Instinctively, we feel that collaborative tools have a net impact on business productivity. These common working tools find their source in a concept of the 90s.

Reflections on productivity and the ROI of collaborative working for managers and implementers

Instinctively, we feel that collaborative tools have a net impact on business productivity. These common working tools find their source in a concept of the 90s. "Groupware", as it was called, promised that work would be more fluid, more productive, more profitable. Back then, all this seemed to flow naturally. The big wave of Enterprise 2.0 revived the subject twenty years later. But with hindsight, I am now questioning the motivations advanced for the deployment of collaborative working. Collaborative work may sound obvious and yet, implementing it isn’t. What may seem obvious to us is, as I pointed out in another article on this blog, not necessarily obvious for users. Indeed, there are many obstacles to measuring return on investment in collaborative work tools. I have isolated a few to ask the question: Why, when we present collaborative working tools in business as delivering some sort of paradise, a business nirvana, do employees sometimes perceive it as a hell? Or what may be described as a “paradise, paved with bad intentions.” And, most importantly, I will suggest some ways to make your deployments more of a paradise.

The apparent evidence of the mutual benefit of collaboration and the weight of habits

On the surface of it, all the evidence of the ROI of collaborative work is a no-brainer. Working with others is an open door, gathering forces around common tasks and monitoring projects, mandatory in the era of agile projects, and time saving which is vital for most of us. But if the link between technology and productivity is obvious, it is wrong to believe that the entire workforce dreams of ever-increasing productivity. The reality is very different, and it does not consider the resistance of the users to change – whether it is justified or not.

What will matter most to employees in 2020? In a survey carried out by Oxford Economics on behalf of SAP in 2017, the research company unveiled a fundamental misunderstanding of millennials. Above all, they are not that different from their older counterparts, the research says. Indeed, when it comes to collaborating with other colleagues, they do not seem to be any better at it. 60 percent of millennials interviewed declared that “they frequently collaborate with colleagues in other areas of the company,” versus 64 percent for non-millennials. Judging by this survey, involving workers in the success of their company does not seem to be an easy task and the new generations do not seem to feel any more concerned about it.

If it is the destiny of any change to come up against the immovable forces in front of it, there must be a reason. Despite all the talk of innovation, human organizations hate innovation.Scott Berkun rightly reminded us in his famous book "The Myths of Innovation."

“Every great idea in history has the fat red stamp of rejection on its face. It's hard to see today because once ideas gain acceptance, we gloss over the hard paths they took to get there. If you scratch any innovation's surface, you'll find the scars”

The Myths of Innovation, Chapter 4

Resistance to change is at the center of innovation. Collaborative working is no different. On the contrary, resistance to it has been widespread.

Change is challenging habits … and especially people

One of my favorite practices in driving change is to try to put myself in the place of the audience to whom the change is directed and to imagine their reactions. This allows me to understand their motivations, because to negotiate well, as emphasized by Uri and Fischer in their famous opus "Getting to Yes," we must always understand the other side’s point of view.

Change is about questioning habits and this is not easy. Presenting a tool as a way of increased productivity is already sending employees you want to use the tool a strong signal that you think they are not very productive. Or at the very least that they could do better. Beyond the facts, perception changes depending on which end of the value proposition we find ourselves (this again brings us back to the English study on the perception of the value described in my previous post: Value may well be at the center of everything and yet it is so difficult to circumscribe and even more to prove).

We can add another thought that is always in the minds of employees - "When will my productivity finally be optimal? " Or to put it another way, "when will you stop asking me to increase my productivity?" Embedded deep in that question is the thought of whether, if I increase my productivity, I will be asked to increase it even further tomorrow, to the point where it will become more and more difficult, if not impossible to become more productive.

While this fear may be unfounded, the question is nevertheless legitimate. The promise of productivity is not neutral and what may seem as an apparently simple question is much more complex than managers think.

Bosses and employees: Diverging points of view

Consider this 2006 IBM survey of a panel of decision makers which found that:

"Collaboration and partnership working was considered very important for innovation by more than 75% of the 765 business leaders surveyed in the questionnaire."

Behind this staggering figure are other realities, such as the fact that just over 50% of respondents indicated that they themselves had “collaborated sufficiently to achieve defined goals.” Behind this evidence that collaboration is important, the real focus on its active development is lagging.

Is the deployment of enterprise collaboration on track?

It is perhaps not surprising to see so little progress made in implementation over the years. Worse still, Arnaud Rayrole, CEO of the leading European collaboration-specialized consultancy Lecko, insists that neither mentalities nor management methods have moved an inch.

Taken literally, based on reported company figures, the levels of implementation of internal collaboration systems in companies are impressive - a figure of 70% has been announced for the past few years by Lecko. But what is the reality on the ground? How are employees and businesses doing? If we are to believe Gartner in 2013, the actual rate of successful implementation did not exceed 10%.

All of that triggers a very important question: if collaboration tools are so good, why is it so difficult to explain that working together is more effective than sending emails?

What are the words that hurt and those that send everyone to hell?

Behind the words that are said and behind these studies which are riddled with evidence and common findings, showing that work is more direct, easier and faster, there is a human being that cannot help trying to decode words and find the ulterior motive behind this famous increase in productivity.

To paraphrase Rabbi Joseph Telushkin, there are “Words That Hurt words wisely and well

Behind productivity, it's easy to hear productivism and all the culture associated with it. It is a fact that in the service industry, which is now becoming one of the main economic powerhouses in western countries, labor productivity is becoming a crucial issue, but it is not easy to implement.

"Increase my productivity! Why? Was it that bad?! "

Memories of failed deployments, or how to learn from our mistakes

When I was implementing videoconferencing in the field, I often noticed a miscalculation that the vendors, including the one I was working for at the time, were almost systematically committing: The ROI of videoconferencing - and by extension the collaborative work tools that followed - was very clear in terms of eliminating travel. They made it their main selling point and that was a fatal mistake!

The logic was that all managers, if they were rational and reasonable people, would seek to reduce the number of trips they would have to make. This was deemed wasted and probably misused time, which reduced managers’ productivity, not to mention the impact on family life, the work that piles up while they were away, the fatigue and the stress. On the face of it, there was no reason to keep business trips.

Except that these corporate executives were not always reasonable or rational. They still aren’t. They enjoy travelling for personal reasons and for reasons of prestige. Certainly, wasting time in an airport at the other end of the world without seeing anything of the nearest city, is neither glorious nor very interesting. But coming back to the office, explaining that the day before you were in Madrid, the next day you are in Argentina and the day after tomorrow London, is still an undeniable social and hierarchical marker.

Wanting to cut their travel was not a great selling point and, of course, the people who were supposed to implement the change never wanted to hear about it. The reality of the future landscape is quite different: Instead of cutting travel, which remains a useful way to engage, discuss and retain the human touch which is so useful for any negotiation, virtual meetings ended up being logically superimposed on physical meetings.

How to get out of hell and effectively set up collaborative work?

The superimposition of these two types of meeting has not made it possible to make trips more productive nor to replace one activity with another, but rather to increase the productivity of employees without them realizing it. That's probably the best way out of hell. The induced benefit must be implicit and naturally accepted by those responsible for implementing the change.

So, to successfully manage the change, avoid waving red rags that annoy people, make them completely forget about the actual productivity gains and focus instead on the benefits they can get.

In other words, to sell productivity, there is nothing like showing people that they can work without effort.

Escape the pressure and think about the common good

I also think that we must avoid those discussions based solely around productivity, poorly explained and misinterpreted by employees as an attempt at pressuring them. In these times of burnout, where not a day goes by without a newspaper emphasizing its importance, and if only to preserve productivity, it is important to pace yourself.

Moreover, my entrepreneurial experience has allowed me to refine my thinking on the subject. A contractor has no interest in being inefficient. They have their obsession - to develop their business faster and stronger. Any productivity gain in that context is appreciated.

But this obsession with productivity, even for an entrepreneur, has its limits.

Collaborative tools allow me to work with people around the world in a very efficient and fast way. I can manage more than a dozen projects in parallel and it has been like that for many years.

But I have self-imposed strict rules on having a digital break and the periods during which I want to remain totally unproductive and rest my brain.

Trying to continually increase productivity is ultimately counter-productive. If I can manage 10 projects today, who can tell me that, if I were to manage 20 projects, I would become more efficient and productive, growing at a steady rate? The reality is that around 12 or 13 projects, I will have to delegate more and more tasks to lighten my schedule to avoid reaching a breaking point.

In short, you must let go and learn to ask less to achieve more.

Those are my thoughts on the implementation of collaborative work and ROI. However, I would not suggest that we ignore the very interesting question of calculating and measuring the benefit of these tools. I suggest that this be part of a separate endeavor.

About the author
Blog author yann gourvennec 82x82

Yann Gourvennec

Specialist in Information Systems

Yann Gourvennec is specialised in information systems, high-tech and digital marketing. He is the author and contributor of many books. He is also the founder and CEO of Visionary Marketing.

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