Successful Virtual Collaboration Takes a Lot More Than Just the Right Tools

Your organization has finally gotten wise to the fact that employees need more than just email, a smart phone and a group website to work with their colleagues across the world, or even just down the hall. IT has just unveiled an array of exciting new collaboration tools with great fanfare, complete with training and slick reference guides.

After an initial flurry of excitement, most people have rejected these “cool new tools” in favor of their old familiar patterns of communicating. When you look around the organization, you see that very little has changed. Most virtual meetings are still agonizing to sit through, people still clog up inboxes with attachments instead of posting documents on shared portals, and many continue to struggle when it comes to collaboration across time zones.

What’s going on here? Joining me in writing this month’s Communiqué is Michael Sampson, a native New Zealander who’s known around the world as “The Collaboration Guy.” We explore what it takes for people to use virtual collaboration tools to their fullest advantage, and conditions need to be in place to foster smarter adoption. Spoiler alert: the technology is the least relevant aspect in the mix.

  • Don’t make it about the tools. Collaboration is enacted through technology, but technology does not make us collaborative. Don’t focus on the cool new apps as the change; focus on the human practices of being able to collaborate better and work together more effectively. The tools serve the real purpose, and are subordinate to it.
  • Adoption starts at the beginning. Getting people onboard and involved with new ways of collaborating effectively is essential to long-run adoption. For people in existing groups, making changes to the way they work together can be challenging, unless they can see what would be better, and have had a significant role in designing new ways of working. Adoption flows much easier when people have been involved in the planning, selection and implementation of new tech tools that can transform the way they work.
  • Explore how new collaboration tools map to current work processes. In cases where new tools can improve or accelerate current business processes, people are more likely to embrace using the tools. If, however, the new tools are likely to require a shifting of work processes or communication patterns, the cultural change required — and thus the barriers to adoption — are likely to be far greater. Resistance to change can be mitigated by involving employees and managers early on, especially when it comes to identifying activities they must stop doing, and what they have to start doing differently.
  • Make a compelling business case. People need to know how, exactly, using new tools will help the overall organization, their own groups and themselves. High-level concepts such as “drive toward greater profitability” are fine for starting the conversation, but you need to get a lot more specific when communicating with a particular group. Examples: “high definition video conferencing will allow us to meet more regularly and make higher quality decisions in less time” or “By using this new virtual meeting application, team members can participate from any location, thereby cutting out unnecessary delays because all key people can now fit the meeting into their busy schedules.”
  • Cultivate a culture of collaboration. Let’s face it: It’s easy for an organization to espouse the value of collaborative communications while in reality, information-sharing is the exception, and information-hoarding is the rule. Real collaboration consists of three fundamental components: An opportunity to work together to achieve higher net profit (or other success metrics), a method for exchanging ideas and reaching common ground, and a fundamental desire/need to trust and complement each other’s work. All of the tech tools in the world can’t transform an organization where individual results trump team performance. Where real collaboration is not actively encouraged, tools that can enable collaboration are likely to be misused or ignored.
  • Show them the way. Don’t focus training on the individual tools. It’s much more important to help people understand the context and purpose of each tool. Example: If you need to get feedback and questions from colleagues around the world, and you can’t schedule a real-time conversation, try using a survey tool if your questions are very specific, or a wiki page if you are seeking more general feedback. Instead of emailing documents that need to be reviewed and edited by multiple members of the team, upload them into your team’s online workspace, thus keeping only a single master version. If you can’t afford to wait for an email response, use instant messaging to see if they are online, and then chat or call them.
  • If you build it, make sure they’ll really come. It’s true that certain people can’t wait to try out the latest tools, whether they need them or not. But it’s also true that people tend to follow the path of least resistance when given a choice. Determine which employees (e.g., by function, demographics, location, relationship with technology, etc.) will need coaxing to try out the new tools and why. For example, some employees may simply have little need for videoconferencing or may find it too confusing to post documents when they can just email them. To foster adoption, you first have to figure out if they really need what’s on offer, and secondly, what’s stopping them from embracing it.
  • Start with small steps. Rather than promoting an array of new collaboration tools all at once, begin by describing how a similar group has achieved amazing results by using a given tool, such as a shared team portal. You might invite an early adopter to attend the next staff meeting to describe how one team saved weeks of time and thousands of dollars by creating a wiki that instantly alerts team members to known flaws. Use examples your audience can relate to, and offer a few ideas about best ways to get started.


Simply put, the greater the choice of virtual collaboration tools available, the greater the confusion about which tools work best in what situation. Invest time up front in understanding how these new tools can really help people get more work done, faster, with better results. Be specific about the benefits that matter, and show people a few capabilities they can use immediately to get started. Before you know it, adoption will quickly follow

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