Tuesday, June 01, 2010

The Problems of Real-World Collaboration in Legal and Financial Industry

Collaboration is the main buzzword in the computer industry these days and there are offerings from all the major vendors; IBM/Lotus, Microsoft and Google.

Their collaboration bundles have all recently leapt from the desktop into the web 2.0 cloud and seem to be the answer to all our business problems - but are they? I think that the answer is very industry specific.

I have no doubt that collaboration is a boon for the computing industry and I can see how the sharing of code and the discussion of bugs and product features can provide huge benefits. I can see similar benefits for project management in other industries such as mining and manufacturing too.

The benefits for big business, particularly big "distributed" businesses with offices all around the world are obvious but it's one thing to look at collaboration within the business. External business-to-business collaboration however is a whole new ballgame. It's what collaboration is really all about. Who doesn't want to seen the benefits of industry-wide collaboration on issues such as government, banking and environmental protection?

I can see some amazing potential benefits in the finance and legal sectors but while the potential is there, the money is there and to a certain extent, the capital investment is there too, collaboration is going nowhere fast.

I've got a few theories on why this is the case but sadly, no easy solution presents itself. It's not that the tools that are flawed but that the business structures themselves don't lend themselves to a collaborative environment.

A few years back, we spent quite a bit on building better collaboration tools into our systems. Our document database templates were upgraded to include forums; blogs and wikis were introduced and social bookmarking and improved contact management tools were brought online.

Everything went well in test mode where we had some excellent facebook style discussions about non business items but when we went live, the social silence was deafening.

What went wrong?

I don't think that we can pin the problems down to a single cause but there are several very obvious contributing factors;

Writing Style
The Web 2.0 requires a certain "aggressive" writing style. In order to facilitate discussion you can't simply sit on the fence in an arguement but have to take one side or the other. That way people can either agree or disagree with you. In essence, this is the whole point of the "like/unlike" facilities which are so popular in the facebook and google worlds. Even if someone has nothing to say, at least they can indicate support by simply clicking a link.

This is quite different from the normal rules of engagement for business where you need to tread carefully so as not to scare off potential customers or attract lawsuits.

Our writing teams were still writing to a static audiences. Their messages took the form of announcements rather than debates and no feedback was encouraged. Personally, I don't feel that the same team should be running both your corporate announcements and your web 2.0 interaction. It's more than just retraining, it's a matter of perspective.

Legal Obligations
Then there's the legal issues which abound in discussions between companies. Unlike Facebook where the worst that can happen is that someone "unfriends" you for saying the wrong thing, business discussions which stray off-topic can result in people getting fired or sued. Everything needs to be traceable and every step is like walking on eggshells. Sometimes it's simpler just to keep quiet.

It's a funny thing but I often find that many of the best "immediate fixes" for business issues are already known at the bottom of the food chain - even when the problems aren't fully understood by the top people. It's a fact of life that those closest to the work are usually more likely to appreciate the day-to-day processing problems than management. The workers tend to think about these problems more and it shouldn't be surprising that they quickly find solutions - even if they don't always consider the big picture.

For some reason, management often has issues with the "bottom-up" approach. They feel that it makes them look less competent and they often try to suppress work-discussions between "little people". They need to maintain their hierarchy. In the world of meetings, this works well. The operations team have "team" meetings, the supervisory teams take the best ideas to the supervisor meetings, again the best ideas transfer to management meetings and so on, up to the board meeting.

Except of course, that it only takes one link in the chain of management to either dislike an idea or fail to understand it and the whole improvement process breaks down. The idea becomes lost.

One of the problems(?) with today's social networks is that they don't maintain these hierarchies. A "little-person" is just as capable of posting their thoughts on an issue as a member of upper management. Even worse, if their place in the hierarchy isn't understood by all the readers, their suggestions may even be listened to.

For this reason, managers and supervisors who feel threatened by this behaviour often try to block access to these systems. Often inappropriate use of company time and resources is cited. The result; the voices with the knowledge are removed from the system and there's little for the management teams to discuss.

Head Hunting
One last problem that we've encountered is head hunting. Unlike traditional systems where employees speak through management and the sources are obscured, inter-company collaboration tools makes it clear who the experts are in a given company. Going one step further and including instant contact details for everyone in the system makes them instantly approachable.

This makes it so much easier to recruit experts from competitors than via agencies. One of the first requests we got after our systems began to move into the collaboration sphere was to remove contact details for participants. It didn't take long for the recruitment sections to discover new sources of personnel.

These problems are just the tip of the iceberg but I think they make it clear. The problems we face in collaboration aren't technical. They're social. A lot of businesses may have the tools but they just aren't ready to collaborate.