How Collaboration Tools Can Improve Knowledge Work

As we automate more and more routine work, generating ever greater volumes of digital data, managers are focusing ever more on supporting knowledge workers — which these days is just about everybody. Online collaboration tools can help; they can give workers quick answers to questions, speed decision-making, and improve communications from the top to bottom of an organization. But most companies find it a cultural challenge to adopt these tools.

Traditional expert-driven approaches to routine work redesign aren’t effective for knowledge work. Frederick Winslow Taylor, regarded as the father of scientific management and one of the first management consultants in the early 1900s, believed workers were incapable of dissecting and improving their jobs. Taylor expected workers to comply with a standard set of steps defined by process experts (including Taylor himself). But today’s jobs are far more complex and workers make more complex decisions. They can no longer sit back and wait for directions as Taylor’s mindless and expendable cogs in the organizational machine.

Another complication is that lifetime employment has all but disappeared from most organizations and workers often change jobs several times during their careers. We can’t rely on people to pass on the best way to do work by word of mouth. Instead, we need to document and share them, before they become lost.

At Nationwide Insurance, the $20 billion financial services provider, online social collaboration has become part of the workplace and a key tool for engaging workers. Anyone can ask online questions, post comments, make announcements, recognize a peer, or search the network to find answers. Like Facebook, the Nationwide network enables people to share with groups or friends, with easy access through mobile devices. When workers ask questions of the community, they usually get faster answers than from the help desk or e-mail. Some leaders are now posting quick (less than two minutes) video announcements about new or changed processes, instead of sending e-mail. This has been a real hit with generation Y employees in Nationwide’s contact centers, for example, who are comfortable with this type of communication.

Nationwide’s social collaboration tools help people get conversations started, make faster decisions, get work done more quickly, communicate better top to bottom, recognize peers and better engage workers. All this by making the company more like the real world we live in.

So why are most companies slow to adopt online collaboration tools? In one progressive utility with thousands of employees, only one or two percent post or read blogs on their intranet more than once a week (vs. 20% at Nationwide).

Nationwide has been successful because it has managed its adoption of collaboration tools as part of a broader cultural change program. Chris Plescia, leader of marketing, collaboration and corporate Internet solutions, told me that the first step for leaders is a little bit of a leap: “We’ve made it okay to try something new. A couple years ago, it took me about five minutes to post my first question. I was worried I might make a mistake, so I spell-checked it several times before I sent it out. When people responded I realized I needed to quickly interact with them and eventually became comfortable with potential spelling errors. Another challenge was knowing that these conversations are public. So we spent time up front to define policies for compliance and governance.” Another key success factor has been senior leaders who have led by example and used the tools, such as when the president posted a photo from a visit to a field location.

The potential of online collaboration tools is as big in enterprises as it has been in the consumer realm. 20-something workers will continue to chat and tweet on social media outside of work. Will your organization provide them with equivalent tools to support them in their work and treat this as a cultural change?

Have you seen workers use online collaboration tools to do their jobs better and discuss how they can improve their work?

Reprinted from HBR by Brad Power