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

Phil Wainewright Profile picture for user pwainewright March 24, 2022 Audio mode
Concluding this two-parter on the Collaborative Canvas, Phil Wainewright explores the impact of a mature digital teamwork infrastructure on enterprise culture, processes and structure

Digital teamwork maturity model -

In part one of this chapter, we looked at the make-up of the Collaborative Canvas that organizations need to build to co-ordinate digitally connected work. Now in part two, we look at its impact on enterprise culture, processes and structure.

Enabling a digital teamwork culture

Putting the technology in place is just one part of the roadmap. This has to go hand-in-hand with changes in business culture, organization and working practices to take advantage of what the technology enables. The following comment from Catherine Leaver, when she was director of global HR transformation at telecoms giant Telefonica, is about the roll-out of a cloud HR system rather than a digital teamwork solution. But both transitions involve similar adjustments to working with shared processes and information, and in close collaboration with business colleagues. She said:

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.

One of the lessons from agile development teams and DevOps is that a culture of transparency is crucial. You can't move rapidly if you don't know what other teams on the same project are up to. As Jay Simons, when he was President of teamwork tools vendor Atlassian, once told me:

The practice of agility and being more iterative is accompanied by the practice of openness.

Digital-native businesses, often led by founders with a software engineering background, readily adopt a culture that facilitates effective digital teamwork. Here are some key elements drawn from a conversation with fintech startup Monzo about its use of Slack:

  • Transparency — all channels are open by default unless there's a reason to keep them private.
  • Cross-functional teams — multi-disciplinary teams bring together different skills, expertise and perspectives.
  • Rapid decision making — many decisions can be agreed using emojis posted to a channel rather than waiting to convene a meeting.
  • Rapid communication — decisions are immediately visible without having to wait for status meetings.
  • Automated processes — the messaging channel acts as a platform for workflow automation.
  • Clear guidelines — there are shared conventions on how to name channels, the meanings of emojis, and so on.

More recently, Matt Mullenweg, founder and CEO of web publishing giant Automattic, set out some guidelines for successful distributed teams. This is an area where his company has a lot of experience, having always championed remote working by its almost 2,000 employees. He emphasizes the importance of trust and autonomy, along with the actions management can take to foster successful distributed teams. Here's a sample of his advice:

You evaluate people’s work on what they produce, not how or when they produce it. Trust emerges as the glue that holds the entire operation together. You begin shifting to better — perhaps slower, but more deliberate — decision-making, and you empower everyone, not just the loudest or most extroverted, to weigh in on major conversations ...

Your organization is truly inclusive because standards are objective and give people agency to accomplish their work their way.

While his focus is on distributed work, I would argue that this is really about digital teamwork, which with the right technology and culture in place, is able to produce better outcomes even when people are working alongside each other in offices. It's all about making information, know-how and agency more atomically available where it can be most impactful. We'll explore this further in later chapters on user and employee experiences.

A maturity model for digital teamwork

As organizations become more sophisticated in their use of digital teamwork, it ceases to be simply an add-on to existing routines or a workaround when out of the office. At higher levels of maturity, it becomes the foundation for new ways of working:

The path to true digital transformation begins when the technology enables new, more efficient patterns of work rather than simply providing an alternative channel for existing behaviors. Turning a paper form into a PDF that people fill in and pass around electronically may be going digital, but transformation only happens when the entire process becomes an app that people simply tap to complete.

With the right tools and processes, it becomes possible for many interactions to be completed faster and more efficiently than in-person. Workflow automation, especially when enhanced with artificial intelligence, puts the right information and knowledge into people's hands when they need it, and helps them complete tasks faster and more accurately than ever before. Integration between teamwork tools and out to applications and data sources around the enterprise are a crucial component of these digitally connected processes — we'll dig into the make-up of the underlying IT architecture in our next chapter.

Engage-monitor-improve your team's work

Once all work is digitized within the Collaborative Canvas, we move into the upper layers of the maturity model, as it becomes possible to process and analyze work digitally. Many of the leading digital teamwork vendors have created a work graph — a database that maps all the entities involved in teamwork, and the relationships that connect them. This provides the basis for engaging with team members as they work, collecting metrics on how things are going, and identifying opportunities for process improvement — in other words, applying the virtuous cycle of the XaaS Effect to internal operations. At the highest level of maturity, artificial intelligence can augment this process:

Having every aspect of teamwork digitally instrumented brings it into a realm where data science opens up new possibilities. We can not only measure teamwork as it takes place and assess its impact on outcomes, we can also use machine learning to identify which teamwork patterns work best. In the same way that today artificial intelligence can listen in on contact center interactions and suggest alternative lines of conversation or actions, in the future a digital teamwork tool could suggest an alternative way of setting up a new task that might improve results.

It's essential to maintain a culture of trust and individual agency when using such capabilities. This type of performance analysis must be a tool that team members choose to use, rather than having managers monitoring their every action so that they can tell them how to behave. The role of AI should be to collaboratively augment the capabilities of humans, harnessing the unique capabilities of both machines and humans working in harmony to produce better outcomes.

Flat hierarchies and office obsolescence

Digital teamwork has the potential to unravel many of the accepted structures of the conventional enterprise and remake completely new models of business interaction. We'll explore this further in later chapters, but here are a few thoughts.

First of all there's the potential to radically rethink traditional hierarchical models, as the power tools division of German engineering and electronics giant Bosch has done. It swept away a seven-layer management hierarchy, replacing it with a flat layer of 54 multi-disciplinary teams of 5-11 people each. Most of these teams each look after a specific product set, while others are dedicated to a specific expertise. Decision making was devolved to each team, as Rosa Lee, Senior Vice President of Global HR, explains:

In an agile team environment, the manager is not the guy who knows what is missing, what contribution is not being addressed by what kind of competency. Only the team knows.

Another example of how digital teamwork challenges established hierarchies comes from the experience of frontline workers during the pandemic lockdown. Suddenly everyone in the organization was using the same digital tools to communicate, and office-based workers were no longer privileged by their proximity to top management. With know-how now easily delivered via digital connection, knowledge is becoming commoditized, while the XaaS Effect puts more of a premium on those responsible for delivering the customer experience. This led me to speculate, even before the pandemic had taken hold, whether desk-based office work would survive:

Desks only exist because people needed to organize paper or sit in front of a static computing device. Digitally connected information and knowledge, available wherever we are, allow all of us to be productive on our feet.

In the wake of the pandemic, the need for centralized offices where everyone works at their desk is even more in doubt:

What really matters is how you digitally connect your workers, wherever they happen to be from day to day, and make their work easier and more efficient. Instead of getting bogged down in where they've come from, enterprises should focus on where these new technologies can take them to.

Networked ecosystems

So far we've mainly focused on teams within the enterprise, but all of the above applies just as readily to teams that cross the enterprise boundary. Digital teamwork and the Collaborative Canvas becomes a platform for unbundling the traditional firm, replacing it with the networked ecosystem of Frictionless Enterprise, powered by collaboration:

Teamwork is supercharged within the enterprise, while external connections make it possible to pool resources, aggregate data, share context and innovate communally across networked ecosystems.

When messaging platform Slack first began opening out its Slack Connect feature, which allows enterprises to add people from external organizations into teamwork channels, its CEO Stewart Butterfield spoke about some of the potential inter-enterprise business processes this might enable:

I think a measure of success for us, looking maybe three or five years into the future, is going to be, what percentage of DocuSigns are signed inside of a shared channel? How many purchase orders are going across, how many invoices are sent, how many service tickets opened? That whole mechanism by which organizations do commerce with one another are new possibilities for bringing more visibility and easier synchronization, because Slack — when it's really working for individual organizations on the inside — becomes this lightweight fabric for systems integration. And that's just as valuable across boundaries as inside.

There's much more here that we'll explore in a later chapter on distributed ecosystems. The key takeaway for now is that the Collaborative Canvas is a major component of the broader infrastructure of Frictionless Enterprise and its ability to optimize connections for competitive advantage, or as we once put it:

The more friction your platform eliminates, the more of a cut you can justify taking from the reduced transaction cost.

Further reading

This concludes the third chapter in a series of seven chapters exploring the journey to Frictionless Enterprise:

You can find all of these articles as they're published at our Frictionless Enterprise archive index. To get notifications as new content appears, you can either follow the RSS feed for that page, keep in touch with us on Twitter and LinkedIn, or sign up for our fortnightly Frictionless Enterprise email newsletter, with the option of a free download of The XaaS Effect d·book.

A grey colored placeholder image