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How to Get Employees to Actually Use Your New Online Collaboration Tool

May 18, 2008
There are numerous examples of organizations that have implemented online collaboration tools such as SharePoint and Basecamp and have been surprised when they aren't adopted and used. Breaking the e-mail habit and encouraging people to adopt new ways of working is very difficult.

Many organizations are exploring the benefits of using online collaboration tools to manage knowledge and coordinate large projects. They often do a good job evaluating different technologies (and there are lots of great tools out there), but a poor job thinking through and planning how to get busy people to actually use and adopt them. The truth is that changing individuals' personal work habits is very hard and deserves as much attention and planning as picking the right technology platform.

This article summarizes some best practices for focusing on the "people part" of online collaboration.

Get Employee Input Before Choosing the Platform

One source of employee resistance is the feeling that a new project workspace or other collaborative tool is being imposed on them against their will. This can be overcome by involving team members before the platform has been implemented.

Ask employees what they are looking for in an online collaboration tool. Don't limit yourself by the products that are out there. Instead, have employees come up with a list of "points of pain" in their daily work and a wish list of potential online tools and services - such as online task management, document libraries, team blogs, wikis, etc. Even if their list contains elements that are not implemented in the first phase, this activity will illustrate what is important to employees and other users.

Not only does this make the employee part of the implementation process, but often they have insight that managers may lack. People from different parts of the organization or project may have unique needs that the decision-makers might not have considered.

Find the Right Online Collaboration Tool

Improving employee participation starts with the selection of the proper tool or software. There are a number of online collaboration tools around and not all of them are created equal.
An online collaboration tool with more features doesn't necessarily mean it's a better product. Lots of unnecessary bells and whistles make the software confusing and hard to learn which will increase employee resistance.

Often, during the process of evaluating different technology options, groups will identify lots of different features they "absolutely need," but after launching the tool they only use one or two key features. Consider developing some criteria to prioritize functions and features, and making clear the trade-off between too many features and usability. Experience shows that simplicity and an intuitive interface is by far the most important feature of any collaboration tool.

Understanding Incentives

There are two ways to motivate users to collaborate online. Users will either 1) log in and access or share information because it provides a valuable service to them personally, or 2) they will log in and use it because they are expected to by someone in a position of authority.

To encourage "voluntary" use, the tool must provide valuable services to its users. If the content and functionality helps busy users access information they need or accomplish a task - they will log in and use the tool voluntarily. In addition, recognizing users who make valuable contributions can boost their incentives to proactively participate.

In other cases where volunteerism and peer recognition is not enough, organizations must set clear expectations and guidelines for members and reinforce them often. The incentive, then, is simply the desire to do what is asked. This may be another obvious-sounding recommendation, but it also tends to be lost in the rush to do other, higher-profile activities. In some cases, responsibilities requiring a significant contribution of time should be incorporated into individuals' job descriptions.

User types

Experience shows that there are stark differences in online behavior in participation within different user groups, and therefore it is useful to plan around these different types of users. These are outlined below.

-Super Users - Super Users are highly active community participants that not only contribute content but also take ownership and work to promote it and make it successful. The will, for instance, help police content for appropriateness and, properly guided, informally train users on expectations and norms. They will also welcome new users and help them understand the community and its role in their work. There will likely be few Super Users, but they have enormous importance for the community.

-Regulars - Regulars are more typical "good" users. They login regularly and contribute content of various kinds with some frequency. While not as active as Super Users, there are somewhat more of them and thus in aggregate they form an important active layer of the community.

-Contributors - Many users will come to the site with some frequency, but will contribute to it only once in a while. While they do not give much to the community, they are still demonstrating a level of interest that suggests they are learning from it. Additional support and incentives may convert some to Regulars.

-Browsers - Another large segment will visit the site periodically but never - or rarely - contribute to it. These users represent possible Contributors but are in need of further promotion, additional incentives, and, perhaps, more training.

-No-shows - There will be a group of potential users who never catch on to the community. Periodic efforts to convert these users would be valuable, but you should not expend great effort on them. It would, however, be valuable to discuss why these users are not active and understand if there are systematic disincentives within the community.

Announce the new Platform
When an organization is ready to roll out a collaboration tool, they should prepare and send an announcement to all potential users. The announcement should be brief but should clearly articulate:

-The goals for the organization
-The "selling points" - the value it will provide and the incentives that will be in place
-An overview of the services it will contain - both content and functionality
-A summary of guidelines and expectations for use
-A timetable for when they can expect to be able to use it
-A schedule for training

Lead By Example

Lastly, employees are never going to adopt an online collaboration tool unless they see management using it. Let team leaders be the guinea pigs that ensure the application works as advertised and let them inspire other team members to start using it.

Don't convert the entire organization to the new system overnight. Start out small with individual project teams to pilot test the tool. This allows the application to be tested and any problems solved. It also allows team members to dip a toe in and see that the water is fine.

Finally, offer training and technical support. Structured training eases the learning curve and the frustration of implementing a new product. Knowledgeable super users and technical support personnel can fix user problems quickly, again reducing the aggravation of adopting a new system. A well-designed implementation plan can have your new online collaboration tool, whether it is an online task management system or a knowledge management tool, operating smoothly within weeks, backed by the full support of the entire team.
About the Author
Author is a freelance copywriter. For more information on Online
Collaboration Tools
, visit http://www.projectspaces.com.
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