The Collaboration Community's Big Dirty Productivity Secret


To deliver on the promise of productivity, enterprises need to do the hard work of making things simple for employees

Central to the business case for any intranet or enterprise social tool is the promise of productivity.

Making information easier to find and streamlining tasks can, the sales patter goes, release thousands of hours of staff time to be used more effectively.

According to McKinsey, the average worker spends 28 percent of their day dealing with email. This time, they argue, can be unlocked through the use of social and collaborative tools, raising the productivity of knowledge workers by 20 to 25 percent.

The big dirty secret of the collaboration community is that few, if any, organizations ever see these results. 

Both the vendors and those involved in launching enterprise tools within organizations have a vested interest in talking their project up, leading to a hype that masks the reality of adoption and use.

The High Cost of Context Switching

Behind many collaboration success stories you’ll frequently find complaints that employees are overloaded with information and confused by the myriad systems at their fingertips, each supposedly making work easier.

This inability to realize the value from technology investments stems from two root causes: failure to consider the overall user experience of the digital workplace, and lack of commitment to wholesale culture change.

Generally, each component of the digital workplace — collaboration tools, file storage, HR systems, traditional intranets, social networks — is procured and run separately. An employee might be expected to go into one system to book leave, another to read the relevant leave policy and use email to ask for the time off. 

This forces users to switch between multiple user experiences, designs and contexts to perform even simple tasks, increasing cognitive load and slowing users down. Each switch has a “cognitive cost” which neuroscientists suggest is worth up to 10 IQ points.

Keep It Simple (With a Little Help From Bots)

Enterprises need to follow best practice in web design and do the hard work to keep it simple for employees. That means investing resources in masking complexity and unifying systems behind simple, intelligent and elegant user interfaces. 

At its simplest this means bringing information and relevant services together so the user doesn’t need to go looking for it in multiple places. At its best this means delivering Google-quality experiences that return just the information the user wants at the point of need, in ways that are simple to consume.

The familiar interface and attention to usability of Facebook’s Workplace product promises high levels of adoption, but — for now at least — this is yet another system the user has to switch over to. The real productivity savings will come when this fully integrates with other systems so that, for example, a user can book leave from within Facebook without having to switch out to other, far less usable interfaces like Oracle.

Bots have huge potential to streamline the digital workplace and boost productivity, by acting as a bridge between systems and interfaces designed for (and by) IT and those designed for humans. Using AI and rules, bots can answer questions and return the information the user needs, doing the hard work behind the scenes to keep it simple and quick. 

I predict we’ll see their first enterprise Facebook bots soon — but unless companies start to prioritize their employees’ user experience, these won’t become widespread.

Adopt Good Design Practices

As people are exposed to more media through more devices, they have come to rely on tools and strategies that help them quickly sort through information. We have become adept at scan reading and in navigating around the web to get the answers we need.  

Yet enterprises widely ignore this, remaining stuck in a 20th century publishing mindset in which announcements are made in the form of newspaper-style articles and answers hidden in documents, which are published online but in no way designed for online reading.

To combat this, companies need a shift in culture, so they start valuing the time of the consumers of information over that of those producing it. 

Communications teams need to embed the principles of good content design into their own work, and then across the business, so that information and communications in the enterprise can be more easily found, and more quickly read and understood.

A greater and better use of imagery will help too. Humans can identify images in a fraction of a second. They attract attention, aid comprehension and vastly increase message recall — something savvy marketers have long seized upon. Images have become the currency of the social web, and as Mary Meeker notes, they’re the preferred mode of communication for younger generations.

Despite the widely-understood power of imagery, communicators put the same stock photo of the CEO on every other news story simply because it’s easier for them. This effectively wastes the investment in tools that support more productive ways of communicating — such as snackable, visual content delivered through social networks.

Similarly, most companies have had the ability to work off single, shared versions of documents for years, yet the culture of emailing around multiple versions as attachments persists because of a culture which rewards the production of documents over the solving of problems.

Commit to Change

Organizations who’ve adopted new technologies frequently fail to realize the value of that investment because they don’t adapt their ways of working to make full use of what that tech offers. 

They need to shift their thinking and commit to making full use of the tools they have already invested in. This requires a sustained culture change program, educating users on benefits and best practices, with leadership modeling usage and culture from the top down. Reward structures should be reviewed so productive and collaborative ways of working are encouraged.

For decades, companies have worked on the assumption that technology investment will boost productivity. It doesn’t if new tools merely replicate old ways of working.

Unlocking the productivity savings promised by technology requires a commitment to organizational culture that values employees’ time through good content design, commits to a culture which uses tools to their full potential, and prioritizes user experience so technology does the hard work to keep it simple.

Sharon O’Dea is a senior online communications specialist at a global financial services group. A thought leader on intranets and the digital workplace, she blogs for


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