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Why collaborative technology won’t fix your business

Collaborative technologies, like Jive Software, IBM Connections and Newsgator, have come amidst the fanfare of a new and better era of corporate performance. They herald the emergence of a unique class of organisation: a brave new world where social technologies permeate all business functions to drive collaboration, learning and innovation.

But for every success story documenting how these technologies have generated a tidal wave of excellence across the organisation, there are also tales of disappointment and woe.

Frustrated internal comms managers puzzle over their impotent efforts, wondering why these new technologies haven’t spawned the slick ‘networked enterprise’ they’ve heard so much about.

Why, now that the sparkly social technologies of promise have been implemented, are the productivity statistics not peaking? Why aren’t employees seizing the opportunity to connect and share? They’ve had the training, damn it! And there are clear ‘how to’ guides on the intranet AND posters on the all toilet doors. So why the hell isn’t this stuff working?

The answer, more often than not, is culture. A simple little word that represents a deep-rooted, complex medley of attitudes, behaviours and values that flood the veins of every organisation.

If earnest corporate values are divorced from the reality of how employees behave, ambition really means Machiavellian politics and feedback is synonymous with criticism, even the most advanced collaborative technology is doomed to fail.

Neglecting to consider or, even worse, ignoring corporate cultures in which cooperation and sharing is not the norm, is a huge mistake when implementing collaborative technologies internally.

These technologies exist to facilitate, not fix. They bring company culture into sharp relief. Whether that’s through outstanding results and world-class performance in highly networked companies, or eerily quiet online workspaces that generate disappointing outputs in those that are less used to cooperation and sharing.

The lesson for internal comms is to focus on people and behaviours before technologies. Work with change management to start influencing broken working practices and guide the leadership team in exemplifying the change you’re looking for.

Shiny new collaborative technologies won’t fix your business, but engaged employees will.

I’ll be exploring some of the ways organisations can encourage positive cultural change, so if you’ve got any helpful tips or examples, please post below :)

Image courtesy of Marcin Wichery.

This post was filed under Digital transformation, Internal comms, Technology Comments are currently closed.


  1. Very clear post Lou.

    This is not a very new problem, of course. Email (and the “paper-less office” it would bring about) was touted as a technology that would revolutionise business practice 25 years ago.

    Nowadays we read emails not memos. But personally, I don’t see any “revolutionary” impact. People still do what they did.

    “Culture” is certainly one word for what brings about what you describe.

    Although I’d be careful to avoid making “culture” the problem, or the solution.

    After all, what actually is culture? Ed Schein coined the term in the 1980s, but I am still not sure if anyone has ever seen one :)


    Posted 11th May 2012 at 2:56 pm | Permalink
  2. Pete, are you saying people still do what they did when memos were the dominant form?

    I don’t know from personal experience, but that sounds incorrect to me. Surely behaviour has substantially changed because of email? And ‘culture’ too, whatever it means.


    Posted 14th May 2012 at 12:46 pm | Permalink
  3. Hi Will

    Yes, that is exactly what I am saying.

    I have limited experience too – I started using email probably only 6 months into my working life – in about 1980.

    But in support of what Lou is saying in all the time I have been working I have seen new technologies from office automation to expert systems to knowledge management touted as things that would radically change our working lives and our businesses.

    But I don’t think they have, in any significant way. Yes, I can send you an email instead of a memo, but I don’t see how that really changes anything.

    And, for example, if email makes businesses radically more efficient, then why do some MDs suggest “no email days”? Perhaps to save people from spending their time emailing, just as they used to spend time writing memos :)

    In my book doing the same thing faster or quicker isn’t the same as doing something differently and better.

    Email *is* potentially a powerful, collaborative application. However, the question that I think Lou is pointing to is “what needs to change for email to actually be a powerful application”.

    Hope that makes sense.

    Posted 14th May 2012 at 1:41 pm | Permalink
  4. Nicola Simmonds

    yes, new technologies that are available 24/7 are demonstrating diversification of traditional organisational structure and culture. Positve or rather cultural change that will work is all about recognising the human aspect of change and the defensive routines that arise from change initiatives.
    Argylis is an author who discussed the cultural teaching of routines, the discussion highlighted the absence of process for recognising defensive routines. Implementation of new structure, strategy assumes threat; loyalty itself may create defensive routines in the experience of change.

    Culture can discourage necessary change in favouring the management of consistancy. Culture impedes change as it is often designed unconsciously over time and the time scale of an organizational change is offend short term whereas it takes time for culture to accept new values and beliefs.

    So start by working with staff to utlise the technolical innovattion. Help them to see how it will benefit them in the longer term and they may be more willing to invest in the change.

    Posted 14th May 2012 at 6:18 pm | Permalink
  5. Nicola Simmonds

    further to this i would add that working with what you have identifying what works and an excellent leader is a good start…

    Posted 14th May 2012 at 6:24 pm | Permalink
  6. Then I disagree.

    I am definitely not email’s biggest fan, in fact I bloody hate it, but the idea that email didn’t change behaviour in organisations I think is missing some fairly big changes in behaviour, especially from mobile email (like Blackberries).

    And I don’t mean around efficiency, in fact probably the opposite in the long-term.

    I’m thinking about the blurring of work into out-of-hours, the death of ‘dead time’ on journeys or between places, the race to reply to an email at the weekend before competitive colleagues (as one client told me), the defensive cc-ing of many people, the spreading of attention across many alerts and channels rather than focusing on a single task, and probably many more.

    Email, as well as other factors, is in the mix here, for me – and so changing behaviour and culture.

    So what I am saying is that I agree with Louise – the underlying stuff is much more important than the technology. And I agree with you about the touting of revolutionary new technologies, offering false dawns.

    But I cannot agree that these things haven’t or will not change behaviour. They have, they do, they will!

    Posted 16th May 2012 at 9:14 am | Permalink
  7. Hi Will

    It is very unscientific but I really like the series Mad Men. Have you seen it?

    Set in the 1960s, a period of then unprecedented technological change, all we see are people living out their lives and relationships – having marriages, affairs, jealousies, rivalries etc etc.

    In the series, business follows these human dramas – people come and go, stand up for themselves, or fall down and go weak at the knees. Deals are done, meetings held, or missed, or survived with a hangover.

    People are stressed, have heart-attacks, work at weekends. Or stay in bed when they could be at work.

    What I said I think was that technology changes nothing *significant* in our lives – and what I really meant by that is that technology doesn’t *change* things at all.

    That would be a technologically deterministic point of view – which I simply don’t hold.

    I think people do change, and societies do change – witness the Civil Rights movement as a backdrop to the series. And the drame of the protagonists lives, as they evolve and grow in relation to others.

    But technology in my view only ‘enables’ things – it facilitates (ie makes easy) things that would have happened anyway. And if something else is going to happen, it will.

    As Nicola points out, maybe the use of technology – our ‘behaviours’ around technology – sometimes ‘demonstrates’ what is really going on.

    We throw a mobile phone in the sea – and we might interpret that as a frustration with technology, or as a sign that work is getting us down, or that we hate being trapped in a dull repetitive job; or just as someone showing off.

    But in my book it certainly isn’t caused by the mobile phone.

    I think what Lou is pointing to (we need to ask her I guess) is that technology alone won’t ‘fix’ any business. There are other much more subtle transformations needed.


    Posted 16th May 2012 at 4:52 pm | Permalink
  8. If a company is a system, made up of interconnected people, processes, rules, habits etc, and if that organic, messy system creates its own individual behaviours because of its unique characteristics then we can presume that the action of introducing new technology will produce behaviours that are a product of the system, rather than the technology. That same technology introduced to a different company (system) would produce entirely different behaviours. So the technology itself can be seen as inert – the system is the living thing that must be understood and acted upon to effect change.

    Posted 16th May 2012 at 10:12 pm | Permalink
  9. I think you are right Jenni. Yes, a system creates (or has) behaviours. And a new component in a system may bring about change.

    But the thing is, it also may not.

    In my view, systems are alive, self-regulating and as likely to change as not change.

    And I think a system is as much a construction as anything else. So, unfortunately, you can’t ‘act upon a system’ to change it.

    With technology or anything else.

    Posted 17th May 2012 at 7:32 am | Permalink