Category: Collaboration

Do virtual teams benefit from face-to-face meetings?

I’m in the middle of a project to examine the reasons why collaboration adoption seems to be slower than anticipated. A report on the research will be published in February. I’ve spent some time looking at a very considerable amount of research into collaboration and virtual teams but only today came across a paper that seems to challenge conventional wisdom and good practice in virtual team management. It has long been the assumption that off-line face-to-face bonding was crucial to achieving high performance virtual teams, but now a paper by Professors Olaisen and Revang at the Norwegian Business School, Oslo, causes me to think that this might now be an out-dated approach.

Their paper is entitled Working Smarter and greener: Collaborative knowledge sharing in virtual project teams and has just been published in the International Journal of Information Management (Disclaimer – I’m a member of the Editorial Board). One of the very important aspects of the research is that it was a longitudinal study in which four virtual project teams with a total of 42 members were tracked quite intensively over the period from 2014-2016. Most studies of virtual teams and collaboration are undertaken over a much shorter period of time. There was one team each from Banking, Insurance, Oil & Gas and Biotechnology sectors. The paper sets up a number of propositions which are then tested against the way in which the teams operated and delivered results.

In the discussion to the paper the authors comment that “the quality of communication has replaced the need for physical meetings”. In effect, we are now so used to virtual communications that we have built up ways of assessing the extent to which we trust people virtually that initial face-to-face meeting are no longer of value. In this regard it is interesting to note that in the 2016 RW3 Global Trends in Virtual Teams survey 41% of respondents stated that they had no face-to-face meetings during the year. The survey goes on to suggest that the lack of face-to-face meetings does have an impact on team performance. Who is right, especially given the small scale of the research project.

I think that what we are seeing in the apparent conflict between the research study and the RW3 survey is that we are at a tipping point. Facebook and a host of other social applications are providing a virtual community that we are becoming adept at working with and in. The same is increasingly true in the enterprise environment. Much may depend on the age generation of participants and research is now being undertaken to explore the extent to which the age profile of a team has an impact on performance, for example Toward a More Nuanced Understanding of the Generational Digital Divide in Virtual Teams (download) . More research is needed both from in-depth research and surveys that record the attitudes of a wider based of respondents. But we may be getting to the stage where off-line meetings may have a more limited benefit, with savings in travel costs and probably less time being required to establish an effective team.

Martin White






Frameworks for implementing and assessing collaboration

Ever since the advent of computer-supported cooperative working (CSCW) in 1984 there has been an immense amount of research into the development of a framework for collaboration processes that will assist in both the planning and implementation of collaborative solutions. Wikipedia has a very good survey of the background to CSCW I have been tracking this research for a number of years, and in this post I have referenced just a new of the many frameworks that have been developed, with an emphasis on work over the last few years.

  • Unpacking Team Diversity: An Integrative Multi-Level Model of Cross-Boundary Teaming (2016) Harvard Business School Working Paper download
  • Team Communication Platforms and Emergent Social Collaboration Practices (2016) published in International Journal of Business Communications April 2016
  • From The Matrix to a Model of Coordinated Action (MoCA): A Conceptual Framework of and for CSCW (2015) Preprint can be downloaded
  • Why Supply Chain Collaboration Fails: The Socio-Structural View Of Resistance To Collaboration Strategies (2015) published in Supply Chain Management
  • Metrics for Cooperative Systems (2014) from the Fraunhofer Institute
  • Enterprise Social Collaboration Model (2013) sponsored by Microsoft as a download
  • Factors of Collaborative Working: A Framework for a Collaboration Model (2012) published in Applied Ergonomics, January 2012
  • Collaboration at Work: An Integrative Multilevel Conceptualization (2012) published in Human Resource Management Review, June 2012
  • Enterprise Collaboration Maturity Model (ECMM): Preliminary Definition and Future Challenges (2012) Preprint can be downloaded
  • Group Information Behavioural Norms and the Effective Use of a Collaborative Information System: A Case Study (2010) The link is to a 400 page PhD thesis written by Colin Furness, University of Toronto

Of the many books that have been published on collaborative working Collaboration by Morten Hansen is a very valuable resource and I also find Collaborating in a Social Era,by  Oscar Berg to be full of insights and some very useful graphics.

Martin White

Agnes, Brian, Ellen, Jane, James, Janus, Kurt, Kristian, Mark, Michael, Paul, Sam, Susan, Tony and Wedge

If nothing else you will have to admit it’s an unusual title for a blog post. If you are a relative newcomer to the intranet community you may be unaware of the role that these people play in supporting the exchange of knowledge and good practice. Without exception the major consulting companies pay little attention to topics such as intranets, information management and search. Some do offer advice on social networking and collaboration but at a level that is targeted at senior managers who are probably the last people to network socially and collaborate. As I was writing reviews of outstanding reports from Jane McConnell and Sam Marshall yesterday their commitment to the wider community was very obvious. This post lists some of the people who in various ways and for many years have transformed our understanding of intranets, team working and digital workplaces through publishing reports and promulgating good practice and who have to make a living whilst doing so.

  • Agnes Molnar is an enterprise search evangelist with a very good knowledge of SharePoint search
  • Ellen van Aken curates a collection of 300 intranet promotion videos alongside her consulting work
  • Jane McConnell understands digital workplaces better than anyone else and publishes and annual survey of progress
  • James Robertson writes books, runs workshops and conferences, gives out awards and challenges conventional wisdom
  • Janus Boye runs communities of practice in Europe and North America and an annual conference in Aarhus
  • Kurt Kragh Sorenson also offers communities of practice and runs the IntraTeam event in Copenhagen
  • Kristian Norling is developing an excellent range of books and is the Swedish representative of IntraTeam
  • Mark Morell focuses on intranet governance as an author and consultant
  • Michael Sampson writes books and blogs about all aspects of collaboration and digital workplaces
  • Paul Miller set up the Intranet Benchmarking Forum and transformed it into the Digital Workplace Group
  • Sam Marshall publishes reports of an exceptionally high quality
  • Susan Hanley writes blogs and books on SharePoint with a strong intranet and portal focus
  • Tony Byrne sets the standard in assessing the performance of digital applications
  • Wedge Black and Brian Lamb are the entrepreneurs behind the Intranet Now conference

The Intranetizen team also deserve recognition.

Any list like this runs the risk of missing someone obvious. If you feel you are that person please let me know.

Martin White

The Organisation in the Digital Age – 2016 Survey and Report

Each year the Organisation in the Digital Age report takes me longer to read than the version for the preceding year. This is not because it is significantly larger but because each year the insights that Jane McConnell offers are even more worthy of due diligence. On opening up this 110 page report and looking at the Contents Page you are immediately struck by the scope of the report. This is not just because the contents page highlights the breadth of the issues surrounding the digital workplace but because Jane has pared the headings down to those that are of critical importance in making sense of, and in making progress in, working in the digital age. Over the last few months I have become increasingly frustrated at the number of surveys that seem to indicate an important trend but which, on closer examination, tell at best 50% of the real story. In the 2016 edition the 13 case studies and interviews with digital innovators are more prominent and more thorough than in previous years. This is an invaluable direction to go in as on their own the numbers tell less than half the story. Only through these case studies can you begin to gain the context behind the trends, and perhaps more importantly understand why progress has not been as rapid as was anticipated even a couple of years ago

As Jane notes in her introduction, a starting point for digital transformation is defining a compelling vision and strategy. The strategies that have been developed do not yet have sufficient traction in business units and with frontline people. The research shows that there is insufficient focus on people and change, and even less focus on creating new business models. In most cases technology was at the top of the investment list , with education and training at the bottom. However there is progress. In the initial research report in 2007 only 25% of respondents stated that people could share information using social tools, whereas today it is 86%. Only 25% of the organisations in 2011 offered internal crowdsourcing and ideation capabilities but that has now almost doubled. These are all steps in the right direction but there is so much else to do as a glance at the framework for the report indicates.

The report is based on around 300 responding organisations, of which almost 70% are common to the 2015 survey, which provides a reliable and invaluable baseline for trend analysis. There is no other report that has this heritage of continuous annual surveys coupled with the insights that Jane brings from projects and communities that she has taken part in over many years. It is worth remembering that Charles Grantham was writing about digital working in the 1990s and Jeffery Bier launched the eRoom collaboration suite in 2000. It has been a long journey with only isolated examples of corporate-wide progress.We need a benchmark against which to measure and focus our efforts. Jane’s commitment to the quality of research and insight provides us with just such a benchmark. Always there are more questions to ask and more answers to digest but for now this is the best there is. We should focus our efforts on making good use of the outcomes in the report and back off from conducting surveys and creating schematics that make the headlines but add little if anything to our knowledge base.

Martin White

Building Information Modelling – a prototype for digital workplaces

Much of the discussion and debate around digital workplaces takes place in a vacuum. With the exception of the case studies in Jane McConnell’s Organisation in the Digital Age reports there are very few published examples of working digital workplaces. For that reason it is well worth taking a look at what is happening in the global construction industry in the adoption of Building Information Modelling. The Wikipedia entry on BIM is written by people who are very conversant with this work. One definition of  Building Information Modeling (BIM) is that is a digital representation of physical and functional characteristics of a facility providing a shared knowledge resource for information about a facility that then forms a reliable basis for decisions during its life-cycle; defined as existing from earliest conception to demolition. I’d like to highlight the word ‘shared’ as BIM brings together all the stakeholders in a construction project from design to build to maintain and then demolish. Demolishing a complex building requires knowledge of how it was built!

There are global standards for BIM files and file management, an area where the UK construction industry is very much in the vanguard. For several years the Royal Institute of British Architects has been publishing an annual survey of BIM adoption. The 2016 report notes “We can see that BIM adoption is set to increase. Within one year, 86% of people expect to be using BIM on at least some of their projects. Within three years, 95% expect to be using BIM. Within five, that number increases to 97%.” Among the leaders in implementing BIM is Laing O’Rourke and it is well worth reading through its Engineering Excellence Journal.  Although there is a lot of good news the challenges are also important to be aware of. In the 2014 edition of Engineering Excellence Journal Laing O’Rourke comment that “The current fixation with Building Information Modelling (BIM) within our industry globally is gathering pace and this is undoubtedly progress. However, it once again reflects the vested interests within our own ranks that we chose to embrace the minimum standards of these new ideologies and technologies only when pushed to do so, rather than seize the opportunity to exploit their potential for real and lasting industry-wide transformation.”

This challenge is not unique to the global construction industry. In all sectors there will be a tendency to do the minimum possible rather than look to the future and work backwards to define what is required to take full advantage of not just the technology but the way in which the technology facilitates teams working together to solve complex problems. Of course the problem is always that we can often learn more from failures than we can from success stories and it is very difficult (especially for quoted companies) to share project failures There is no open forum for the exchange of visions, roadmaps, achievements and challenges, and in my opinion many conferences in this area focus on how employees are working in the back office at headquarters and not 30 stories up on a skyscraper building with only a ruggedized tablet for company.

If you are engaged in any digital workplace initiative I would strongly recommend that you take a look at BIM implementation. There may not be any individual elements that can be applied to your own sector but the principles are eminently transferable. Note just as an example the exemplary commitment of the Royal Institute of British Architects in supporting BIM initiatives. Are your industry and trade organisations playing a similar role?  And if not, why not?

Martin White



Language, emotions and disrupted collaboration

It has been my immense good fortune to have had business experience in around 40 countries. Comparing notes with Paul Corney (Knowledgeetal) early this year I think we ended up with close to 60 between us. When we meet it will not take long for the conversation to move into projects we have been working on with multiple cultures, especially in terms of language. Work experience in 40 countries and with teams speaking 17 different languages as well as English certainly does not mean I am an expert. But I have become reasonably expert at listening and watching and learning from those on the project team who are almost certainly not speaking to me in their mother language and then trying very hard not to be an embarrassing Brit. Even working with Paul in Barbados (nominally English speaking) a few years ago we had to be especially alert not to make any assumptions about organisational and national cultures. You only have to read a book such as Understanding Global Cultures, by Gannon and Pillai, even to  begin to get a sense of national cultural complexities. Although When Cultures Collide, by Richard Lewis, was written in 1996, it remains an excellent starting point on business teams across multiple countries working together. Finally read Walking Through Jelly: Language Proficiency, Emotions, and Disrupted Collaboration in Global Work, a HBS Working Paper and I guarantee you will radically change the way you work with German colleagues.

Let me rearrange the words in the title of the paper and state that  “Collaboration in Global Work is disrupted by Language Proficiency and Emotions”. I have seen endless surveys about the propensity for collaboration with awesome exponential growth curves which take absolutely zero notice of this statement. Recent PR by Microsoft on the subject of chat is a case in point. When people wish to share opinions and ideas they will tend to use their mother tongue as it gives them the broadest possible range of nuances. You can sit on a train or bus in London and hear people float between English and their national language quite seamlessly. Working on a project in Germany recently one breakout group in the workshop wanted to use German as their working language, and why not? But then I had to depend on the summary given by the leader without being party to the nuances I could gain from the groups working (for my benefit) in English. As it happened the German language group came up with some of the best comments as  they were not constrained even by what was in general a high level of command of English.

Taking these issues forward from ‘collaboration’ to the digital workplace, the language challenges will remain. To be sure younger people will improve still further their command of English, and we are told confidently by Google and Microsoft and others than machine translation will soon be as good as a human interpreter. That word ‘interpreter’ is important. Working in European Commission meetings with simultaneous interpretation I am often aware that the interpreter is trying to convey subtle meaning and contexts. If you want to see some examples just take a look at @VeryBritishProblems to get a sense of the problems. Your colleague says “Interesting” in response to a statement from a colleague. What exactly do they mean? It may depend on the tone of voice or even the body language or your prior knowledge of their negotiating stance. Welcome to the real world of team work. But even fluent speakers of English may find it hard to write the language in a document or in social media without wondering if they have made a fool of themselves, and worse still their organisation. In English we just have the verb ‘to know’ but the French have both savoir and connaitre. Are you certain which to use, and why?

So as you continue to invest in applications to support collaborative working perhaps it might be worth understanding (not just documenting)  the linguistic and business cultural issues across the organisation and working through what the implications are for a wider use of these applications and the challenges that will lie ahead in what will certainly not a mono-lingual mono-cultural digital workplace.

Martin White



Social networking adoption, digital working and information culture

In almost all of the presentations and blog posts I have seen about enterprise social network adoption there is an implicit assumption that organisations are homogeneous and that works for the target group will scale for the entire organisation. One of the benefits of being in the intranet and search business is that I get to talk to employees at all levels across the organisations, mostly in departments untouched (in line management terms) by the IT organisation. What I see is that information behaviours vary widely across even quite small organisations. One of the reasons for this is that information cultures also vary across the organisation, and information behaviours arise from the information culture. Where the culture is primarily relationship-based or result-oriented the propensity to use social networking may be different than in rule-based or risk taking cultures. Organisations will usually have one or two predominant cultures with the others at a much less obvious level.

The obvious next question is how much you know about the information cultures in your organisation, and have worked through the role of social networking in each culture. One of the first to look at information behaviours was Professor Don Marchand at the IMD Business School in Lausanne. He and his colleagues developed an Information Orientation model that included an information behaviours axis that was published in 2002. The problem with this book is that the survey questionnaire is not included as the authors clearly wanted to build a business from the model.    There is a concise summary of the approach which can be downloaded. A survey questionnaire was included in the paper published by Adrienne Curry and Caroline Moore in 2003 but that was before Professor Chun Wei Choo published his four-element framework. A case study was published in 2015 by Thais Elaine Vicka, Marcelo Seido Naganoa and Silvio Popadiukba, and this does provide much more in the way of a practical methodology. The book by Professor Choo also considers each of the four cultures in some detail.

Another valuable perspective is the hubs, hives and hangouts model from Sam Marshall, Clearbox Consulting. If you take the 2D view of Choo and add in Sam Marshalls’ analysis you end up with quite a complex 3D view of working together in a digital workplace. That may seem over-complex but in my view it is better to start with this and then pare it down than work on a homogeneous adoption programme and find it fails to get beyond the pilot stage.

With the exception of the Information Orientiation summary and the book by Professor Choo the research papers cited above are not on open access. However I am confident that just reading Professor Choo’s book (Chapter 7 in particular) will help you to appreciate the implications of information cultures and information behaviours on social networking on a helicopter-view level. In my consulting work I find that just having this culture model enables me to recognise some of the features of each culture and then adapt my questioning and recommendations appropriately. There is no metric that would suggest that in a relationship-based culture 70% of employees (just as an example) should be using social media. It is more about using information culture and information behaviour models to ensure that signals about a resistance to, or a demand for, social networking can be recognised at a stage early enough to define technology requirements and adoption support, not when the technology is in place and the adoption is assumed to be ‘intuitive’.

Martin White

Information Plus – my consulting toolkit is now open access

I have two heros that I turn to time and time again for inspiration. For music it is J.S.Bach and for science it is Richard Feynman. The scale of the entry in Wikipedia gives a good sense of the scale of Feynman’s interests and achievements. Both were very dependent on what he often referred to as his toolbox. This was a vast set of mathematical processes that he used to solve the apparently unsolvable. Feynman was always approaching problems from a different direction to everyone else, using in effect a set of different mental models.

My own toolbox consists of the outcomes of academic and applied research carried out over the last 50 years into areas that might be broadly termed information management. As a chemistry major you quickly become adroit at understanding how research is published, and in the case of chemistry indexed in Chemical Abstracts. That interest has stayed with me for the last 35 years, and is responsible for my collection of around 100  books and some 2000 research papers. In the course of my consulting work I often find that the route to finding a solution for a client lies in the research literature. There is rarely a complete answer waiting to be implemented, but something more akin to the way in which the Rosetta Stone enabled the language encased in Egyptian hieroglyphics to be read for the first time.

I have now added a new section to the Resources category of the Intranet Focus website. It is called Information Plus because it consists of a series of pages each summarising key research in areas which begin with ‘information’. Among the sections that are now available are information behaviour, information charter, information life cycle, information quality, information relevance and information seeking. I plan to complete work on the remaining 16 by the end of 2016, though some sections may disappear and some may be added. Each will be updated if a significant new research resource becomes available. In effect Information Plus is my toolkit, and I am just following the trend in scientific research of making it open access.

Although much of the research is published in journals specifically about information topics (such as the Journal of the Association for Information Science and Technology, International Journal of Information Management and the Journal of Information Science) the nature of information is that it lies very close to the surface of almost every area of human endeavour. For the last few years I have been writing a quarterly Perspectives column in Business Information Review (BIR). The aim of this column is to bring to the attention of readers of BIR important papers published in Sage journals that they may not be aware of. Some of the journals cited in recent columns have come from Human Factors, Ergonomics in Design, Health Informatics Journal and the  Journal of Defense Modeling and Simulation. Many of the papers in this column deal with collaboration and other aspects of team working.

It is easy to disparage academic research as not being grounded in the real world. However a significant number of research papers are based on real world case studies and apply a rigour to the information collection and analysis which intranet managers and other information professionals would not have the time and skills to replicate. The problem that many face is that they do not have access to this research because it is behind a subscription firewall. That is why I have tried only to include books and open access publications. Moreover the use of either Google Scholar or Microsoft Academic Research will often provide a link to an alternate source of the paper from a university server. I should add that Information Research is open access and is a very good source of papers on information management.

I would welcome comments on the scope of the Information Plus section, and on the style and value of the entries and especially about high-quality research that I have overlooked. If you are interested in how I approach client engagements then read my recent book ‘Managing Expectations – Building Client/Consultant Partnerships‘ published by Intranatverk.

Martin White

Re-Imagining Productive Work with Office 365 – Michael Sampson

When I was working on the IMF intranet in 2001 (during 9/11!) I was given a book that was the result of an ethnographic study of how the IMF worked. Ethnography is the study of how people behave in a social setting, such as an office, and ever since that project I find myself looking around offices as I conduct interviews to try to get a sense of how work is being accomplished. The reason for this introduction is that Michael Sampson’s new book is not just a handbook for Office 365 but a handbook for a digital workplace which happens to be using (or planning to use) Office 365. This is an important distinction because even if you do not use Office 365 this book provides a specification for all the work elements that you need to support in whatever platform you are adopting.

Michael’s books always have a structure to them, and each chapter has sections on The Big Idea, Research Findings, the Office 365 Capability, Analysis and Evaluation, What Firms Are Doing, Behavioural Aspects and On Improving Performance. After the introductory chapters the topics covered are

  • Storing and Sharing Files
  • Profiling Employee Expertise
  • Co-Authoring Documents
  • Managing Meetings
  • Holding Discussions
  • Running Team Projects
  • Thinking Productively

The section on research findings is important because there are many lessons to be learned from well-conducted surveys and from academic research. Most practitioners ignore this wealth of knowledge but Michael presents it in a way that the implications for a digital workplace manager are clear and helpful. This book is not a ‘quick read’ and certainly does not set out to be a populist “101 on Office 365”. Some authors make me feel that they are talking to me; with Michael I feel that he is alongside me guiding me through the forest of digital working to show where Office 365 offers good solutions, and also where it is currently lacking in functionality. Rather like a tour guide around a new city! It has taken me a while to write this review just because I have been working through it slowly (very unusual for me) and adding digital comments to the digital text as I went along.

As with all of Michael’s books the production quality for this self-published book is at a level that the leading commercial publishers would be proud of. The book is presented in landscape format which works well when text and screen shots have to meet up. I would like to have seen the comments about where Office 365 does not deliver given a little more highlighting and perhaps a suggestion of a work-around. My own frustrations with Office 365 are the error messages and the latency. I can work more quickly than the server! There is also no reference to search in Office 365 apart from a passing reference to Delve. There is a particular issue with people search, but that’s a long story and you can read more about it in Enterprise Search.

The single user price is $19, which is less than a couple of coffees and two nice cakes! If you look at the comments from other readers you will see that most of them focus on the benefits to Office 365 users. But this is far more than the Unofficial Handbook for Office 365. If you have any plans or even pretensions of creating a digital workplace then you need this book. Jane McConnell will guide you on strategy, Michael shows you how to put the strategy into action using Office 365 as an example platform.

Above all this book will make you think about what the core working patterns are in your organisation. Without this understanding any digital platform will fail to support productive work. Sometimes you may even have to change the working patterns to get the best from the technology so that overall the organisation benefits from the investment. You will certainly benefit from investing in this book.

Martin White

The Organisation in the Digital Age – 2016 survey now open

Much of my career has been in the B2B market research business, notably with International Data Corporation and then Logica. The IT sector has always been awash with research reports from vendors seeking to justify their market position and pricing, as well as many boutique companies offering high quality research in a small sector. The value of the IDC and Logica services was that each year they used the same core methodology to highlight trends in market growth over a five year period and yet included questions in the survey which took account of recent developments. It was hard work.

All the more remarkable then that this year Jane McConnell is working solo on the 10th of her annual surveys, which started out with intranets and now assess the extent to which organisations are making a commitment to working digitally, This year the survey for the Organisation in the Digital World report is in two parts.  The Core part (59 questions), streamlined from previous years, takes approximately 30 minutes. The optional Extended part (37 questions) is for organizations that want to do a deeper dive into their digital transformation. All participants receive a copy of the final report The Organization in the Digital Age 2016 (Core or Extended), as well as the Scorecard for their organization, which is optional and free.

The innovations this year are a customised snapshot report and sponsorship opportunities for research supporters. The snapshot report is available to organisation who are able to arrange for six or more people to complete the survey. They receive 3-page summary of the consolidated results providing a snapshot from different viewpoints: functions,  business lines, or countries depending on the role of the respondents. This year vendors, digital agencies, technology and service providers, and others can participate as a Research Supporter through a sponsorship package. This brings visibility in the report, and a chance to communicate their messages to a high-potential audience.

Although the benefits to organisations of having a global perspective on digital workplace adoption is significant I know that many organisations welcome the opportunity to use the survey as a means of bringing together their digital leaders to exchange views on how adoption is taking place in specific departments and divisions. Even if the team only spend a morning together to complete the survey the near-term and long-term benefits will be substantial. I have seen too many organisations in which digital innovations are its best kept secrets! The publication later this year of both this survey and the Findwise Findability Survey will once again provide us with dependable insights into the level of commitment to digital working that can be used in planning for 2017 and beyond.

Martin White