In today’s 21st century knowledge economy, competitive advantage is no longer defined in terms of a firm’s products and services. Increasingly, it is driven by the strength and expanse of a firm’s network. Widespread collaboration is key. Gone are the days when firms developed products in isolation and operated within the confines of monochrome office walls. To survive in today’s economy, businesses need strong relationships with customers, suppliers, partners, and other key stakeholders. Efficient, inimitable networks have far-reaching implications, including competitive advantages, cost savings, heightened innovation potential, and broader market reach.
There is nothing groundbreaking about the notion that collaboration bolsters business objectives. Even as early as 2006, a decade ago, a study by IBM found that “CEOs believe collaboration is absolutely critical.” What’s of note, however, is that business leaders have started to not only “talk the talk” but also “walk the walk” and devote more time and resources to collaboration. The Harvard Business Review found that over the past two decades, managers and employees have increased the time devoted to partaking in collaborative activities by 50% or more.
With collaborative processes becoming increasingly ingrained in business models, it’s no surprise that leaders are investing more time and resources to exploring enterprise-grade collaboration software – the likes of Slack, Asana, Basecamp, and countless others. Whereas in years past, enterprise tools primarily centered on content consumption (downloading and uploading files), they are increasingly geared towards greater user interactivity and collaboration. Today, an estimated 58% of employees believe collaboration software has become “very important” or “critical” in terms of their companies’ future prospects.
In theory, 21st century enterprise collaboration tools are akin to a potent weapon in a firm’s arsenal. Like weapons, collaboration tools must be sourced and utilized purposely and appropriately. Regrettably, although collaborative aspirations and activities are high, implementation effectiveness has been sub-par. 64% of workers report that they do not reap the full benefits of collaboration technology. Particularly disconcerting is the fact that 20% to 35% of value-added collaborations come from only 3% to 5% of employees. To make matters worse, there’s also evidence that the highest value collaborators are getting short-changed. Case in point: employees regarded by colleagues as most valuable in terms of contributing information and collaborating exhibit the lowest levels of engagement and career satisfaction. And, who can blame them? They bear the brunt of responsibility for collaboration. It’s not a reciprocal relationship and this is frustrating.
It’s not too late to set collaborative efforts straight. There’s some encouraging evidence out there that enterprises are effectively leveraging enterprise collaboration tools to build inimitable networks. McKinsey defines this class of companies as “fully networked enterprises.” They “use collaborative technologies intensively to connect the internal efforts of employees and to extend the organization’s reach to customers, partners, and suppliers.” They leverage these tools to break down organizational silos that inhibit the flows of knowledge and information. And they see the fruits of their efforts. These “fully networked enterprises” are more likely to be market leaders or be gaining market share. They are also more likely to motivate “organizational collaboration,” which involves “cooperation across organizational silos, more project-based handling of tasks, less hierarchical information flows, and increased information sharing.”
The key question today – and not tomorrow – is how can businesses leverage collaboration tools to become “fully networked enterprises”? The answer lies in the concept of psychological safety, a concept deep-rooted in the organizational research literature. Psychological safety can be defined as a model wherein members have a shared understanding that it is “safe” to freely share ideas and opinions without fear of judgement or humiliation. There’s no denying that collaboration has traditionally been cognitively challenging. After all, there’s a level of risk associated with vocalizing one’s ideas, concerns, and feedback, especially in a corporate setting. Given this, psychological safety is aptly regarded as a key requisite for knowledge sharing.
The most effective collaboration tools promote psychological safety. They do so through five primary mechanisms:
1. “Delete-able” content
Ideas vocalized during a meeting or scribed on a whiteboard have a sense of “finality.” Once words are uttered or written, there’s no rewind or delete button, per se. Effective enterprise tools afford users the opportunity to generate content that can (if desired) be transitory and exist only briefly – “ephemeral” content, so to speak. Tools that empower users to revert back to earlier versions of documents (if amendments are unsatisfactory) or to recover inadvertently deleted content lower the burden of interpersonal risk associated with collaboration. When there’s a backpedal functionality, users are more inclined to step outside their comfort zone, and engage in collaboration and healthy debate, initiatives that drive productivity and fuel profitability. There’s an understanding that mistakes are tolerated and, as a result, users have more cognitive capacity to focus on collaboration.
Importantly, millennials seem even more eager to engage in transient content creation. This is not entirely surprising. It is underscored in a study by Pew Research that investigated the adoption of auto-delete (“ephemeral”) smartphone apps. While only 14% of all online individuals surveyed use auto-delete apps, including Snapchat, Instagram, and Wickr (compared to 36% for messaging apps), a staggering 41% of 18–29 year-olds use auto-delete apps (almost comparable to the 49% for messaging apps).
2. Cloud-based sharing
In the past, collaboration endeavors have failed to meet their full potential because collaboration, in part, has been restricted to formal exchanges during business hours – to, for example, scheduled brainstorming sessions, Monday morning meetings, or phone calls. In reality, effective collaboration often transpires in the context of “water cooler moments,” defined as impromptu interactions that occur between individuals. Kirkman et al (2002) determined that “water cooler” moments go a long way in terms of fostering interpersonal trust, which in turn heightens psychological safety, and gives rise to fruitful collaboration.
Cloud technologies are the foundation of the future of the enterprise. It’s no surprise that the largest, most powerful organizations are favoring the cloud over on-premise solutions. When collaboration tools are cloud-based (rather than on-premise based), there is a heightened potential for “water cooler” impromptu interactions. Cloud technologies allow content to be shared and ideas expressed from anywhere, from any device, at any time of day. Today, collaboration need not be confined to a rigid 40-hour work week. And because cloud-based collaboration tools are always at one’s fingerprints, they eliminate the cognitive load entailed in trying to remember ideas or feedback that materialize when outside the physical office environment.
Traditionally, “collaboration” has been transaction-focused. Purchase orders get sent to customers and quarterly reports appear in employees’ inboxes, without regard for meaningful dialogue. The best enterprise tools are conversation-centric, rather than artifact-centric. While the best tools enable the sharing of artifacts (including meeting notes, legal contracts, and quarterly reports), they, too, facilitate dialogue around the artifacts. The ability to add comments to documents is key to encouraging participation and ensuring employees can collaborate throughout the lifecycle of a document. Commenting features also ensure employees can engage in healthy debate, a feature that has been found to be crucial to effective collaboration. Users may not always know how to expressly communicate their thoughts in the form of document edits. There’s also a heightened sense of risk (and, thus, lower psychological safety) involved in making a change to a document as opposed to adding a comment (even with version history functionality). When users have the ability to add questions or comments to documents, they are able to participate in the collaboration process even without making changes to documents. Ultimately, commenting promotes a free-flowing exchange of ideas, which heightens collaboration potential.
A word of caution – while commenting features tend to heighten the potential for collaboration, it’s critical that comment notifications not be distracting. If, as is often the default case, users are notified of all newly added comments in real-time, there’s a real risk of distraction. Studies have found a strong relationship between automatic email updates and perceived email pressure. Comment notifications, like email updates, can not only be distracting, but can also increase the stress and cognitive load associated with collaboration, in turn limiting its effectiveness.
The most effective enterprise tools facilitate collaboration across a wide variety of media forms – text, pictures, videos, music, etc. They also facilitate collaboration across multiple file types – office files, Adobe documents, html files, etc. Humans, equipped with five senses, have the wherewithal to express themselves in a multitude of different ways. For collaboration to be optimal, users need reign in terms of how they are able to participate. If users, effectively, are shackled and precluded from expressing themselves using their medium of choice (for example, by only being in a position to share text files), psychological safety is sure to plummet and lead to compromised collaboration. Aural and visual stimulation in particular have been found to encourage creative thinking, very often a critical prerequisite to effective collaboration. Insightful, too, is the fact that students involved in a fully interactive multimedia-based e-learning environment have been found to achieve increased performance and higher levels of satisfaction as compared to those involved in a traditional classroom.
5. Align with businesses processes
The most effective enterprise collaboration tools are cloud-based and (inevitably) well-aligned with business workflows and processes. The “cloud” isn’t an alternate universe. Cloud technologies facilitate the creation of collaborative groups and teams that, in effect, serve as proxies for departments, functional groups, and teams. In a world devoid of cloud technologies, collaboration across business units can be challenging, especially in the context of large enterprise where silos quickly form. A 2005 McKinsey survey revealed that only 25% of senior executives would describe their organizations as effective at sharing knowledge across boundaries. When group and team structures are embedded in collaboration tools, they facilitate easy sharing across departments. Senior executives can rejoice: 80% of the participants in McKinsey’s study acknowledged sharing knowledge across boundaries as crucial to growth.
Effective collaboration tools also enable creation of folders and virtual workspaces to serve as proxies for specific business projects or initiatives. As well, they enable creation of workflows via features that allow users to request documents, approve changes, reject comments, etc. When these enterprise tool features are aligned to business processes and the natural state of business, there’s a sense of familiarity for users, which ultimately increases psychological safety (there’s a fear in the unknown and unfamiliar). There’s less of a disconnect between the physical office and the cloud-facilitated one.
It’s clear that we’ve embarked on a new era, one where firms have no choice but to be fully-networked. To gain competitive advantage, there must be widespread adoption of collaboration tools that emphasize psychological safety. In the context of enterprise collaboration tools, there’s been a “keeping up with the Jones’” mentality. Business leaders sense the value of collaboration tools but, tragically, aren’t sure how to effectively evaluate and leverage them. By evaluating enterprise tools in terms of their ability to increase psychological safety and, more specifically, in relation to the aforementioned five features, business leaders can better ensure that they are outpacing the Joneses and creating thriving, sustainable businesses.