There isn’t a serious IT leader on the planet who isn’t interested in figuring out how to capture the power and benefits of social media applications for their enterprise. Now before you get the wrong idea, let me be clear: I’m not talking about mining social media sites like Facebook or trying to open your enterprise to social media applications.

What I am referring to is the capturing essence of Facebook and other social media hubs, i.e., creating a collaborative, user-driven environment that connects people to a common purpose. In this context, we’re connecting people who work for the same company in order to work better, faster, and easier. And in so doing, we’re streamlining and promoting communication, information distribution, collaboration, and community building in much the same way that Facebook does­ by moving people on to a central platform for messaging and information sharing.

Now, it’s not that there aren’t any applications for doing this. There are plenty of them. Most of them fall under the heading of collaboration platforms and provide tools for building communities, authoring and sharing content, managing projects, and collaborating in truly visionary ways. The problem is that full-scale adoption of this collaborative approach has hardly caught on. For many, especially the over-35 crowd, using these systems falls on par with the joy of filling out a timesheet–just another cumbersome task that has to be done; another process getting in the way of real work. And the result, no surprise, is that most knowledge workers (as we are now known) take any opportunity to work around these systems and avoid these applications altogether. In the absence of a powerful mandate, these applications languish on the sidelines or receive marginal use at best.

Personally, I’m a huge supporter and user of this new generation of collaborative software. I have been very close to a number of implementations (including our own in-house transformation), and I have experienced firsthand just how powerful they can be. More importantly, I believe that I have discovered the secret to success with this type of change. Are you ready? It’s gonna shock you at first, so stay with me.

The secret to success

OK, here it is: Disable e-mail attachments. That’s right, stop allowing people in your company to send an attachment along with their e-mails to anyone inside your company. (You’ll have to leave the ability for communicating with outsiders, of course.) If you have the influence (or guts) to pull it off, I promise it will drive adoption of your collaboration application so quickly you won’t believe it. Here’s why:

At the heart of all true collaboration applications is the basic understanding that we work together on ideas and these ideas are born, take shape, and live in documents. From the earliest stages of idea generation (whether as Word, PowerPoint, Excel, Flowchart, MindMap, whatever), collaboration apps encourage users to get material off their local hard drives and into a platform where they belong to all. In short, collaboration applications represent the critical path to true group thinking and working.

But, and this is a big but, in order for these applications to work, they have to be used regularly and properly. Documents have to reside on the platform. And that’s exactly where the problem lies. Most people are not accustomed to working this way. They can’t be bothered to get content onto a collaboration platform. They believe they have a quick and easy way for collaborating without the overhead–it’s called e-mail. And human nature ain’t on your side when it comes to beating this one.

I could go on and on about all the wonderful benefits available to users and companies that embrace collaboration platform–commenting, notification, version control, search, and so much more–but the prevalent truth is that wide-scale adoption is still the exception, not the rule. (God knows the vendors are working it day in and day out.) As in many other cases, adoption of collaboration platforms lags because tomorrow’s potential benefits don’t seem to offer enough to pull users away from today’s quick-and-dirty process.

Case study–a law firm takes the plunge

I have seen extremely smart lawyers suffer document-version screwups multiple times at a cost of hundreds of hours of rework (that means tens of thousands of dollars unbilled) and still avoid using the firm’s collaboration platform.

All that changed for one firm when a senior partner, fed up with the situation and associated costs, politely refused to read anything e-mailed to him as an attachment. To boot, he didn’t e-mail attachments either.  If his colleagues wanted to collaborate and work with him–and since he was the senior partner, they certainly did–there was no other choice but to use the collaboration platform. His position: If the document was worth his time, it was worth a two-minute investment for the “sender” to work though the platform.

Sure enough, within 60 days the firm was transformed. Everything, and I mean everything, moved onto the collaboration platform. And then, the magic started to happen. Document comments started flying around; stringing one-off thoughts into actual discussions. Version control worries became a thing of the past.  New ideas began popping up in the company wiki, and a simple, but effective, task management process came to life on its own. Here’s the best part: No one, and I mean no one, ever sent another “Could you send me that file?” or “Is this the latest version” e-mail. All this happened because the central building blocks of the platform, the intellectual property of the firm, was on the platform and not being passed around via e-mail.

Today if you ask anyone at the firm about the platform, they would say that they couldn’t work without it and that going back to e-mail-centric collaboration would be a painful setback to their productivity. Success! And the best part of it all: Internal e-mail went back to being used for what it was originally intended–brief, quick, one-to-one messages. Anything more substantial goes on to the collaboration platform from the start.

The takeaway

I know it sounds a bit extreme and you may not be able to pull it off completely in your organization. Nonetheless, you may be able to apply the lesson in a more limited way. Perhaps take baby steps–a day or a week without attachments–as a pilot. One thing is for certain: if you’re successful in getting people over to the other side, once they cross over, it doesn’t take long at all for them to stop wishing there was a way back.