Collaboration: It’s not about the technology!

Posted by Marc Anderson on Mar 22, 2016 4:23:32 PM

As we are on the cusp of the full launch of a new version of SharePoint, I thought I’d share a few observations. Recently, as I’ve been out and about in the community, there have been a few consistent themes I have been hearing (still). These aren’t new, nor do I expect they will go away. The folks at Microsoft and most serious SharePointilists wish they never heard this stuff, but it’s real.

Can we NOT talk about SharePoint?
When I was in Copenhagen a few weeks ago for the InfraTeam Event 2016—High-Performing Intranets, I heard this more than a few times. The fact that the technology in the demos or slides may have been SharePoint wasn’t germane to the discussion about whether the intranets were effective or useful.

We need to understand that while the underlying technology may be SharePoint, SharePoint is not the business problem we are trying to solve. We’re trying to improve internal communications or support an important process. In other words, the fact that it’s SharePoint isn’t very important; what we’re solving with it is.

Are we collaborating yet?
How many people in your organization really know what you mean when you talk about collaboration? Well, if my experience at a recent AIIM New England meeting entitled Are We Collaborating Yet? is any guide, they may well not. The discussion we had was far-reaching and covered technology tools, office politics, regulatory requirements, and much more. But there was a strong focus on the technology we use every day to do the things we call collaboration: the tools, but not the goals.

What was clear almost from the beginning was that we did not have an “elevator pitch” definition of collaboration to fall back on. These were all people who “do” collaboration for a living, yet we couldn’t seem to come up with a clear way to say what we mean!

For grins and giggles, while everyone was talking, I looked up collaboration at Dictionary.com on my iPhone:

Collaboration [kuh-lab-uh-rey-shuh n] noun

the act or process of collaborating.

a product resulting from collaboration: This dictionary is a collaboration of many minds.

If you’re like me, this snake-eating-its-own-tail definition is of almost zero help. Trying some of the other variants of the word didn’t help much either. Even “collaborate” didn’t have a definition that seemed to cover what we were talking about:

collaborate [kuh-lab-uh-reyt] verb (used without object), collaborated, collaborating.

to work, one with another; cooperate, as on a literary work: They collaborated on a novel.

to cooperate, usually willingly, with an enemy nation, especially with an enemy occupying one's country: He collaborated with the Nazis during World War II.

None of that covers what we really mean when we say collaboration. For what it’s worth, my definition is “Working together to reach a common goal”. When we’re trying to change the way people work (perhaps with SharePoint as a part of the solution package), we’d better be able to explain what we mean in an succinct elevator pitch.

Can you make it not look like SharePoint?
Anyone who works with Microsoft’s customers and SharePoint end users has heard that they don’t want SharePoint to look like SharePoint. I even have heard recently, “They want it to be a website.” Yes, a plain old website. I’ve seen SharePoint folks take offense at this: after all SharePoint is so much more than a Web site, right?

It may be to us, but others in your organization may not see it that way at all. They are using something in the browser, and they want that thing to look nice—and not the nice that is SharePoint out of the box. Whether we agree with them doesn’t really matter. It’s important to them and we should work with them to figure out how to make things comfortable. Explaining the costs and tradeoffs is important too, but we can’t expect that we’ll always “win” this discussion.

Conclusions
So what’s the moral of these three seemingly unconnected observations? Well, to me it confirms yet again that the technology really isn’t the point. Unless we’re clear on what we want to accomplish, how it’s connected to the organizational strategy, and how we can make it happen (independently of the tools), we can’t succeed. So before we start talking about SharePoint this and SharePoint that with our end users and stakeholders, we need to remember that they may not actually care about SharePoint, as painful as that may be to realize. Let’s talk to them about what they want and why, then go away and make it happen somehow.

If SharePoint is a part of the solution, great, but it won’t make the whole thing happen. Let’s remember that many of the people we work with in this land of collaboration will need some helpful coaching, hand holding, and understanding for us to succeed in our missions.

Marc Anderson is a Microsoft MVP and an enterprise collaboration strategist.

Topics: intranets, SharePoint 2016, collaboration

Thoughts? Leave a comment: