Every week a vendor introduces a new gadget, system, or service that promises to make us communicate and collaborate better, faster. Just look at the comments below any article about virtual teams. They almost always include someone either evangelizing or peddling a particular piece of hard- or software that will make it easier to work with people in different time zones.
Sure, these technological improvements help in many ways. As a case in point, I just found out the precise location of a package in transit from China to France, all while on a train going through the forest. Our fast moving, globally networked economy simply was not possible a few years ago. But more often than not, the problem we’re facing isn’t a technological one, but a social one.
Teaching, consulting, and working with executives across industries and geographies has provided me with lots of evidence of a simple truth: it’s not what technology you’ve got, but how you use it. Let me share a few examples.
Give people the full context when video conferencing. Skype, FaceTime, and similar desktop videoconferencing tools are connecting us everywhere. At home they let my parents join in on the chaos of their grandchildren’s dinner. In the office they allow us to hear our distant colleagues’ voices and see them so we can pick up on important non-verbal cues. By providing more contextual information, they create an experience that’s richer and more complete than a simple phone call.
But they don’t provide all the contextual information we need. I’ve heard from many managers stories of being in a serious one-on-one discussion with a colleague over video, only to have their conversation partner turn and speak to someone they didn’t realize was in the room. This left these managers wondering just how much of their conversation was public and precisely who that public might be. Others report repeated interruptions by anything from an overly efficient administrative assistant to a neighbor with a lawnmower doing laps outside the window.
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You can overcome these problems by conducting a virtual tour to give your partner a sense of your environment. Pick up your laptop and walk your colleague around your office so they can see the context in which you’re working. Or zoom out on the computer’s camera. When doing this, point out things that may distract you (like your helpful assistant or your lawn-mowing neighbor). This is particularly helpful in ongoing collaboration when you’ll be video conferencing regularly.
Don’t take out tech troubles on the person. The unfortunate reality is that no matter what technology you
at some point it will break down. The call will be dropped. The picture on the screen will go fuzzy. Setting aside the bafflingly strong correlation between the incidence of failure and the importance of the meeting (perhaps a discussion for another time), such disruptions create real problems. Often the biggest one isn’t the loss of data or connectivity but our reactions.
Ask yourself if the following scenario feels familiar:
You’re speaking with a colleague on the phone and you’re deep into the conversation about a disagreement you had. After explaining your position at length, you pause and wait for a response…only to discover that the connection dropped.
Now be honest with yourself: When you finally resumed the call, did you find yourself frustrated or even annoyed at the other person when you had to go back and repeat your point?
This is a displacement where our frustration at the situation gets misattributed to the actor. Our conversation partner had nothing to do with the breakdown—it’s the technology’s fault, not theirs—but we take our frustrations out on them. You may not be yelling and screaming because often the manifestations are much more subtle – but even being in a negative frame of mind makes us less receptive to what others are saying and quicker to judge.
This isn’t easy to counteract, but start by being mindful of the tendency to displace. And when you feel your blood pressure rising as a result of a technology failure, follow this helpful, and frequently offered, piece of advice: take a deep breath, count to five, and remind yourself exactly what it is you’re mad about. This is simple and common sense, but that doesn’t mean we remember to do it.
Align knowledge management systems (or any system for that matter) with how people do work. Lew Platt, the former chairman, president, and CEO of Hewlett-Packard once said: “If HP only knew what HP knows, we would be three times more productive.” Even companies a fraction of the size of HP need a good knowledge management system (KMS) to make sure that knowledge is available and accessible throughout the organization. There are lots of technologies available, and the cloud has made things even faster but, as all good CIOs know, knowledge management is fundamentally not an IT issue — it is a social one.
I’ve studied the use of technology in organizations making everything from snack foods to satellite parts as well as those providing services around the globe, and I’ve seen plenty of examples of massive and costly undertakings to put KMS systems in place that in the end were largely ignored — or at the very least failed to live up to the hype. A system only works if employees are socialized to look to it for information and keep that data current. In putting in a KMS, or switching to a new one, it’s less important which technology you choose and more important that you align it with how people do work. Too often, a new KMS often conflicts with the way that employees currently use informal networks to seek and provide information. The chances of a new system —knowledge management or any kind of system —succeeding is dependent on choosing a technology that aligns with how people already work (or in some complex cases, overhauling how people get work done if the existing systems are inefficient— but that’s a longer discussion).
While we often think of the future of collaboration resting on the shoulders of technology, that is only part of the story. Sure, technology provides opportunities, but it’s important to view technology and social systems as partners. The promise of tomorrow’s collaboration requires actively considering, designing, and fine tuning both.