Designing for collaboration in an established culture

Meg Greene continues her series on introducing tech into an SMB not exactly welcoming the changes.

As I began considering how to approach the design for a set of internal communications tools at my new company, I initially thought that I could simply demonstrate to a few key people how easily several tools could be integrated together and what types of communication flows were possible.  My assumption was that these solutions would be embraced, we would prioritize which ones were needed first and most, and then we could begin making plans for how to purchase and deploy them to the approximately 1500 employees.  I was in for a few lessons in company culture.

The culture at my new company is one of consensus building. Before a plan is put in place, it must be welcomed by most everyone.   It's not that every person has to participate in a vote or the buy and design decision per se, but this company has built its reputation on inclusion and consideration of all members of the business. If some people have problems with an intended direction, the group works through all issues and waits for everyone to get on board.  And there was concern:  Concern that introducing new collaboration methods and technologies could alter the personal, friendly way that people have always interacted to get work accomplished in this family business.  Some people believed that making changes were unwarranted and felt that the existing tools and systems were more than sufficient to meet the needs of the business.

In fact, in the news recently, more than one enterprise has elected to abandon email for a day to return to a more face-to-face, accountable connection between their employees, so it isn't just my company.  There is widespread acknowledgement that technology isn't always the best answer to every communication need. Many of us have begun to realize that we can misuse communication and collaboration products to insulate ourselves from others.  We don't always do this consciously; it's easy to convince ourselves that we are accomplishing more by using communication tools efficiently to manage our time, when in fact we aren't really getting more done at all. We are just prolonging the period it takes to really connect with another individual.

I come from a background of helping people apply technology solutions to business productivity problems every day.  I have lived and breathed this stuff for decades.  But the people I'm now working with haven't. Many people in the company would describe themselves as "non-technical". The first challenge then was to help the company members to build a framework for talking about why and how communication might be improved.

So, in order to bring folks along on this journey of improving company communication I wanted to validate the needs we have for any new types of communication technology I might introduce. I decided to start by essentially doing some ethnographic studies of the employees.  I asked several key managers to tell me stories of missed opportunities, dropped action items, misunderstandings and the like. These things occur in just about every business around the world on any given day. We take it for granted that things just sometimes go wrong, and we go about fixing each mistake or problem as an isolated incident.  However, many times these kinds of stories surface a gap in how communication is being handled - where some aspect of communication between individuals is breaking down.

To better elicit details about communication gaps across a wide segment of the business, I formed an advisory group and began to meet with them regularly.  This group helped me discover which areas of communication pain were the most difficult for the organization to cope with. We used old tried and true techniques to uncover deeper causes for some of the pain - I asked the group to build out Ishikawa (fishbone) diagrams so that we could get to the root of each of the issues. My goal in doing this was to make sure I understood what went on inside the business, and to help the group make sure that we tackled the problem spots comprehensively so that we fixed the deeper issues and not just their symptoms.

In addition, I asked the group to build out personas for various roles across the business.   Each persona described what the role does and specifically what the communication aspects of the job are, highlighting where challenges exist. Sometimes the challenges are related to the type of work, sometimes to the geographical location of the employees (e.g. remote offices), and sometimes to the profile of the person.  For example one of the personas involves a man who is older, less comfortable with technology, and finds it an obstacle to use. Another persona outlines a recent college graduate who is highly familiar with technology but finds the absence of integrated communication tools in the business a hurdle to getting his work done.  So our persona profiles do a good job of covering the breadth of employee audience we are targeting as we frame our goals.

To my knowledge, none of these people had ever been exposed to these techniques before, so I first oriented them to the value and purpose for these activities and showed them some high level examples. We spent a good amount of time on this, over a period of a few weeks we met and developed several artifacts. It worked well and the team has enjoyed creating the reference documents we'll now use to build out our action plan going forward.

By using these techniques I was able to let the culture of the group come to the forefront. The root cause analysis shows in detail how communication breakdowns occur and why they are important to the employees to address.  The personas we created reflecting ‘typical' employees duties and attitudes will also help us keep the full spectrum of "users" in mind as we consider possible solutions. The work we have done will lead the way for how we approach introducing new communication methods, new technologies and new ideas.


Meg Greene has spent nearly 30 years in the technology sector working at companies ranging from small private businesses to the largest software company in the world. Her experience spans contributions as an engineer on the front lines, to leadershi...

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