#Collaboration: Why Real Solutions Start with People, Not Buzzwords

I’ve spoken before about the concept of collaboration, and clarified a bit of the why’s concerning the AV industry’s apparent love for the term. In my previous post, I bemoaned the fact that, apparently, you could consider a TV mount a “collaboration device” in the way we use the word, and I explained that this over-use is driven by organizations hungry for ways to increase social learning. Study upon study demonstrates that the sharing of ideas between employees is vital to success, which is why companies look for some sort of technology or application that can help them invigorate collaboration.

This has given rise in the AV industry to what I call “#collaboration.” #Collaboration is distinct from true collaboration because the word has ceased to have meaning in the context of professional AV. Instead, we have reduced it to a buzzword, a hashtag that we can throw on the end of our tweet about the latest conference room doohickey we want to peddle. The problem is that technology cannot create collaboration. That’s not its job.

The thing is, creating collaboration isn’t the role of technology. Technology facilitates collaboration. It helps remove logistical barriers to collaboration. It does not make collaboration happen. It can’t possibly do that, and expecting some piece of technology to magically make meetings more collaborative is not simply wishful thinking, but rather setup for a massive failure.

Organizations buy into this promise of #collaboration in hopes that it will be some instigator of change, but it doesn’t address the true issue at hand. If you hate your job, you don’t buy a new car. The car is simply a tool that gets you there. To really change things, you have to change where you are going. You have to get a new job. Then, you can assess where you are going and if your current method of transportation (let’s say the train, for example) will get you there. If not, you can then look at getting a better tool (a new car) to get you where you want to go.

So if technology isn’t the answer, what is the solution? It’s not glamorous, but the real answer is people. Collaboration is a philosophy, and having a culture of collaboration is something that must be encouraged within the organization from all levels of leadership. It’s not a fun answer, any more than saying that the way to lose weight is to diet and exercise, but that doesn’t make it any less true.

For a good example of why having good leadership and proper communication about collaboration is important, let’s look at a recent article in the Harvard Business Review titled “Collaboration Overload.” In the article, Rob Cross, Reb Rebele and Adam Grant talk about this rise of collaboration that we’ve been mentioning, saying that “the time spent by managers and employees in collaborative activities has ballooned by 50% or more.” This sounds great, but as the article mentions, this often results in employees spending so much time in meetings that they don’t have time to work on their own. This isn’t a bad thing if that time is being used wisely and it is having a positive effect. Unfortunately, the results don’t always bear that out.

In fact, the research in the article shows that, “in most cases, 20% to 35% of value-added collaborations come from only 3% to 5% of employees” and that a one “extra miler” who is working hard can contribute and effect performance more than the rest of the team combined. This is the work environment equivalent of the high school group project. One person does all the work and the rest just stand next to them and smile when it is presentation time.

Fortunately, the article mentions some ways that organizations can address these issues, including work redistribution and the importance of encouraging behavioral change. It also mentions the need to reward employees when they are working together, and even encourages structural changes when necessary. Of course, it also mentions leveraging technology.

This is where tools like conference room AV can truly make collaboration more effective, but it starts with having a good understanding of what you want to accomplish, not just with technology, but also with the organization itself. Let’s say you have employees that are prone to impromptu meetings for information sharing. In this example, we’ll posit that the current, flawed approach goes one of two ways. First option is the employees both walk to someone’s desk and the two end up in a lengthy, distracting conversation where no one writes anything down and they just bother everyone else around them with loud discussion. Second option is they plan a formal meeting—that may or may not actually be scheduled. They decide to add a bunch of “decision makers” that muddy the discussion, and they end up losing all of the energy and ideas of the initial conversation while at the same time delaying the project that much further.

So, the solution is to find a way to encourage employees to have these conversations faster. The first step is not a technology solution, but rather to have an organizational decision on who the “decision makers” are and if they in fact need to be in every conversation involving a topic or project. In this case, we’ll say the organization has chosen to encourage employees to work together to find solutions first, and then submit proposals of the ideas to decision makers once the idea is a bit more fleshed out. They encourage employees to work together in small groups on projects and get ideas, and let other employees know it is ok to take a few minutes to work together on an idea (this is, in part, a workload discussion between the organization and the employees). That way, they maximize the decision makers’ time (a good idea given they are likely the highest-paid employees in the group) rather than constantly be stuck in meetings about every minute detail. This is a good way to prevent “collaboration overload.”

You can also apply technology to this solution to prevent the logistical problems and make this concept more effective and practical. The approach is something called the “huddle space.” These small collaboration spaces allow employees to step inside dedicated collaboration areas that take conversations away from other employees while at the same time providing just the right technology to facilitate these conversations. Scheduling panels can help employees find open collaboration areas. They then step inside, plug a laptop into an AV table box (where a retractable cable is already provided), and the system comes to life automatically. They are able to work together on the project without huddling around a single laptop screen, and can even bring in others via web conference, because the system has a webcam installed.

This, of course, is just one example. However, the point is that you can add huddle spaces all day, but if you don’t explain to your employees when and why you should use them, and you don’t encourage and reward their use, these new spaces will not have an impact. And at the end of the day, technology is only useful if it gets used.

The difference between #collaboration and real collaboration starts with you. How do you encourage collaboration within your organization? Let us know in the comments.