Collaboration: Unlocking the Power of Teams

By Allan Alter

Collaboration: Unlocking the Power of Teams

When collaboration and work-flow moved up to second place in our Top Trends Survey list of the most strategic tech- nologies late last year, it confirmed what CIOs and other IT executives had been telling us about the field's growing importance to their businesses. Now, with the Ziff Davis Enterprise 2008 Collaboration Survey, we've garnered data from more than 180 respondents on the reasons behind the technologies' increasing significance, which tools are making the greatest impact and how broadly they've been adopted.

We also tested some intriguing notions: How important are Web 2.0 technologies in the workplace, and are young workers pioneering their use there? We deliberately defined collaboration broadly, because the line between collaboration and communication is ultra-thin, and we included nearly 30 items under the collaboration umbrella-- from telephony and e-mail to prediction markets and social networks.

We discovered that about 80 percent of IT executives believe collaboration and workflow technologies deliver on their promise to boost productivity and decision-making, and half say they enable and even inspire strategies that were previously unattainable or unimaginable. But while some Web 2.0 technologies sizzle--chat and blogs are frequently used behind IT's back--older, more commonplace technologies and tools usually prove more useful for collaboration. IT executives may undervalue Web 2.0 tools--if the tools weren't helpful, they wouldn't be so widely used--while Web 2.0 fans often overlook other collaboration technologies.

As is so often the case with applications, the biggest obstacles to successful integration of collaboration tools into most companies are a resistant corporate culture and insufficient support--not problems with technology or security. Executives, it turns out, use few collaboration technologies, relying primarily on e-mail and telephony. Young people are quick to adopt new technologies, and they often lead the charge at work. But don't rely solely on young employees. More-seasoned employees do a better job sniffing out the applications that have the biggest business impact.

Collaboration Tools Remake Corporate Strategies

Collaboration Tools Remake Corporate Strategies

Collaboration tools--which allow employees to brainstorm, plan, analyze, share work and make decisions together--are among the most important technologies of 2008. Organizations will increase their spending on collaboration software by 14.8 percent in 2008, according to the Ziff Davis Enterprise February 2008 IT Spending Survey.

The reason for all this attention: Companies find that these products deliver on their promise to improve productivity and decision-making, although most firms don't measure the value they receive from these technologies. And half the respondents have changed strategies because of insights or capabilities the products have provided. Collaboration tools, for example, have enabled Boeing to change the way its engineers and subcontractors design and build aircraft, and Reuters uses them to create new products for traders and portfolio managers.

These payoffs explain why CIOs are willing to devote a significant part of their IT budgets to buy and support collaboration tools and to increase spending on the infrastructure needed to support them.

Charts 1.3 and 1.4


Service and Project Teams Are Primary Focus

Service and Project Teams Are Primary Focus

The top priorities for collaboration investments are linked to the No.1 business priority. Improving customer service ranked first in Ziff Davis Enterprise's 2008 Top Trends Survey, so it follows that companies invest most heavily in collaboration tools to let customer-facing employees share information.

Project teams also benefit in a big way from investments in project, document and knowledge management systems, and in any tool that helps team members even when they are oceans apart.

Other functions that rely heavily on teamwork--IT organizations and logistics groups at companies that sell tangible goods, for example--also are near the top of the list. However, far fewer companies focus their collaboration investments on corporate planning or new product development--a surprise, considering the importance of these areas for future revenues and strategic development.

E-mail is Top Collaboration Tool

E-Mail Is Top Collaboration Tool

Web 2.0 technologies get the attention, but IT executives say other collaboration technologies are more valuable.

Few IT executives rank Web 2.0 technologies--including blogs, RSS, social networks, tagging and wikis--among the most important collaboration technologies. Instead, they place great importance on old standbys such as e-mail and telephony, the most widely used collaboration tools, and a number of other technologies that have been overshadowed by Web 2.0. Shared project management systems, workflow systems, real-time document collaboration tools and knowledge management systems are considered more important than any Web 2.0 technology: They are widely used by project teams and, to a slightly lesser extent, by co-workers engaged in business processes. Prediction markets and recommendation voting systems are used rarely.

IT executives may think other technologies are more important than Web 2.0 tools, but employees clearly feel differently, given how many use them--even when IT organizations don't provide support. This remains a source of tension between IT managers and users. Adding Web 2.0 features to e-mail could provide a balance.

Collaboration, Without IT Support

Executives Underuse Collaboration Tools

Executives Underuse Collaboration Tools

Culture and lack of training, not technical problems or security, are the biggest roadblocks to the use of collaborative technologies. Security is a concern for IT executives, but it's not the primary obstacle--corporate culture and inadequate training are. Lack of executive support is an underlying issue. Few senior executives surveyed use collaboration tools other than e-mail, telephony, and the shared calendars found in Microsoft Outlook and other e-mail systems. Of course, executives may not need the same tools, or as many tools, as project teams.

But since corporate culture is heavily influenced by executive behavior, and support for training and infrastructure depends in part on management buy-in, the lack of use of these tools by executives has a dampening effect. When executives set an example of collaboration, other collaboration-friendly behaviors--providing adequate training, encouraging experimentation and rewarding employees who collaborate, for instance--are more likely to emerge.

CIOs who want to increase collaboration among employees must encourage executives to set an example by embracing these tools and technologies.

Charts 4.3 and 4.4


Collaboration Isn't a Youth Movement

Collaboration Isn't a Youth Movement

Older and overseas employees have plenty to offer in terms of collaboration. Young people have a reputation for being more comfortable working in groups and using new technologies. The survey backs that up: Employees 30 and younger are the fastest to adopt collaboration technologies and have often served as pioneers for new collaboration tools.

Surprisingly, though, it's employees in their 30s and 40s, not the 20-somethings, who are most likely to use high-impact collaboration applications. Employees older than 50 are rarely collaboration trendsetters, however. Anyone leading a collaboration or emerging technology task force shouldn't assume the youngest employees have the best insights into new technologies; they should include members of the middle generation of workers, who have the experience to see how these technologies can be applied to the workplace.

Nor should they overlook overseas workers: While Americans often export innovative collaboration practices overseas, one in four companies have found that their foreign-based workforce can be a source of new ways to use these technologies. Innovation in collaboration is not an exclusively American phenomenon.


Charts 5.3 and 5.4

This article was originally published on 03-06-2008