Get Your Team to Love Collaboration Tools

Last Updated Mar 12, 2010 9:07 AM EST

Every day a new tool emerges to help remote and virtual teams collaborate better. One tool, Yammer, has gotten a lot of buzz lately. It's a pretty good example of how teams can be successful with a technology solution. Of course, on another team, the exact same tool might just lay there like the veggie platter at a beer bash -- good for you but completely ignored and unappreciated. So how does a company successfully adopt a tool like this? First I'll tell you a little about Yammer, and then I'll explain the three things management should do to ensure that your team actually uses a collaboration tool. To put it in its simplest form, Yammer is essentially Twitter but behind a company's firewall, so only those in your company or organization can see and post to it. The idea is to reduce long email threads, allow people to quickly update each other on project status, and let folks ask questions without having to figure out who to ask. (That's one drawback to email: the right people don't get the message at all, or everyone gets it and ignores you as an internal spammer.)

As with most of these tools, I didn't pay too much attention to it at first, and then a number of people I know and trust (colleagues and clients) started using it with mixed results. Some love it and swear by it; others shrug, don't use it consistently, and don't see the advantages. What accounts for the difference in results?

Tech tools get adopted quickly when:

  • They start with a small group of passionate adopters who get results. Many companies make the mistake of waiting for a corporate-wide initiative to roll out a tool and then get paralyzed by logistics, training, and the general rollout. On the other hand, project teams with small budgets and huge problems will find solutions and test them under the radar at little cost. Don't try to sell your VP of IT on an enterprise-wide adoption until you can show results and have passionate ambassadors at every level of the team, including your individual contributors.
  • Their efforts are recognized at the top. Top-down rollouts seldom work smoothly, but grassroots adoptions supported by senior management have a much better chance of thriving. One great example is at Molson/Coors, which uses Yammer. In my opinion, if there was ever a company that's motivated to get together as often as possible, it would be a brewery. If they're willing to use a tool that keeps them apart, it must have its charms. In particular, they are using it for something that is highly underrated -- posting across project teams, and even divisions, so that they're not hunting for email addresses or trying to figure out who's on what project. Use your bully pulpit: Recognize those who successfully use a tool and encourage (with all the force of your position) others to try it as well. Be specific about how the tool's used and the results it gets (reduced rework, budget impact, user satisfaction). Then trumpet the results to your peers in general conversation, as well as to the rest of the company in your newsletter and company updates. And saying it just once won't get the job done.
  • When you're ready to expand, get the right stakeholders involved. One company I know had great luck with a project team that used Yammer, so their company newsletter told everyone about it and encouraged them to do the same. The problem is that there were serious IT challenges (easily overcome if addressed early) in using Yammer when different divisions of the company used different email addresses. This caused all kinds of frustration that resulted in poor adoption of a perfectly good tool and lots of grumbling. Here's a hint: if the big guns in the IT department aren't on board, don't try to roll it out widely yet. Successful implementations will have the chief technology officer or vice president of IT on the membership list. Find a champion in senior management (especially IT) as quickly as possible and identify systemic challenges before inviting everyone on board.
Unless I tell you otherwise, I don't have a stake in any of the technology I talk about in this blog. The above experiences will be almost identical with any collaboration tool, famous or unknown, expensive or free. You have to make sure it does what you need it to do first, then get others excited about using it to emulate your results.

photos by Flickr user Geishaboy500, CC 2.0