For anyone interested in the subject of collaboration, the book Wikinomics: How Mass Collaboration Changes Everything has been required reading for a few years now. Written by Don Tapscott and Anthony Williams and published in 2006, the book argues that we have moved on from the old order, where businesses were organised according to strict hierarchical lines of authority, and are now entering a new age defined by community, collaboration and self-organisation.
On the whole this argument has been received very well. One of the main reasons is that the book makes a big play of the fact that changes in technology are going hand in hand with the entry into the workplace of a new, techno savvy generation. This is indeed a widespread assumption - that the younger, so-called ‘Millennial' generation is using developments in communications that they use in their social life to change working cultures in unprecedented ways.
It is held that these Millennials (i.e. anyone born after the early 80s) have a strong technology preference and will often gravitate to a company that offers that technology. It is also believed that they expect a collaboration environment that flexes to their needs, and not one that they have to adapt their ways of working to use. And because they have grown up with technologies that let them share information on-demand (and anywhere), it is also thought that they will develop new ways of working by making ever more creative use of social media and mobility tools.
To someone working in the communications industry as I do, this is of course a very welcome kind of analysis. At Avaya, for example, we recently released the Avaya FlareTM experience, a groundbreaking graphical user interface that offers a unique and compelling multi-modal collaboration experience. At the same time we launched the new Avaya Desktop Video Device, which brings the Avaya Flare experience to life by offering quick and easy access to real-time communications and collaboration tools without the need for different interfaces and devices. This is exactly the kind of thing we are told that the younger generation now wants, and even demands from employers.
However, while I happily recognise that this bodes well for the long term future of Avaya, I would also caution against focusing too much attention on the needs of the new generation. Because collaboration, by definition, needs to be embraced by all constituents within an organisation.
A ‘people first' approach
Recently, I came across a very interesting report from Vodafone that provides a counter view to the idea that its solely younger elements that are driving changes to the way we work. The research within the Community of Work report provides evidence that younger people are less inclined towards flexible and remote working, and actually value the structure and social benefits to be gained from interacting face to face in the traditional workplace. On the other hand, the report says that it is older workers who are keener on flexible working - mainly because people in their thirties (and older) are less likely to need the social circle that the workplace provides, and are more than happy to collaborate with colleagues remotely in return for better work/life balance.
The lesson I draw from this is that it is dangerous to pigeonhole or stereotype anyone, let alone entire generations. Today, there is a need for more flexibility and better remote collaboration right across any enterprise. There are many factors driving this, including the need to react more quickly to changeable market conditions and remove unnecessary costs. And to meet these challenges, businesses really need to concentrate on making collaboration ubiquitous, intuitive and easy-to-use for all.
This is why I really advocate a ‘people first' approach to collaboration - one that makes the effort to understand user and group needs across the enterprise. Forrester Research Inc., an Independent Research Firm, has a methodology called POST for approaching this that I particularly like. This discourages IT departments from starting by asking which technology they should use - and instead suggests they should be asking ‘who needs better collaboration services', ‘what you're trying to accomplish', and ‘how you plan to help your employees work differently'.
To keep things simple and manageable, the Forrester methodology is defined by four simple steps:
1. People. Start by understanding what employees actually use and need today. Don't guess and don't rely on anecdotal interviews. Instead, start with a quantitative assessment.
2. Objectives. With that baseline of understanding in place, next decide what your business goals are. Maybe you will need to build a decision council that includes IT and business to help you do this?
3. Strategy. This part of this planning process means mapping the business goals to specific collaboration scenarios that you can actually improve - with no application of tools just yet yet.
4. Technology. And of course the last step is to figure out which technologies improve your most important collaboration scenarios.
Follow this advice and choosing the right collaboration solutions, mapped to user needs, will come naturally. Some people will require voice-centric solutions only. Others will gravitate towards the totally immersive experience offered by Avaya Flare, particularly those that already use video, IM and social media as part of their day to day communications, and this will become increasingly common in the coming years.
And then there are the more specialised options such as Avaya web.alive - a business tool which allows users to collaborate in a virtual ‘world', guided by avatars that interact in real time. Just don't make the mistake of assuming who will be naturally disposed to this kind of option. Because after all, not all gamers are Millennials!