If you build it, will they really come? Getting the conditions right for adoption of social collaboration

What's your social collaboration raison d'être?

Businesses are increasingly recognising the potential benefits of using social collaboration tools as part of a strategy to improve levels of collaboration within their organisation. What’s more, it really couldn’t be easier to purchase and deploy these tools – with many of them available as low-cost, SaaS-based services, there is often no need to have a formal business case approved, or even to involve IT in the process.

And when it comes to the tools themselves, their ease-of-use is one of their key selling points: not only do they typically provide simple, intuitive user interfaces, but many of us are already very familiar with the way these tools work as a result of our use of public, consumer-focused tools such as Facebook and Twitter – and, of course, it is their simplicity that has made these public tools so successful.

However, a common mistake within businesses is to assume that – because these tools are so familiar and easy to use – there is no need to train staff on how to use them; that, once introduced, they will “virally” become adopted by employees through a word-of-mouth approach, getting under the skin of the organisation in the same way as Facebook and Twitter have done in our non-work lives. The trouble is that this simply does not work in most organisations.

So why is this? Well, the problem is inherently a cultural one and, from our conversations with organisations who are working on this type of initiative, it is typically more of a problem the larger your organisation. Viral adoption works well in small teams, when one member of the team identifies a social tool that works well for them, and starts encouraging colleagues to use it with them. Very quickly, the team can gain 100% adoption of the tool, and become very dependent on it to support collaboration.

However, the problem comes as you start to move beyond the team, and the tool hits the radar of middle management. Our case study interviews highlight that, very often, these managers quickly stamp on the use of these tools for several reasons: a) it’s not seen to be a corporately-approved solution, b) through lack of understanding of the benefits of social collaboration, they perceive it to be a waste of people’s time, when they could be actually doing their job. Of course, being well-versed in the benefits of social collaboration, we know that they are using the tool to get the job done, but this needs to be formally communicated to these management layers, which doesn’t happen through a purely viral approach to social.

It’s not just the management of course, some employees will resist adopting these tools on a voluntary basis – either through feeling they don’t have time to learn how to use them, through fearing criticism from managers, lack of trust in colleagues or managers, or through fear of the technology if they do not use similar tools outside of work.

To overcome this, it is vital to develop a balanced adoption strategy that combines viral approaches with more traditional, top-down techniques – having senior sponsors champion the strategy and technology, and actively use it to show others what it’s for, and building training and familiarisation programs which are personalised for the different groups of users within the organisation – senior management, middle management and the broader workforce.

Don’t rely on “if we build it, they will come”; instead build the roads, install the sign posts, engage the town planners. OK, perhaps I’m taking this metaphor a little far. But you get the idea.

(A note from the editor: This post was originally published on the AIIM community blog, where Angela posts monthly as an invited ‘Expert Blogger’.)