business people to learn that they could create their own workflows and automations without having to involve IT. As Anthony Meadows, global director of enterprise IT, told me:

Without realizing it, it began to have an effect on the way we use IT ... Google enabled the business to start go doing things.

The business services giant's IT team now sees its role as providing API building blocks and development frameworks that the business can use to satisfy its technology needs, working with IT.

In an example from enterprise IoT, the R&D team at energy management giant Schneider Electric is planning to incorporate feedback from field engineers into product specifications and updates as it rolls out its connected products strategy. As Twila Osborn, vice president in the R&D function explained, the organization has to set up a connected loop of information flow and collaboration between marketing, product management and the teams in the field to realize the full benefit of this convergence.

In a recent article for Harvard Business Review, Harvard Business School's Michael Porter and James Heppelmann, CEO and president of IoT vendor PTC wrote about the effect of these collaboration patterns on organizational structures:

The need to coordinate across product design, cloud operation, service improvement, and customer engagement is continuous and never ends, even after the sale. Periodic handoffs no longer suffice. Intense, ongoing coordination becomes necessary across multiple functions, including design, operations, sales, service, and IT. Functional roles overlap and blur. In addition, completely new and critical functions emerge — for instance, to manage all the new data and the new open-ended customer relationships. At the broadest level, the rich data and real-time feedback from smart, connected products challenge the traditional centralized command-and-control model of management in favor of distributed but highly integrated choices and continuous improvement.

My take

I'm increasingly convinced that understanding and harnessing these emerging patterns of collaboration is absolutely fundamental to the success of digital transformation. I used to think that this meant collaboration platforms would be the key to this. While they're important, this goes beyond technology platforms into the very nature of the enterprise and how it is structured, managed and organized. Getting the right mindsets, skillsets and culture in place is equally crucial.

Someone therefore needs to take charge of that change management role. I suspect that in many organizations, HR will often be the pioneer because self-service and cloud delivery has come early to this functional role. HR also has responsibility for management development, learning and training, so it has the tools at its command to be able build those skillsets and influence the culture. IT will inevitably also have to be involved as this is another function that is rapidly learning to work with business users who are learning to provision and adapt their own IT resources. But ultimately these skills will be needed in every function as connected working in distributed, cross-functional teams becomes the norm across the enterprise.


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