Ballad of a Collaboration Advocate (a.k.a. About As Helpful As You Can Be Without Being Any Help At All)

This song, offered triumphantly by my friend as the opener on his last record, unknowingly documents the uncertainties, disappointments and small rewards of social change in an organization. The song is actually about Gertrude Ederle and her successful swim across the English Channel, but it became my unofficial theme for the “connected” journey at TELUS.

Whenever I speak to organizations or at conferences, people see the end game. They embrace the successes and happily envision that same strategy working within their own org. In reality, it was the failures that no one sees that tells our story.

Both feet together, Slowly progressing, Always in time.
Don’t count the feathers, Just count the wings.
Every day counting. Everything’s changing.

It’s hard to understand the situation until you are in the thick of it. Basically, the day to day consists of asking people to run at full speed into a wall repeatedly, promising one day they will miraculously explode through to the other side unharmed. It’s what is asked of me and shapes how I mentor people in our organization when it comes to collaboration. We count users and survey team members on the effectiveness of learning socially, hoping to reach the tipping point where people aren’t talking about collaborative learning they are simply doing it. The weird thing is, there is no magic metric that can truly say if we are successful.

ROI quickly became a metric that made no sense to me or any interested user / business unit. Engagement? Well, it was important for the HR equation, but the business was looking for a) better value for learning spend and b) better performance.

In the verse I quoted above, Mangan paraphrases nature artist Charley Harper, and hints at how we  must look past the intricate details and create movement and beauty from simplified actions. We must focus on the only the most essential elements of an animal’s form to truly represent its being. This idea extends perfectly to the adoption of collaborative tools. Speaking in language like career development, performance improvements and improved culture make sense on the executive level, but the people actually using these tools are far more concerned with things like feeling  supported in their job and finding an answer when they have a question. Those executive terms are crucial and a much needed measuring stick for the organization, but only surface after people see the value in the tools and buy in on a smaller, grass roots level.

One of my biggest failures – even within my own team (if the learning team isn’t buying into a learning initiative, it’s probably a good time to rethink your strategy!!) – was spending months trying to push enterprise wide use cases and big picture strategy to audiences more concerned (and rightfully so) with their piece of the pie. In reality, most people don’t have the time to invest in a social implementation plan without a lot of hand holding or they simply can’t see the benefits.

I was thrown in the boat, Cast out to sea.
Friendly with waves,
There were sharks below, Hungry for me
So I dangled my legs.

Anyone that’s ever tried to implement social learning knows how it goes. Day one, the early adopters sign up for an account and the rest of the team may sign up, but they probably won’t.  The biggest misconception that people make when it comes to social adoption is that the majority of users actually want the tools and want their processes changed as a result. Curiosity and interest are outweighed by skepticism.  I’ve said the line 100 times, but “if you build it, they will come” only works in Field of Dreams. Most teams still expect the social tools to fail, and are hesitant to dive in. That’s why we need to plunge head first into those shark infested waters.

The biggest advice I can give to anyone is to quickly shift from enterprise initiatives to a more consultative model. For me, global strategy became business unit cold-calls. “Look, I know I don’t know the intricacies of your day-to-day, but I can help you. These tools can help you, we just have to find out how.” You, not the customer, has to take ownership of finding the solution and proving the value.

Victories are often few and far between and the baby steps we take often feel like marathon like runs. I remember convincing a call-centre shift of the benefits of sharing skills informally, knowing it might only be relevant to a few people, and will only impact a few customer conversations. It wasn’t the numbers (obviously), but the created trust and productivity improvement. Maybe it’s one less customer we have to call back or one less person given inaccurate information, but when you talk about customer satisfaction and team member performance, every number counts. Success stories, no matter what the sample size, are the best weapon you can offer to any manager or director.

Social change can’t simply about providing a collaborative tool and will fail if the training is a simple collection of how to documents. The required shift is in behavior, but the role of the learning professional is not to tell a team how to do their job better. It’s to provide solutions that fit into existing processes and hopefully make them better. It’s about understanding the problems and honestly determining if the social strategy is the right strategy for the targeted group.

People often try to gauge and define culture as a uniform entity. In reality, culture should never be homogeneous. Just because your organization values collaboration – ours does, and I strongly believe all should – it doesn’t mean that same culture needs to apply to every group in the same way. If collaborative tools don’t make sense for a business unit or slice of your org, but mentoring/coaching and fair process do, you can’t view that as failure or a business unit being wrong.

For your own sanity, you can’t continually run into that wall when you know it will never crumble. Knowing your audience is as important as knowing your tool or associated behaviors you are hoping to create.

Ideas that help open doors

In an attempt to share, here are a few ideas that helped me make inroads with various audiences. They might seems simple or obvious, but the results spoke volumes.

Using informal skills and micro-blogging not only to share knowledge, but to provide support: The more I talk with our customer facing employees, the more I understand their need for learning is not to learn new technologies or move up the corporate ladder. The bigger concern is feeling unsupported at work. If a customer has a question and they can’t answer, they have to act quickly. Sure, having skills shared freely across the organization helps identify gaps and foster talent, but for the individual – the person being asked to enter skills and answer questions from other employees – the sell is less wasted time. It’s estimated that 19% of a workers day is spent looking for answers, and by being able to identify people with the knowledge to solve the specific customer issue instead of a general knowledge base, we start to have fewer pointless searches. We develop improved trust with our colleagues and the certainty in the answer we give a customer. That’s a performance gain – fewer calls back, higher customer satisfaction – not a learning gain.

The fact the tool provides the channel to give informal recognition and say thanks for the help is just another plus.

Don’t be afraid to look outside of work for inspiration: It’s no secret that some employees view a job as a necessary evil. They cash  their pay cheque and often appear to care about little else. Chances are, those employees won’t care about a new work process that saves time or money, but the thing is, those same people you assume have checked out have passion outside of their job. Maybe they are in a role that they don’t like, or maybe they aren’t being challenged; either way, when you provide a social channel for green initiatives or charity work or create a forum to share hobbies like footie, biking or music, you connect people and get users on the tools for a reason they genuinely care about. They feel connected to other team members and more importantly, those users will start commenting, sharing and participating.

Sometimes, all you need is a spark.

I lit up like a match,
‘Cause I bled gasoline.
Made a torch of myself
‘Till the moon was mine.

Find a work related focus that people care about: Of all our social tools, we see the most traffic and more importantly, the most conversation on anything related to our Customers First program.

Within weeks of being created, the microblogging group was the largest at TELUS. The SharePoint crowd sourcing idea got thousand of responses. Why? Because CF ties into everything we do… including stock value, performance reviews and year end bonuses.

It’s easy to say that employees only care about money, but studies show that people want to be part of something bigger than themselves. Knowing they had a direct channel to something that will hopefully make TELUS a better place to work, a better provider for our customers and a better community ambassador was the trigger that people needed.

Don’t be afraid to bribe people: You would not believe how much traction a gift card or bonus points will create. I have a friend that once said he would go to any gathering (office, birthday, wedding, religious) if there was even the potential for cake. Let me reiterate. He was willing to show up for anything if he even thought cake was apossibility.

Obviously, the analogy is a bit ridiculous, but it fits. People will fill out surveys, sit in focus groups, email suggestions and spend hours performing tasks for the chance to win <em>anything</em>. It’s probably easier at my company because we have access to flashy gadgets, but Starbucks cards, Amazon gift certificates or even free lunch (with cake?) are enough to get someone to pay attention and contribute. The possibility of reward is all it takes to get someone to take the first step. After that, hopefully your message is enough to convert team members.

I know budgets are tight and social is often viewed as the free/cheap way to help people learn, but if it’s vital to your organization, a few carrots are required and worth every penny.

<h3>About As Helpful As You Can Be Without Being Any Help At All</h3>

I wish I could offer a blueprint; these are just some observations and successes I’ve seen in our social journey. They might not work in your org, or you might have tried the same strategy and failed.

There’s no right answer, other than urging you try to connect in smaller chunks. You can’t help people that don’t want your help. You can’t force people to be social and collaborate anymore than you can make them be nice. At the end of the day, you can only show them how collaboration might help, and hope they get inspired.

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