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Frictionless Enterprise - digital teamwork and the Collaborative Canvas (1/2)

Phil Wainewright Profile picture for user pwainewright March 24, 2022
A platform for digital teamwork is a critical element of IT infrastructure. Phil Wainewright continues our series on Frictionless Enterprise with an overview of what makes up the Collaborative Canvas.

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

Earlier generations of computing focused on automating the transactions at the core of the enterprise. Today's digital technologies add the ability to automate what happens between and around them. In the digital enterprise, collaboration applications have become as core to operations as traditional enterprise applications such as ERP. The enterprise platform for digital teamwork thus becomes a critical element of the IT infrastructure, while digital connection across time and distance fundamentally transforms how we work together to get things done.

This new chapter of our seven-part series on Frictionless Enterprise is a long one, so we've split it into two parts. In part one, we'll explore the make-up of the Collaborative Canvas that organizations need to build to co-ordinate work in this more distributed paradigm. In line with the principles of Frictionless Enterprise that we described in the opening chapter, this enterprise-wide platform for digital teamwork has to eliminate barriers to connection, cutting across traditional functional silos. Or as I put it in an earlier article:

The purpose of Frictionless Enterprise is to enable your organization and everyone who contributes to it to become a more effective network participant in all of their interactions.

Part two will look at the impact of Collaborative Canvas on enterprise culture, processes and structure. It will pick up on the discussion in our previous chapter of how the XaaS Effect builds on digital connection to measure and improve outcomes. Digitizing teamwork brings the XaaS Effect to an organization's internal operations, providing data and insights to help teams work better and improve outcomes.

We'll go on to explore the impact of these factors on the nature and goals of digital teamwork, ending up with some reflections on the potential to fundamentally reshape the enterprise, flattening hierarchies and abandoning centralized, office-based deskwork.

Distributed, cross-functional teams

The journey to Frictionless Enterprise means leaving behind the structures of the industrial-era firm. Its processes were designed around the notion of static documents that flow from one department to another, each recording a separate transaction together with all of the relevant context at the time the document was created.

Today, there's no need to pass around all of that context, because the digital connection makes it possible to look up the latest information from its source at any time. This in turn frees up the flow of work around the organization:

In the old, pre-digital world, the enterprise was divided up into functional departments because this was the only way to get things done at the time. Without today's digital connectivity, processes had to follow a predefined, sequential path, otherwise things would go astray or get stuck. Today, those departmental boundaries have become an obstacle to efficient working.

Digital connection enables an organization to operate on real-time data and resources, available anywhere on-demand. It opens up teams and organizations to share information, know-how and agency where and when it's needed. Work no longer has to be confined to functional silos. Instead, people can self-serve the information they need, connect with experts wherever they are based, and initiate or approve actions with a tap on their mobile phone. Digital teamwork becomes inherently distributed, dynamic, cross-functional, and increasingly multi-firm:

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 ...

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.

In a 2015 article in Harvard Business Review on the impact of digitally connected devices, Harvard Business School's Michael Porter and Jim 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.

Origins of digital teamwork

Software developers were the first to harness digital tools to aid collaboration, both for agile software development within organizations and for the communal innovation of free and open-source software involving many different global participants. These tools provided instant connections, real-time information flows and asynchronous threading to enable these distributed patterns of teamwork. In the early days, developers used simple online messaging channels such as IRC to keep in touch in the moment. Other tools evolved to share work status, to-do lists, performance metrics and documentation.

These new patterns of digital teamwork quickly evolved in the early years of cloud computing, where an always-on, highly distributed, digital environment demanded rapid reaction:

As the pioneers of cloud computing learned to automate and scale out their digital infrastructure, they discovered that their engineering teams needed to work more closely together to get things done faster. Pervasive automation meant it was no longer necessary to plan and execute change over lengthy cycles. They evolved a new approach called continuous delivery, which allowed them to rapidly deliver changes and new capabilities in small increments. At the same time, a new way of organizing agile development teams emerged called DevOps, where the people who write the software work side-by-side with those who put it into operation.

These fast-paced, cross-functional patterns of work required the evolution of a new form of digital teamwork — one in which small teams worked autonomously within a collaborative ecosystem; where transparency ensured that everyone could see how their work fitted into the whole; and that still enabled rapid responses even when team members worked remotely.

These patterns of teamwork are now spreading out across the entire enterprise, further accelerated by the sudden lockdown of offices at the onset of the pandemic. Organizations must now build out a Collaborative Canvas to channel work through this fast-moving landscape.

Defining the Collaborative Canvas

The largely ground-up adoption of digital teamwork tools has left most organizations with a disjointed patchwork of point solutions that were chosen to meet the collaboration needs of a given workgroup or team, but with no means of co-ordination across the enterprise. In part, that's a reflection of the fragmented nature of the digital teamwork market, where dozens of larger players aspire to leadership, while hundreds more nip at their heels. But it also reflects the failure of IT and business leaders to recognize the core role that these collaboration platforms play in the effective operation of a digitally connected enterprise.

It's therefore incumbent on the organization to begin to map its journey towards a unified Collaborative Canvas that will cut across all the boundaries between documents, functions, tools and applications to enable truly frictionless communication and task completion. Everyone's work needs to be anchored in some kind of shared fabric that takes care of the necessary connections — what we define as a Collaborative Canvas to channel digital teamwork:

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.

Four teamwork patterns

Every enterprise needs to define its own collaborative canvas. Very few vendors offer all the ingredients as a single integrated suite, so this means combining various different tools to create the necessary connections. The canvas needs to be able to connect right across the enterprise, while at the same time accommodating the rich variety of teamwork patterns that are typically found in any organization. We define four distinct digital teamwork patterns:

  • Conversation and messaging — this type of teamwork suits 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 also provide a simple means of connecting people across different teams, as a supplement to the other tools they use for more focused collaboration.
  • Content — some types of work revolve around pieces of content. Marketing professionals, for example, spend much of their time working on content for campaigns, branding, and so on, while the work of lawyers revolves around evaluating agreements, depositions and other forms of legal content.
  • Functional — people in specialist roles in functions such as HR, sales or finance spend most of their working day in applications dedicated to those functions, whether that be HCM, CRM, ERP or something else. It makes sense for them to collaborate within the applications they focus on.
  • Workflow — this type of teamwork is typical of production roles, where work passes through a co-ordinated process. This includes software engineering and development teams, product designers in manufacturing, and many others. Some workflow tools are also designed to perform a cross-functional co-ordination role, connecting with other teamwork tools and applications to track, monitor, progress and automate the flow of work across the enterprise.

Having a common set of interconnected teamwork tools makes it much easier for people to join or switch between teams as needed, and information can be shared more rapidly if the enterprise has established some tools as common staples that connect enterprise-wide. It's inevitable that there will be some teams and roles that do most of their teamwork in specialized applications and tools, but the aim should be to connect all of these into the enterprise-wide Collaborative Canvas.

Four enabling technologies

Connecting everything into a single Collaborative Canvas enables four crucial components that underpin the effectiveness of digital teamwork:

  • 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. [We'll elaborate on this point in a later chapter in this series].

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.

Continue to part 2 to explore the impact of the Collaborative Canvas on enterprise culture, processes and structure.

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