By Gloria Lombardi

Angela Ashenden is the Principal Analyst Collaboration at MWD Advisors. I met her at the Connected Business Expo 2014 where she delivered a talk on building a collaborative culture.

GL: In 2007, you helped to build the collaboration practice at MWD. Since then, what’s the biggest change you have seen in this space?

AA: Over the years tracking the market, there have been so many technologies entering this space. At the beginning it was not the strength of the capability of the platform for which organisations were choosing the technology. They were choosing it based on whether they could work with the vendor or whether they knew someone else already using it. So, it was more a practical perspective. Over time however, it became apparent that it was less about the technology and more about how to get people to use the tool as well as addressing the cultural change side of collaboration within the organisation.

GL: From a cultural perspective, how can traditional organisations become more collaborative?

AA: It is difficult to put it simply, but fundamentally it is about encouraging people to be open to share and interact. It is about changing their natural behaviours so that so they can automatically think ‘How can I take the initiative that I have just started and make it more collaborative? Who should I be getting involved to make it more collaborative?’ In order to do that the lead needs to be taken from the top because without that kind of guidance people will not see the long-term need for change. Examples of that might be having your senior executives posting micro-blogs, or maybe doing a weekly blog, or a video blog in order to show the rest of the organisation their visibility there. But it is also about having them interacting with people; so it not just publishing out but actively entering in discussions with the employees.

GL: Many internal communicators I have spoken with find it hard to have their CEO or most senior management involved. Based on your research, what’s your advice to get leadership involved with an enterprise social network?

AA: It is about proof. Prove the value of it as much as you can. Amass a ‘catalogue of evidence’. Find examples of projects where better collaboration inside your company speeded up processes, created new opportunities, helped to save money. These are all small and fairly easy to manage activities. The more you can pull them together the better. Then, take these to your senior managers. The aim is to give them evidence that inside your own organisation collaboration is already working and giving advantages to the business.

GL: Let’s assume we have the leadership buy-in, what other key elements are needed to become a more collaborative organisation?

AA: You need to take advantage of the grass-root, bottom-up viral adoption that social has become famous for. Which is why the advocate network is so important. But remember, it is not just about top-down and bottom-up: you have the barrier in the middle which is your middle manager layer. Often that middle layer fails to buy into strategy and stops it from succeeding. They are the people who control projects, outputs, people performance, processes and everything else. So you have to make sure that they really understand the value of a more collaborative approach.

GL: What should an organisation do to overcome that middle manager layer barrier?

AA: If you have leaders’ buy-in, then you should be able to go to them and say – even dictate – that they cannot reject or block it, but rather take it on board seriously. From an adoption strategy perspective, target those people individually. Work closely with them so that so they can identify what difference collaboration can make to their job and to their teams. It comes back to education. Not everyone will get it on day one. Some people are naturally resistant to any kind of a change. And you have to accept that. That it is not necessarily a bad thing as long as there is a constant shift into the general culture. Just because they are slow to change it does not mean that they will not change.

GL: How does management change in a networked organisation?

AA: It becomes less about telling individuals what to do and controlling their actions, and more about coaching and helping them to determine their direction. It comes down to having a better understanding of your employees, and what they are trying to achieve. In a lot of cases it would be also about putting people in touch with the right people, because in theory, in a fully networked organisation where you have the technology and culture in place you should be able to surface the relationships that the workforce need to be building.

GL: What’s your opinion on the role of the community manager?

AA: The community manager has to lead by example by contributing on a regular basis in a way that is purposeful and relevant to the community and its members. He/she needs to encourage people, pull them in, whether it is directly contacting the individual asking them to submit an opinion or whether it is about targeting specific projects that someone could discuss on the platform. They need people skills and to be able to communicate in a peer-level way, engaging with employees to understand how they can benefit from the platform. They also need to be quite creative in terms of finding opportunities to get people involved.

GL: Do you have any good example of a collaborative company?

AA: A good example is Avanade. They took a very strategic approach and invested well in the people change side. As a fast-growing company that depends on the knowledge and skills of its employees to deliver consulting services to its clients, Avanade needed to find a way to better connect its staff and centralise its knowledge across its globally-distributed organisation. As part of a global programme to drive business change and develop a more collaborative culture, they decided to upgrade the existing Microsoft SharePoint-based intranet to deliver a more interactive environment that could take advantage of new social technologies. The rollout and gradual launch of the company’s new social intranet, called @Avanade, began in September 2011, with the final migration of existing email-based communities to the new platform completing in May 2012. Two years on, adoption of the @Avanade social intranet continues to grow, with active participation reaching 20% of the company’s onshore workforce, and post volumes growing by around 30% per month. While business change and adoption efforts are on-going, the company is already seeing positive results through anecdotal evidence of greater interaction between staff in different parts of the business, and a flattening of the organisational hierarchy as senior executives become more accessible and engaged with staff.

GL: Based on this and other research, could you give us any final advice?

AA: Be clear as to what the advantages are to your organisation; what is your purpose of doing it? Understand how collaboration will this make things better for your specific organisation, how does it tie in with the business strategy as a whole. The more effort you can put in articulating the purpose the easier it is to determine your strategy for gaining adoption and for making the change that is needed. If you clearly understand what you are doing and why you are doing that than it will become much easier to communicate that to everybody else.

GL: Finally, what are your thoughts on the future of social business?

AA: It will become less of an entity but just business. It is an evolution in the way organisations work. We have been trying to make this change from probably the mid 90s or even earlier when the first knowledge management tools appeared. This desire to be more collaborative and to be more networked started back there but the technology was not ready to support it. A five-year timeframe perhaps is not enough for seeing a real cultural change, but in ten-years’ time I think there will be a big shift in terms of the how organisations are structured, to make them much less hierarchical. Even the more traditional organisations will not be able to escape. They might be less networked than the majority but I think it would be very hard to avoid collaboration altogether.

This article originally appeared on simply-communicate