Putting communities and collaboration tools in place is one thing; getting people to actually use them is another. A lot of knowledge management efforts fizzle out because they fail to catch fire with employees. And given how many organizations are currently going through digital transformations (66%) and moving collaboration to the cloud (49%), the problem of engaging users in the midst of rapid technological change feels more common—and daunting—than ever.
The need to get more employees involved in communities and collaboration is clearly reflected in APQC’s KM metric of the month, taken from our 2019 KM Priorities Survey. The No. 1. collaboration-related goal for this year is to increase the use of collaboration platforms and tools, with more than a third of respondents listing this among their top three. In addition, a quarter of respondents are working to boost participation in existing communities and networks. Office 365 adoption made the top five, but despite rapid technology change, engagement challenges remain front and center.
We know that organizations struggle to get employees collaborating—and that problem isn’t going away. In a survey we conducted last year, only 11 percent of respondents reported that their firms effectively motivate and incentivize participation in KM. Communities and collaboration tools can help people with their work while building a sense of belonging, but that message is not getting through to overwhelmed staff who can’t deal with one more thing they’re supposed to start doing on top of their busy workload.
So how do you structure communities and collaboration to attract the broadest possible audience and then sustain that audience over time? It’s not easy, but here are our top five recommendations.
1. Connect collaboration to work and learning needs.
Start by making sure that the collaboration tools and approaches you offer support things employees already need to do. For example, they should make it easier to complete normal job duties, build expertise, and solve problems. Learning opportunities are particularly effective motivators since almost everyone is invested in growing their skills and careers.
We find that collaborative initiatives are most effective when they zero in on practical, tangible goals like generating new ideas and solutions and facilitating reuse across projects. But no matter what you set out to achieve, a good strategy can help you link collaboration to goals that end users care about, as well as the organization’s broader strategic priorities. You can then promote these potential outcomes through meetings and corporate communications.
2. Embed communities and collaboration in the workflow.
Collaboration should fit as seamlessly as possible into the flow of employees’ normal activities, instead of feeling like something “extra” they are expected to do. But how can organizations achieve this?
The first step is to make it easy to access collaboration, either by embedding the tools directly in the applications where employees work or, at the very least, minimizing the clicks between the two. Fortunately, platforms like Office 365 and G-Suite provide a lot of the necessary integration off the shelf.
In addition to streamlining access, it helps to insert collaboration prompts into standard processes and routines that guide people’s work. For example, documentation and manager check-ins might encourage R&D engineers to talk to colleagues before launching new projects and then share relevant best practices and lessons learned at each project stage gate. If community interaction and collaboration are built into the way people work, they start to feel more natural and integral.
3. Coach people on the approaches, tools, and how to participate.
Although lots of organizations provide collaboration training to new hires and when they launch new communities and tools, most don’t go far enough. Introductory courses cover the basics, but they can’t turn collaboration newbies into experts. If new users run into hurdles they can’t overcome, they tend to get frustrated and give up.
Top organizations pair up-front training with follow-up sessions, office hours where people can drop in and ask questions, and local advocates who role-model use and provide ad-hoc support to their teams. Employees have different levels with technology fluency, learning styles, and needs when it comes to collaboration. Individualized support accommodates these differences, and it also boosts adoption up the hierarchy since many managers are uncomfortable asking questions or displaying a lack of understanding during group trainings.
4. Reinforce the behavior you want through rewards and recognition.
Find ways to acknowledge collaborators who go above and beyond. In addition to incentivizing employees, a good rewards strategy can publicize collaboration success stories and convey the value that the organization puts on certain behaviors.
A lot of people think their hands are tied because they don’t have the resources for flashy awards ceremonies, cash bonuses, or prizes. But often, the most effective reward is a simple thank-you message from a leader or manager. Other low-cost approaches include promoting success stories through corporate communications or recruiting top collaborators into high-potential talent programs. Even if the link is informal (i.e., people who contribute their know-how tend to be promoted more quickly), employees will notice.
5. Listen to feedback and make improvements.
Recognize that launching a new community or collaboration tool is just the beginning. As employees start to use what you’ve developed, they’ll surface problems and ways to make it better. Applying their recommendations can make collaboration easier and increase its chances of producing meaningful results.
Instead of assuming that employees are just “resisting change,” actively solicit and listen to their feedback—the good, the bad, and the ugly. If you have a group of community leaders or super-users, use them to filter feedback from the rest of the workforce. Prioritize the suggestions and be transparent about the improvements you’re planning. People support what they help create, and they’ll be more likely to adopt collaboration approaches if they feel their voices are being heard.
Learn from the best
If you’re looking for inspiration to refresh your collaboration engagement strategy, check out the case studies we’ve published so far as part of our “Promoting KM and Making It Stick" research:
- Developing a Knowledge Sharing Culture at Consolidated Contractors Company
- How MSA the Safety Company Connects KM to Its Mission: Saving Customers' Lives
- Integrating KM into the Flow of Customer Support at Shopify
- Enabling Global Knowledge Sharing at World Vision International
- How Pfizer Deploys Knowledge Management at the Site Level
Each organization’s approach is a little different, but they all combine marketing, training, rewards, a user-centric strategy, and an iterative feedback loop to draw employees into their KM offerings.