Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Is there a groundswell of demand for collaboration tools in your agency?

This is based on some thinking (and rewriting of a reply) around a post by Stephen Collins from Acidlabs on the topic of how and why to implement 'Enterprise 2.0 technologies in organisations, entitled Enterprise 2.0 - Identify problem. Determine solution. Then tools.

Stephen was making a good point - that it is important to identify the needs before introducing the solution (or the tools), also noting that it was necessary to engage in some experimentation and 'intrapreneurship', rather than spend months on painstaking research.

In my travels and conversations with peers I've become aware that many of them are seeing needs emerging within organisations for better collaboration tools - people are seeking better and more cost-effective ways to work together to achieve organisational objectives than via shared drives, email, telephones and cross-country business trips.

However in most cases this need is forming in a 'lumpy' manner. Some groups in the organisation are happy with the tools they've used for years, others are seeking something better - particularly where budget limitations and rising costs are making old ways of working too expensive.

Within my agency I've had around eight groups approach me over the last few months seeking tools to allow them to collaborate or communicate more effectively within the agency or with external parties.

Most of these groups were not aware of the others.

Each by themselves did not have a strong enough business case for an organisational investment in new technologies.

However by aggregating their needs I'm close to a position where I can demonstrate a strong organisational ROI to senior management.

I can picture other agencies being in a similar position. Many small groups expressing needs that could be met by 'Enterprise 2.0' tools, but without a clear big picture view across the organisation of the overall need.

I recall a story I once heard regarding a large bank back in the early days of personal computing. They brought in someone to audit the use of computing technologies across middle management and discovered that hundreds of line managers had individually bought Mac personal computers because the Supercalc spreadsheet was so compellingly useful for them in their jobs.

These purchases were not authorised by the central computing department (who managed the mainframe). The individual purchases were made out of petty cash as each manager could not demonstrate sufficient need to have the central department take notice.

This was a collision between rising staff costs, increasing demands on managers to perform more complex calculations, greater technology availability and growing workforce skills. It led to the perimeter of the organisation knowing more about staff needs than the centre.

I think that we are in a similar time now. Traditional collaboration and communications approaches are rising in cost, while agencies are being asked to increase their collaboration and transparency. (Free) social media tools are growing in popularity on the internet and more and more of the staff joining the public service are experienced users of these tools.

Therefore I believe it's important for government departments to review what staff need to do their jobs and aggregating the needs of different groups to build effective organisational business cases.

Otherwise we'll see agency staff doing as the bank managers did - finding what they need elsewhere.

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