Launching a Web Collaboration Platform? Here’s How to Get Past the Naysayers

Most startups these days recognize the critical importance of collaboration tools and other Web apps that can deliver huge value to an organization at minimal cost.  But they’re the exception, still, not the rule, in the wider business universe, where breakthrough apps and tools are still uncharted — and often confusing — territory for decision makers. What Pepperdine University launched recently for its business school holds some insights for managers and execs looking to break through tough barriers. Here’s a brief look:

Susan Gautsch, director of e-learning at Pepperdine University’s Graziadio School of Business and Management, scheduled a meeting not long ago with the head of IT to propose launching a new social learning and collaboration network, to be called GLEAN — Graziadio Learning Environment and Network — so that university students could connect with each other.

Gautsch identified two main needs. First, students wanted to feel more connected to each other and to the school; especially the part-time graduate students who work full-time during the day and attended classes in the evenings and on weekends. Second, b-school students work on a lot of group projects, and when you live in a place like Southern California, the last thing you want to do is drive from Long Beach to Pasadena, after a long day at work, to work on a team project in person.

She had a plan. She was well prepared. And in that meeting with the head if IT she heard a resounding “no.” Ten years ago, if Gautsch heard such a no, the project would likely be dead in the water. But this is 2011, and a trickle-up strategy was working. Students had already discovered Yammer on their own and began using it to communicate and work on projects together by sharing documents, creating groups, and participating in discussions; the school was in a position to build on those trends. “Collaboration among students on these networks,” Gautsch says, “was happening with or without us. We needed to get on board and support what we know our students want. Plus, if we organize it properly, we can ensure a standard experience for all students.”

GLEAN, a Google Apps mashup using Yammer, Voice ThreadElluminate, and other tools, became a reality soon after the IT head saw a similar network in action at another university. He was hooked, but the project was not without challenges. Here are a few that Gautsch went up against, how she got past them — and what other execs and managers looking at new collaboration and learning systems need to know to succeed.

Problems:

Skeptical IT managers. If you are going to implement any new technology in your organization, you will need support from the top of the IT group. Meet early and often with the IT group to gain buy-in. Focus on the benefits to the people in the organization and the IT group. Point out the fact that people are already using these tools and that the best thing to do is get on board so the IT group can create a standard experience for everyone on the organization.

Complex integration. The biggest technical challenge was to bring all of these different technologies together. Google Apps is one great way to do it, but single-sign on — a required feature typically when integrating multiple platforms and tools into one service — remains a challenge. Be stay on top of this issue – understand the requirements and costs and be able to justify them.

Skeptical new users. Do not assume everyone will know how to use the tools you implement. Yes, there will be early adopters who will figure it out on their own but plan for the middle majority who will need help learning how to use the new tools and why they should use it.

Solutions:

Grassroots outreach. Most of these technologies are available free for anyone to use. Encourage any grassroots efforts that you see to use these tools. At the very least, do not discourage it. It is inevitable. People are bring their own tools to work because our organizations are not keeping up. Encourage this transformation at the grassroots level.

Practice what you preach: Create great training tools to encourage adoption. Create videos and tutorials that demonstrate how users can connect and get work done in the new technologies. Don’t just show how the tools work — show how people can connect with each other and get work done.

Create a team of early adopters. Recruit a team of enthusiastic early adopters and let them lead the charge. Give them incentives to participate and encourage others. Susan gave everyone on this team an iPad and a Flip video camera and instructed them to post videos, start discussions, and lead their peers. Would that encourage your early adopters to become champions?

Focus on your target audience. Carefully define the audience for these collaboration tools. Susan chose to target the students and focus her energies on getting that group of people on board rather than the faculty, for example. It is important to focus on a specific group and then branch out once it’s gaining traction.

Results:

They speak for themselves. Student enrollment in Yammer alone through GLEAN totals 1,300 out of 1,600 in the student body. Activity is robust and students frequently comment about how much more connected they feel to the school and on how much easier it is to work on team projects. The lesson here is that just because you hear no, does not mean your project should stop. You will encounter resistance, and you will hear no. However, you can over come it and do great things, if you have a plan.

There is an entire generation of young people entering the workforce who are using social learning and collaborative technologies in their personal lives and in school. If these talented young people join your firm and are not allowed to work using these technologies, they will find a company in which they can. Will you be ready?

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