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From leadership to line managers, the term ‘digital collaboration’ is bandied about a lot. And for good reason: it’s crucial if businesses are to keep moving forward in an economic environment that is showing no signs of standing still. In our experience, however, for all the talking that’s happening, there isn’t a great deal of true collaboration happening, despite new technology that makes it possible to work together in real-time, whether you’re sitting in the same room or not. In this post, we unpick what digital collaboration is, what it should look like in 2022, and how you can make it happen in your organisation.

What is digital collaboration?

Firstly, let’s look at collaboration. Unfortunately, dictionary definitions are too simplistic and don’t reflect the nuances and challenges that people face in real life i.e. the Cambridge Dictionary says that collaboration is “The situation of two or more people working together to create or achieve the same thing”.  The Association for Intelligent Information Management (AIIM) expand on the standard definitions by stating that working together is for a “purpose that achieves business benefit” and can be synchronous or asynchronous. It’s that purpose that really defines what modern collaboration (digital or otherwise) should be: people motivated to work together to achieve a common purpose whether in real-time or in increments.

Digital collaboration, therefore, is using digital technologies to collaborate as per the above explanation for a clearly defined purpose that everyone believes in.

Just as important as what it is, is what it isn’t. Digital collaboration isn’t just using email or chat apps to pass information back and forth, having endless Zoom calls, or seeking feedback via email. It isn’t waiting for someone to get back to you with feedback on a Google Doc either.

It is having the capacity to work across and within apps together in real-time with unimpeded access to necessary information and all within a culture where people feel safe to share ideas. AIIM put it succinctly: “Collaboration relies on openness and knowledge sharing but also some level of focus and accountability on the part of the business.”

Do the benefits of digital collaboration live up to the hype?

It only takes a cursory look at business publications, and at your own projects, to see that there are numerous benefits of proper digital collaboration: more innovative and creative ideas that can place you ahead of the competition; happier, more engaged staff; increased productivity and profitability; and faster problem solving leading to greater customer satisfaction.

These benefits aren’t just anecdotal. Deloitte undertook research on digital collaboration with employees across Europe and found that:

  • Workers were 17 percentage points more satisfied with their workplace culture when they had access to ‘effective digital collaboration tools’. Given that employee engagement can be worth up to19% of the operating income of a large enterprise, the ROI of decent tools speaks for itself.
  • Openness is facilitated by the right infrastructure. Two-thirds of employees who believed that their culture valued openness also stated that they were working in an environment where the infrastructure for collaboration was good.
  • 60% of employees who believe that their organisation has good digital collaboration tools also think that the organisation is innovative, versus 32% of those who don’t have the right tools.

And this is only one study of many.

So where have we gone wrong?

We’re social animals and crave connection and collaboration naturally. So why, when the technology is available, are we getting digital collaboration wrong?

1. Digital collaboration has become a corporate buzzword

Digital collaboration has become an industry buzzword. Unfortunately, with overuse and misuse, like Cloud or Agile, its importance and real meaning has become eroded leading to poor execution on a day to day level.

It may get a lot of lip service in the media and in the boardroom, but rarely do businesses make organisation-wide efforts to create a culture of digital collaboration, or they limit it to certain teams, for example, developers using Agile, marketing using their own system.

As with Agile, digital collaboration is part of the digital transformation journey and works best when every team and every function are connected – no silos, no information barriers.

2. Organisations don’t have the right digital infrastructure in place

The Deloitte study mentioned earlier found that only 9% of respondents felt that their organisation had an effective infrastructure for sharing and collaboration.

This doesn’t just mean a lack of tools, it can also mean having the wrong tools, or too many of them.  Just because a new platform or app is the latest bright, new and shiny collaboration tool on the block, it doesn’t make it right for every business. Conversely, without tools that allow teams to work together on the same page or app in real-time, progress on collaborative projects can be painfully slow.

Often this problem stems from a lack of consultation with the people who are using these tools on a daily basis and poor visibility regarding what the organisation has in place already and where the gaps are.

Organisations are misusing the digital collaboration tools they have

When tools aren’t set up correctly, and proper governance isn’t in place, even the best software can quickly become a hindrance rather than a help. It’s easy for information to get lost in a maze of unorganised files and conversations in chat apps, or for a zoom call recording to be hastily saved on someone’s desktop. If using the right tools in the right way isn’t embedded and enforced, information becomes hard to find and people resort back to email, and shared drives, while the benefits of real collaboration are lost.

Furthermore, the greater openness and visibility that good collaboration tools facilitate is sometimes used by managers to keep tabs on staff.  Without trust, however, employees will rarely do their best work.

With all that said, we know it’s good: having your team work closely together and be on the same page improves performance and outcomes. But what should digital collaboration look like in practice in 2022?

The right digital collaboration software

COVID, globalisation and economic pressures have led to geographically dispersed teams and a need to cut costs by encouraging remote working. This has reduced face to face communication right when businesses really need to bring workers together for innovative solutions, so using the right digital collaboration software is vital. So, while talking back and forward on messenger or chat apps (Teams, Slack, Asana etc) is great, it isn’t enough. Organisations who want to bring their teams together to work on the same page (literally!) – whether they are in the same room or not – need purpose-built software.

A perfect example is Atlassian’s Jira (project management) and Confluence (document creation) tools which have a native real-time collaboration and offer their own chatter/messaging functions to eliminate the need for separate apps.  Despite their reputation as software development tools, both are suitable for any team or function and can be tightly integrated e.g. you can add a link to a Confluence document on a Jira ticket and vice versa. When used at the same time as a video calling and screen-sharing app like Zoom, Confluence, in particular, gives you the feeling of working together at the same desk.

Another option is Miro – a collaboration tool that gives users a similar experience to Confluence, however, it uses an infinitely zoomable canvas to host content from third-party apps in your environment e.g. Jira Tickets, Confluence pages, Google Analytics charts, Google Docs, images from your files. Users literally work together on the same page – either a digital whiteboard to brainstorm freehand or a canvas where they can display everything they need to work on a project, add sticky notes, compare information side-by-side, raise a Jira ticket or get straight into a document. The most important feature is that Miro is persistent – you can save your whiteboard or canvas and continue working on it forever.

You will probably need more than one tool (e.g. Miro, a chat tool and Atlassian), BUT try to use as few as possible and dedicate one tool (e.g. Confluence)as your single source of truth that everyone can access.

A digital collaboration culture that sticks

Organisations who are aiming for more effective digital collaboration often come unstuck because a) there is no effort to build the right culture, and b) there is a lack of governance around how collaboration should happen. We suggest:

  1. Creating and distributing a set of guidelines to all users and encouraging people to remind each other about how to use and when to use collaboration tools. These guidelines should include:
    • Strict rules about when to use the collaboration layer on your Atlassian (or other) tool suites versus a chat app.
    • Where communication should happen. This means no emails and no saving information in Excel or Word on your personal drive or device! For DI, the first place a conversation happens is Jira, second is Confluence. This allows most of our communication to happen in a consistent and persistent space with the related project documentation.
    • What chat rooms (including Zoom) are for, when information should be recorded and where it should be saved so it doesn’t end up lost in a chat that disappears.
    • The rules around setting up individual chat rooms or accounts. Ideally, this shouldn’t happen at all as it’s keeps information in silos and doesn’t facilitate long term collaboration.
    • Where all information is to be kept e.g. on Confluence, Miro, Google Docs. There are very few reasons why any information should be saved in private files. Outline these (e.g. confidential HR, financial or legal information) and ensure people adhere to them.

2. Encouraging a culture where people come to meetings prepared with their collaboration tools open ready to work – ensure people send out meeting invitations with links to the correct place in the tool they are using.

Innovation comes from a ‘cross-pollination’ of ideas and sharing problems and information. But if we aren’t enabling this on a technological and cultural level, it just doesn’t happen. Productive, effective digital collaboration isn’t some mystical and magical thing and it doesn’t have to be hard, but it’s worth getting right – work gets done faster, time-wasting meetings are eliminated and good ideas get the attention they deserve. Ultimately, it should be enjoyable for everyone – and if you’ve got some good tools and good governance it’s possible.

Are you ready to make digital collaboration more effective for your team? Contact the DI team today to discuss how Atlassian can transform the way your organisation works together.

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