• August 7, 2010
  • By Scott Ryser, cofounder and chief executive officer, Yakabod

The Constraints on Collaboration

How's that knowledge-sharing initiative coming along? The one where you spent beaucoup bucks on software and who-know-how-much on training? If you've hit a wall, you're not alone. Resistance is inevitable.

Most pushback has a common theme.

People hate changing the way they work. Collaboration resistance; takes lots of forms, but you typically hear three comments over and over:

  • "It makes sense for them, but we don't need it."
  • "I'll learn the software as soon as I finish [fill in the blank]."
  • "I don't really have anything to contribute."

Loosely translated, this all boils down to "I won't do anything until I know what's in it for me."

This is the ubiquitous WIIFM principle, and unless you address it honestly there's an 80 percent chance your knowledge-sharing effort will limp along or fail. Here's how to interpret the messages underlying those three complaints, with some practical ways to address them. 

#1: "It makes sense for them, but we don't need it."

Never introduce knowledge sharing software as the fix for a quality or productivity problem (or any problem, for that matter). You'll create instant resistance.

Everybody figures their own department's just fine; it's the folks down the hall who need to get their act together.

Lead from strength. People are more willing to share if they end up getting more of something valuable in return. Knowledge is power, and the collective intelligence of a collaborative team outshines any individual. Group success raises the status and reputation of each and every member.

#2: "I'll get to it after I finish [fill in the blank]."

How many people on the planet rush to work for an exciting day of software training? Three, maybe? The rest of us dread how hard (and tedious) learning a new system will be. We worry vaguely about threats to our status, authority, span of control. So we focus on other priorities and promise, "I'll get to it as soon as I finish [fill in the blank]."

You can't force people to collaborate (neither threats nor rewards have a lasting impact on adoption rates), so resistance like this is tough to overcome. Don't even try.

Instead, look for situations that deliver quick, easy wins. First you simply want people to log on and look around. No mission-critical activities. This isn't about doing work, it's about reducing fear. (If encouraging people to make lunch plans on the system lures them in, it's a good strategy.) Quick success produces "stickiness".

Pick one easy-to-master task that has no downside risk (voting in a blog poll, for example) and give people leeway to experiment. Don't keep tabs on their time or look over their shoulders.

#3: "But I don't have anything to contribute."

"Nothing to contribute" often means "No way will I stick my neck out by posting something that could be seen as trivial, useless, or just plain wrong." Collaboration is a real uphill slog in organizations where

  1. the focus is on individual achievement; 
  2. unspoken social codes define behavior; or
  3. command-and-control hierarchies prevail.

Ask holdouts why they don't use the system and they simply say, "I just don't have anything to add."

This isn't false modesty. It's a defense (Can you believe he thinks that's a good idea? Geez, he can't even spell!) and it fends off the competitor in the next cubicle. Hoarding and doling out information is a time-honored career strategy, but it's slow poison in any company where collaboration has a direct impact on corporate performance.

In 2005, the Harvard Business Review published research by Marshall W. Van Alstyne showing the link between collaborative behavior and corporate culture. (Alstyne examined corporate culture in terms of compensation, recognition, and promotion). People rewarded for individual performance share information least; people rewarded for team performance share more; and people rewarded for company performance share most.2

The cultural leap from individual competence to team competence is wide and scary. It's imperative to recognize this and acknowledge every step people make toward collaboration.

A dozen new records uploaded to the system? Great. Thirty new users? Congratulations. Praise frequently, publicly, and on the spot. Don't wait for the quarterly meeting. It doesn't cost a cent, and it's the simplest tool in any change management strategy. It's also the most underused and overlooked.


About the Author

Scott Ryser (sryser@yakabod.com) is cofounder and chief executive officer of Yakabod (www.yakabod.com), a Gartner 2010 Cool Vendor in the category of high-performance workplace. The company's flagship product is the Yakabox, a knowledge-sharing system so secure it's used daily by the U.S. intelligence community, and so easy to use that you're productive the first time you log on.


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For the rest of the July 2010 issue of CRM magazine — which examines the past 15 years in the CRM industry — please click here.

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