Collaboration - What it Means to Employees

Rethinking Communications

Collaboration - What it Means to Employees

By Jon Arnold, Principal  |  February 04, 2013

The article originally appeared in the Jan./Feb. edition of INTERNET TELEPHONY.

In last month’s column, I talked about the business value of collaboration, and how today’s IP-based technologies provide viable options for both large and small-scale needs. Collaboration can take many forms, and for businesses that see this as a core competency, logic dictates a need to make these tools available to as many employees as possible.

The thinking here is that nobody owns innovation, and great ideas can and should be free to come from any place across the organization.

Collaboration tools have never been more powerful and accessible, and companies must first get beyond legacy thinking to leverage what’s readily available. Applications like videoconferencing and white boarding are no longer the domain of executives, and with UC, IT managers can now enable all employees to collaborate. This is very important, as businesses become more decentralized and virtualized; not only are teams geographically dispersed, but increasingly they are multi-cultural and cross-generational.

This brings us to the topic at hand – the value of collaboration from an employee’s perspective. Generally speaking, collaboration is a top-down imperative – it’s the desired behavior management wants to instill, based on the belief that teamwork produces the best results. I would contest that notion, but this is not the place.

That said, teamwork is good because it brings the best ideas and talent to the table for a common goal, and is an effective way to address complex challenges.

One would think with these pieces in place that collaboration would just happen effortlessly, and teams would produce all kinds of breakthrough ideas. This is probably more the exception than the rule, as collaboration is essentially a very human process. UC applications can be great enablers for teamwork, but what are really needed are human inspiration and a culture that values innovative ideas.

So how does this look to employees? At heart, we all want to feel special and make a difference, and companies like Google (News - Alert) and Apple are well-known examples that foster this culture. Most of us aren’t so lucky, and lack the wherewithal to come up with original ideas, not to mention work in environments where new thinking is welcome.

I’m not trying to sound cynical, but I do want to emphasize that UC tools can certainly facilitate collaboration, but make no claims on the quality of what teamwork produces.

Despite the outcomes management would like to see happen with collaboration, most employees take a more practical and pragmatic view. In many cases, collaboration is really about just getting the job done – nothing more, nothing less. Unless your company is renowned for daily genius breakthroughs, it’s unrealistic to expect that UC will transform employees to channel Steve Jobs (News - Alert) on future team engagements.

That may happen on occasion, but it won’t be the norm.

On one level, collaboration tools will generally be used effectively by Millennials, but not because they’re especially creative. This is largely a generational thing, where this demographic has grown up with the tools found in UC offerings – video, chat, IM, presence, file sharing, text, etc. Not only is this intuitive for them, but they have long been conditioned to use these tools in their personal lives. Savvy users of social media are attuned to collaborating in ways that many employees can’t even envision.

Millennials also take a different view of work in terms of making few distinctions between personal and business-related activities. They are just as likely to work on a project during a vacation as they are to update their Facebook (News - Alert) status at the office. Furthermore, the workforce is changing in our knowledge-based economy, and Millennials tend to think of their careers as a series of projects rather than following a static path based on merit.

With these perspectives in mind, employers need to be conscious that expectations are getting higher among employees for the tools that make them productive. Increasingly, employees work from home or remote locations – often by choice – and they very much understand the need for UC tools. This particular case is a good example of how different objectives can find common ground via collaboration. Management likes home-based workers because of the cost savings, but employees want to be home to support a lifestyle choice. 

As such, collaboration is a good thing, but the reasons and benefits will vary between these two groups. To get full value from UC, businesses must recognize that employees will likely view collaboration differently, but this doesn’t mean their views are incompatible with management’s objectives.

Jon Arnold (News - Alert) is principal of J Arnold & Associates, an independent telecom analyst and marketing consultancy with a focus on IP communications, and writes the Analyst 2.0 blog. Previously, he was the VoIP program leader at Frost & Sullivan (News - Alert).

Edited by Braden Becker