If you build it, they will come

If you build it, they will come

Last year, Gary Kovener, an information systems manager at a Global 1000 com-pany, tried to set up a discussion database using Lotus Development's Notes. The goal was to invite comments on specific areas of interest inside and outside the company.

But even executives were reluctant to put down their thoughts.

They feared their ideas might be perceived as inadequate and, consequently, open to ridicule. The result: nobody contributed.

That's fairly typical at organisations that implement groupware as a technology but pay scant attention to changing behaviour patterns. The social and cultural issues associated with groupware aren't new, but many companies don't seem to have discovered them yet.

"Groupware gets used [as] glorified e-mail unless employees see what's in it for them," says Wanda Orlikowski, associate professor of information technology at MIT in Massachusetts.

Changing the incentive system so that employees are rewarded for working with others is key to groupware's success, she says.

Changing behaviour

Rewards are essential because workers see information as power, and sharing this source of power isn't easy, industry observers say. When the Big Six accounting firm Ernst & Young LLP implemented groupware, it paid attention to such people issues, says John Parkinson, a partner at Ernst & Young. "We needed to change people's behaviour so that they thought more about the value of collaboration and began sharing experience, knowledge and work practices with their colleagues," he says.

Parkinson says he wanted the company's average competency level to rise steadily to match that of the top performers. He realised that technology could help workers be more efficient if they shared information, but behavioural changes would make it happen faster and make it more effective.

"The reward and recognition system [of even the basic compensation model] was adjusted to include measures of collaboration and participation, as well as contributions of new knowledge and ideas," he says.

At Buckman Laboratories International, a chemical manufacturing company, participation in forums and a willingness to share information are part of the annual review process, although the salary structure hasn't changed. But management has been proactive in rewarding collaboration. In 1994, CEO Bob Buckman took the top 15 per cent of contributors to a party in Arizona. Each one received a new laptop and a leather bag, and they went back feeling well-recognised.

But firms often don't take this simple approach. Once the technology is in place, users want to solve their problems quickly, says Ilkka Tuomi, principal scientist at the Nokia Research Center in Helsinki, Finland. "The effort needed to change behaviour, processes and incentives is in most cases grossly underestimated.

Novice groupware developers and application customers tend to think that it's all about technology," she says.

Benefiting all

But the management at Buckman seems to have understood that for technology to be successful, everyone should benefit from collaboration so that it becomes self-reinforcing. For example, an employee posted a question on the electronic bulletin board inquiring why the health plan didn't cover a particular procedure. The issue launched a discussion on the forum that resulted in a better health plan. Users saw that the forum worked internally and for customers who started getting quick responses to queries, says Charles Carncross, vice president of Buckman's Coatings and Plastic Chemicals division.

Management also worked toward creating a "comfort zone" through active involvement, where everyone felt at ease about using the technology.

This is key. People have to feel safe in their environment, says Carol Anne Ogdin, principal at Deep Woods Technology. The issues aren't all technological.

"If the environment is such that people can't say 'I don't know', how are they going to ask for help?" she says.

Even with this sensi- tivity, it wasn't easy, Buckman says. It took about three years to get everyone on board the program.

And even now, management is constantly striving to fine-tune the system. "Technology will let you increase communication, but culture is how they take advantage of the communication. That's where you get the power - it changes [the individual's] span of influence," he says.

Look at the process

But to change anything, process must be kept in mind, says Richard Weissberg, principal at Jacobson Group. Process, he says, means paying attention to how work actually flows and how people really work, not just taking data and information.

Perhaps the most important thing to remember is that implementing collaborative computing and bringing about behavioural change isn't a one-shot deal, Buckman says. "The problem is that most companies look at it as a project. It is a journey," he says.

Kovener knows this now. He is once again rolling out Notes, but this time he's working hard to get executives to participate. For example, he's asking them to look up a Notes database instead of calling a project manager on a particular issue. As for rewards, that's something Kovener wants to do as he continues on his journey.

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