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The human dimension of digital collaboration

Phil Wainewright Profile picture for user pwainewright June 10, 2016
Digital collaboration allows us to dynamically convene virtual teams to get stuff done faster than ever before - but not if we ignore the human dimension

Businessman selecting from global people network © Romolo Tavani -
(© Romolo Tavani -
One of the unsolved challenges of the digital age is learning how to work productively with online collaboration tools. The cloud has collapsed distance and timezones, making it possible to dynamically convene virtual teams with exactly the right expertise and information to work in concert to rapidly solve problems or design innovative propositions. Or at least, that's the theory.

The reality is that virtual teams rarely work well and the collaboration tools often seem to get in the way rather than helping. Is it because the tools are not smart enough or are we not skilled enough at using them? Perhaps the answer lies somewhere in between those two extremes: the people and the machines need to get smarter about how they interact.

No magic technology fix

There's no magic technology fix, as recent studies at Google have discovered. There's a strong human dimension that makes successful teams work. New York Times writer Charles Duhigg explains in his book Smarter Faster Better: The Secrets of Productivity in Life and Business that team members need to feel a sense of what's known as 'psychological safety' to interact effectively — to know they can feel comfortable being themselves without fear of being embarrassed, rejected or punished for speaking up.

Google’s intense data collection and number crunching have led it to the same conclusions that good managers have always known. In the best teams, members listen to one another and show sensitivity to feelings and needs ...

[W]hen companies try to optimize everything, it’s sometimes easy to forget that success is often built on experiences — like emotional interactions and complicated conversations and discussions of who we want to be and how our teammates make us feel — that can’t really be optimized.

This finding perhaps helps to explain why accepting diversity is becoming so important in modern organizations. If people need to be free to be themselves to collaborate effectively, then if they feel they must disguise elements of who they are, their contribution to the teams they participate in will be less effective.

It's about the business

Professional services organizations should provide a good hunting ground to look for best practice in digital collaboration, since these businesses live or die by the quality of their teamwork. A company like Royal HaskoningDHV, for example, has a 135-year history of bringing its professionals together to work on advanced civil engineering projects. They were collaborating long before digital technologies existed, so the emphasis is on finding technology solutions that will enhance and extend how its teams work.

The most obvious impact is in removing distance as an obstacle to collaboration. Headquartered in the Netherlands, the firm operates globally and manages projects in more than 140 countries. Project teams have been early adopters of the latest technology, using techniques such as 3D scanning and modeling, virtual reality and digital conference rooms, to collaborate with clients to discuss and refine designs.

The firm has now added cloud-based file-sharing platform Box to the mix. This has massively shortened the time it takes to get projects started, according to Roland Daane, leader of digital transformation at the engineering firm. A large-scale project may need to make as much as 100TB of data available to team members, and with projects as far afield as South Africa, the Middle East, Indonesia and China, being able to share documents in the cloud cuts out time that used to be spent distributing, correlating and preparing files. Daane says:

We've shortened the first few months of project time. If we can speed up three, four, five, six months, that's money!

Back-office systems have been enlisted to support project teams from an administrative perspective. A risk management application built on top of the Unit4 ERP platform monitors project metrics and automatically reports changes in project status. There's a 'traffic light' system which shows red, amber or green depending on the status of key indicators on project costs, resources and timelines.

Of course the accuracy of these signals depends on the quality of data being collected and so the system is a tool that project managers can choose to ignore, as CIO Eric Overvoorde explains:

If the system says red and the project manager says green, and he has a good track record, we trust the project manager.

What matters is using the right balance of digital and human resources to achieve the desired goal. Having a clear business outcome in view has been an important ingredient in ensuring adoption of each tool. For example, when Yammer was first rolled out as a social platform, it was not used because it had not been found a role as part of the teamwork culture, says Overvoorde.

It's interesting that at Royal HaskoningDHV it's been the line-of-business teams that are adopting the newest technologies, such as using Oculus Rift headsets to preview how proposed designs will look on-site. Rather than the IT department bringing in technologies for the business to adopt, the professional services teams are taking charge of harnessing the technologies they need to achieve their business goals.

Corporate culture matters

Yet although the urge to meet business goals is what drives adoption of new technologies, Google's research shows that the human dimension of collaboration remains paramount. While social interaction may seem like a distraction from the job in hand, it's often essential to overcoming the human dynamics that prevent a team from moving forward. As Duhigg writes:

No one wants to leave part of their personality and inner life at home. But to be fully present at work, to feel 'psychologically safe', we must know that we can be free enough, sometimes, to share the things that scare us without fear of recriminations. We must be able to talk about what is messy or sad, to have hard conversations with colleagues who are driving us crazy. We can’t be focused just on efficiency.

When Barclays rolled out an internal collaboration network staff, what triggered adoption was when branch staff started sharing stories about how they'd been able to make a difference to customers coming in for help with digital devices:

What made MySite take off in terms of user adoption was when staff started using it to share their stories about how they’d been able to help customers. One told of an elderly customer who came in to a branch to get help uploading her young grandson’s photograph to put on her personalized debit card. As they talked, the assistant learned that the customer wanted to remember the child in this way because he had died the previous year. This touching story helped drive #littlethingsmeansomuch to become the highest trending hashtag in the bank, because it brought to life the human dimension of the bank’s services.

This is an example of digital collaboration making it possible to surface and share that human dimension across a large organization. For established brands like Barclays, a bank with a 325-year history, there's already a longstanding sense of identity and loyalty that, with the right culture in place, goes a long way towards providing the 'psychological safety' that fosters successful collaboration.

While the technology helps us collapse distance and brings us together remotely, this must be supported by a strong corporate identity and culture that lets people feel they can collaborate safely. The less we meet in person in our day-to-day dealings, the more we need to feel the support of that shared human dimension.

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