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A collaboration strategy starts with business objectives, not products

Doing your collaboration strategy backwards -- retrofitting a business case to a technology, rather than choosing a tool to answer a business need -- can spell failure and leave collaborative tools gathering dust on a shelf.

The latest wave of unified communications (UC) tools look so good on tradeshow floors, but adopting them without considering how they fit into a broader collaboration strategy is a serious misstep. Retrofitting a business case to a technology, rather than choosing a tool to answer a business need, can spell failure for these deployments and leave collaborative tools gathering dust on a shelf.

"We [used to] do things more in a silo than we should've, and after the fact somebody [would say], 'I needed a car and you built me a bicycle,'" said Steve Brescia, enterprise architect at American Water, a water and wastewater utility company based in Voorhees, N.J. "But under the new CIO … her focus has really been that we need to partner with the business [to] find out what their pain points are and what their needs are, instead of going back in our corner and saying, 'Oh, this is a cool thing. Here you go.'"

These technologies are tools. If they don't have a business reason, don't [fulfill] a business need and don't make financial sense, then so what?
Steve Brescia
Enterprise ArchitectAmerican Water

American Water's 7,000 employees have plenty of collaborative tools -- IBM Lotus Notes and Domino 8.5.1, Lotus Sametime, Microsoft SharePoint and Cisco Systems WebEx -- but Brescia is evaluating high-definition (HD) video conferencing as a possible addition to the company's collaboration strategy.

Over the next year, Brescia's team will also work on integrating Notes, SharePoint and WebEx through a series of plug-ins to deliver "a single pane of glass" of collaborative tools for users, who have grown accustomed to toggling between the three applications during a meeting.

Neither project was an arbitrary choice, but rather part of a calculated collaboration strategy, Brescia said. HD video would meet specific needs for an upcoming project, as well as bridging disparate management teams at two call centers.

Meanwhile, Brescia and his team worked for seven months on a technical and financial analysis before diving into the application integration project, beginning with asking themselves what tools employees use most and how those could be improved. The team has also conducted user surveys and interviews to understand business needs, in addition to meeting with a business and IT review board.

"I, personally, am a big believer that these technologies are tools. If they don't have a business reason, don't [fulfill] a business need and don't make financial sense, then so what? I think we, as an organization, are getting better at [avoiding] that in the three years that I've been here," Brescia said. "You can have the coolest tools [but if they don't] help anybody do their jobs, it's not worth it."

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In the spirit of collaboration, Ted Schadler -- a vice president and principal analyst at Forrester Research, who recently authored POST: A Systematic Way to Define Your Collaboration Strategy -- said IT should be at the table but not the only one there when developing a collaboration strategy; business units and users should be included, too. Stakeholders must start with identifying the problem and objective, which IT should use to guide its choice of strategy and technology, he said.

"Nobody owns workforce productivity -- nobody. The CEO is the only individual in the company that really cares about it from a personal incentive basis," Schadler said. "IT has the ability to think broadly across the organization and is not stuck in any particular function, business group or region. They're one of the only global services inside the company."

Other enterprises continue to get their collaboration strategy backwards

Although IT shops may be used to thinking about their jobs in terms of appliances and software, telecommunications and messaging managers will waste time and money if their collaboration strategy doesn't begin with identifying the business need, according to Schadler.

"Failure means it sits there and no one uses it. There's a ton of that [going on in enterprises] -- a lot of plural investments and applications that get built but never used," he said. "When you start looking at these failures stacking up, you realize that you've got to stop pushing technology up the hill and ask, 'What's the problem we want to solve?'"

Collaboration is one of four areas where enterprises seem to fall prey to this mentality of deciding on the technology without identifying its business case, Schadler said. Mobile computing, desktop virtualization projects and Windows 7 upgrades also seem to be barreling ahead without much thought to broader strategy, he said.

But it's not surprising, given the culture of IT, Schadler said.

"The nature of innovation in the tech industry starts with the technology. When new stuff comes in -- good or bad -- it shows up in a box or on a website as an application," he said. "It doesn't start with the business problem, except in the mind of the [inventor] perhaps."

Let us know what you think about the story; email: Jessica Scarpati, News Writer

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