Main content

Collaborative canvas - how to connect digital teamwork across the enterprise

Phil Wainewright Profile picture for user pwainewright October 28, 2019
For effective digital teamwork, each enterprise must create its own collaborative canvas, comprising eight key components outlined here

collaborative canvas diagram by @philww @diginomica
(@philww @diginomica)

For the past few years it's been evident that new patterns of collaboration are emerging to supercharge teamwork across the digital enterprise. This trend has been accompanied by the rapid rise of a new generation of digital teamwork tools — but out of the plethora of tools available, how do you choose the right mix for your organization? Enter the collaborative canvas.

This is not something you can buy off the shelf. No one vendor offers a complete collaborative canvas — perhaps that will happen in the future, but we're not there yet. Instead, every individual enterprise must bring together the combination of tools that best fits its own digital teamwork needs.

The result should be a flexible, connected framework that allows participants to digitally share, organize, track and progress work across all of the various teams they are part of. In a modern digital enterprise, we typically see small, dynamic, cross-functional teams working autonomously within a highly connected ecosystem, where transparency ensures that everyone can see how their work fits into the whole, and enabling rapid responses even when team members work remotely.

Two years ago, I set out the eight core characteristics of the collaborative canvas. Last week in a session at UNLEASH in Paris I presented my latest thinking on how those eight components fit together. This is a summary of the key points.

Four different digital teamwork patterns

One of the reasons why there's no single collaborative canvas available off-the-shelf is that different forms of work demand different patterns of teamwork. We all need to anchor our work in some kind of shared canvas, but that canvas needs different dimensions to accommodate those different types of teamwork. Therefore four of the eight components cater for these different teamwork patterns:

  • Functional applications serve teamwork that revolves around specific functions, such as HR, sales or finance. People in these specialist roles spend most of their working day in these applications, and therefore it makes sense for the collaboration within these specialist teams to take place inside the applications they focus on, whether that be HCM, CRM, ERP or something else.
  • Content platforms are most appropriate for people whose work revolves around pieces of content. This includes marketing professionals, for example, who spend much of their time working on content for campaigns, branding, and so on, or lawyers, whose work revolves around evaluating agreements, depositions and other forms of legal content. Digital content platforms include Office 365, G Suite, Box and Dropbox.
  • Conversation and messaging platforms work best for people who often need to respond in the moment, such as customer support teams and troubleshooters, or deskless service workers, for example in the hotel or entertainment industries. These platforms, including Slack, Microsoft Teams and Zoom, are also a simple means of connecting people across different teams, as a supplement to the other tools they use for more focused collaboration.
  • Workflow tools serve people in production roles, who pass their work through a co-ordinated process. This includes software engineering and development teams, product designers in manufacturing, and many others. They can also be used in combination with other teamwork tools to track and monitor the flow of work across the enterprise. This is a very broad category, but a few examples include ServiceNow, Jira, Asana, Workato and Workfront.

There are many different tools that serve these various teamwork patterns — and some platforms, such as Office 365 and G Suite, straddle more than one — but their value is limited if each of them operates as a separate silo. They all need to be interconnected, and that's why it's important to think of them all as part of a single collaborative canvas that brings together all the various patterns of teamwork across the enterprise. There are other advantages, too.

A foundation for more effective teamwork

In a modern, digitally connected organization, most people work in multiple teams that are constantly changing. HR or finance specialists also need to advise business counterparts, marketing campaign planners need to consult product managers or legal advisors, customer support agents often need to connect with sales colleagues or product designers. Having a common set of interconnected teamwork tools makes it much easier for people to join or switch between teams as needed.

Information is constantly changing and therefore people need to have maximum transparency into what's happening elsewhere in the organization. Information can be shared more rapidly if the enterprise has standardized on a single platform for each type of teamwork — a single messaging platform, a single content platform and a single workflow platform should each connect across every enterprise function. These may connect into other tools — quite often an organization will have multiple content and workflow tools — but these subsidiary tools should operate as satellites of the enterprise-wide platforms.

A further advantage of having teamwork tracked in a unified digital canvas is that it becomes possible to apply data science to analyze how effective those teamwork patterns are in delivering the organization's goals and objectives. Machine learning can then start to recommend tweaks or shortcuts that can help make that teamwork more effective. This element is still in its infancy at present, but has huge potential as these platforms start to codify and collect teamwork data.

Completing the collaborative canvas

A unified collaborative canvas also shares four other crucial components. Two of these are firmly in the realms of technology and data, while the other two are more concerned with people attributes and skills.

  • Sync — everyone needs to be looking at the same information at the same time, and therefore it's essential that files and data are in sync across the collaborative canvas.
  • Search — with so much going on in various different teams and tools across the enterprise, it becomes crucial to be able to quickly find information or resources wherever they may be.
  • Permissions and privacy — this is the corollary of giving as much access as possible to information and resources across the collaborative canvas. There must be a robust system of access permissions to ensure that people can't see data that must stay private.
  • Identity and talent — not just who each person is, but also what they bring. Tied up with identity are elements such as what each individual brings to the team and how their own personal goals and aspirations interact with the organization's goals.

Each organization needs to stitch together a unique collaborative canvas that works for where they're coming from and what their goals are. For large, established enterprises, it may take a long time to achieve standardization on a single messaging, content or workflow platform when many different tools are in use across the organization. This is not something that can be imposed arbitrarily from the center, because adoption is crucial to the effectiveness of these tools. They need to be tools that people want to use, supported by carefully directed advocacy.

It's important also to create the collaborative canvas within the context of strategic goals that will make the most of its potential. This is not simply a technology adoption exercise. It won't achieve useful results without a thorough overhaul of the organization's processes to adapt them to the new possibilities of a digitally connected enterprise. I won't elaborate further here as I've written previously on this elsewhere — the collaborative canvas forms part of a roadmap that also encompasses the Everything-as-a-Service (XaaS) business model and the journey towards frictionless enterprise.

A grey colored placeholder image