By Gloria Lombardi

“After an initial stage where organisations looked more at number of users, communities and posts, the market is now experiencing a new focus on the business value of social collaboration – What’s the impact on the future of work?”

Emanuele Quintarelli (pictured right) is EY‘s Director of Social Business and Future of Work within the EMEIA Advisory Centre of Excellence. His hybrid background in both computer science and multi-channel user experience has become a great fit for his role: “I facilitate change inside global enterprises, which is targeted to business goals while having human beings in mind. I help with adoption of both new technologies and behaviours.”

I wanted to talk with Quintarelli to explore the current state of collaboration. In this interview he shares his top tips in driving digital transformation, which ultimately impacts on effective business results as well as better ways of working.

Gloria Lombardi: What are the major drivers that push an organisation to increase its collaboration efforts today?

Emanuele Quintarelli: In this economic age, most organisations are trying to do more with less. Not surprisingly the first driver is then to cut costs – it is clear that our current way of working, management and leadership models are not fit with the expectations of employees, but also of customers. There is a lot of waste of resources that has to be identified and reduced both for the benefits of the organisation and the benefits of its people. Trying to deal with 300-500 emails each day – this is what we hear from executives – isn’t at all engaging and isn’t at all effective.

While the first driver is the business, ultimately collaboration has large implications to the quality of life of employees. It is not just about getting your job done.

People are looking for something bigger than themselves and the only way to see this bigger mission coming to life is by working in a fulfilling environment, one that centres on human and societal needs.

GL: The debate about who is typically championing these new ways of working is an old one. Indeed, the answer(s) keeps changing over time, and it has not been clearly defined yet. What is your view?

EQ: In the past, the answer(s) tended to be either IT, as those in charge of introducing the new collaboration platform; or Internal Communications responsible for the way the top management spoke with the rest of the organisation; or it could have been HR.

What we have seen over the years is that none of these owners can play a very effective role alone. Best practice is to make social business a multi stakeholder project – IT, HR, IC, Legal but also the rest of the business, from Customer Service, to Sales, Marketing and Innovation.

It is a transition that should be owned by the entire organisation. The organisational culture and processes have to be championed by the top management together with the senior stakeholders representing core areas.

GL: While digital transformation has started to impact almost every sector, each industry has been approaching collaboration differently. Have you seen any distinct characteristics?

EQ: There are different maturity levels in each industry. The financial services and telecoms are clearly ahead of the pack; they have been doing collaboration for a long time – we have many clients that started back in 2007.

With some exceptions, pharmaceutical companies have begun to consider collaboration only recently for the simple reason that the pressure coming from the market has been quite low so far. Today, there is a bigger urgency to serve patients and institutions better – hence the organisation has to think about being more agile and innovative.

There are other less obvious industries – such as manufacturing, chemical and energy – where collaboration is high. Even if their culture is not necessarily the most mature, their needs of efficiency, productivity and cost saving are big. Similar goals make collaborating across geographical boundaries and organisational silos a priority.

Ultimately, any large change process comes together when there is both a bottom-up and a top-down commitment. The latter mostly depends on the individual maturity of executive sponsors. Even in advanced industries, the transformational impact can be somewhat suboptimal, without the right level of buy-in.

GL: I would like to explore cultural diversity and the differences in behaviours and attitude towards collaboration in different parts of the world.

EQ: This is a key topic for global corporations. One of the goals of collaboration is to build bridges across countries, branches and offices regardless of the time zone. After all, collaboration is about sharing, being open, and being transparent. While there are definitely very strong cultural barriers at play, it is clearly an opportunity for bringing employee together and let them know each other. Unfortunately, doing these across cultures can take years.

Even in Europe we have different takes on collaboration – generally speaking, in the Nordics and even in the UK people feel quite compelled to openly share information, solutions and ideas. In countries such as Italy, Spain and Portugal, knowledge is sometimes a political matter. In Germany, councils play a very visible role both in the traditional and in the digital workplace.

The distance is even higher when comparing Europe to Asia. As an example, Japan usually shows a very strong top-down leadership where contradicting your boss is not easily accepted.

Cultural traits are crucial in facilitating or restricting global adoption. The right values, an aligned rewarding system, the ability to work with other teams, the freedom to innovate, the relationship with your manager all represent an important baseline for collaboration. At the end, it is a matter of understanding your own corporate history, working around it and being aware that, of course, some types of cultures can achieve quicker results, while others will tend to slow the transition down.

GL: The freedom of sharing and the easy access to knowledge are among the most powerful aspects of our work and relationships today. But, can we collaborate ‘too much’ and end up with feeling overwhelmed by information overload?

EQ: Email is the proof that we can collaborate too much, and especially in the wrong way.

We definitely have too much information today with often too many tools for doing the same things. It can be confusing for employees to understand where to go to get their job done. Tools are often siloed – you need different log-ins, and you may end up replicating the same information in different systems. Without mentioning that many of us bring their own technology to the workplace (e.g. Dropbox). While that may look as a good solution in terms of personal productivity and comfort, social software fragmentation easily increases risks, redundancy and costs for the company.

On the other side, ‘feeling alive’ while working and being able to engage with your peers without too many suffocating policies is a lever both for efficiency and motivation.

It is an organisation responsibility to explicitly link collaboration to both business goals and personal benefits. Choosing the right technology becomes much easier, once clear purpose and agreement around the digital workplace have been reached.

Collaborating for collaboration sake is just a waste of time; it is not particularly appealing to employees as not everybody likes to spend his time writing wiki pages or posting to a blog. Being able to reach your targets with less time and effort looks like a much better motivation for change.

GL: Often I hear organisations expressing concerns on which social collaboration tool they should adopt. There are many enterprise-software vendors, and as you mentioned, companies may end up with implementing tools (too many, and sometimes the wrong ones for their organisation) that are not effective. What’s your key advice?

EQ: My first piece of advice is to not start from technology. I have seen many projects where the client rolled out a tool – maybe the vendor gave it to him for free – and then they decided what to do with it. That is not an effective strategy.

A good starting point is to spend the right amount of time and effort in clarifying how a social tool can support the strategy you already have in place. It could be about reducing costs, or increasing flexibility and agility, improving morale, facilitating a merger and acquisition, building more effective communication, etc. Engaging the relevant stakeholders from multiple departments to collect and prioritize those goals is the first step toward change.

It is about understanding what collaboration can do from a business perspective, as well as what it cannot do – a social tool is not the solution for all the issues we have in the workplace. Trying to articulate this connection, if possible in a measurable way, is an often forgotten priority.

Secondly, it is about evaluating the proficiency and the readiness of the employee base. There are always different pockets and levels of maturity within large enterprises. Collaboration needs depend on such readiness. Tools should act as an answer to the needs.

The caveat is that needs, behaviours and expectations are a target in constant flux. That’s why a large-scale roll-out requires a process for constantly collecting relevant use cases and leveraging them as the propellant for your transformation engine. The chosen collaboration platform will have to be flexible and comprehensive enough to address both current and future scenarios.

GL: Which types of techniques can an organisation adopt to understand effectively the readiness of their employees?

EQ: We use a lot of co-design techniques. We apply them not only to listen, but also to transfer ownership and let key stakeholders steer the change inside their organisation.

Initially, we do some physical work – it is about bringing people from different chunks of the company in the same room and to let a shared vision of the future emerge. We let them design the workflow, identify their gaps, give priorities and understand how work will change as a consequence of collaboration.

People are social animals and at the very beginning of any collaboration project, they need to ‘feel’ each other, and to shake hands. The chance to meet with peers from different countries and offices unlocks huge amounts of positive energy. That’s the energy that comes from building something together and feeling ownership for the future of your organisation.

GL: Leadership buy-in. Research shows that working with executives to integrate social has grown in priority over the last two years. What’s your experience on that?

EQ: For quite a long time, CEOs have been quite completely disconnected from collaboration, which was seen just as a ‘nice to have’.

Nonetheless in the last two to three years we have experienced a very visible improvement. Due to increased complexity, competition and pressure from the market, many CEOs or senior stakeholders have started to look for new levers to react. In many cases, they are now knocking the door of IC asking for answers.

This is not the future – this is happening already. In a sense there is no longer a choice. The awareness of collaboration at a strategic level has gained importance. Many leaders are now able to understand that engaging employee, building better internal and external channels to sense and re-act to the market, and distributing the decision-making process down to the ranks, are all crucial components for achieving their business goals.

GL: Any final piece of advice for those organisations that haven’t their CEO on board yet?

EQ: Frame collaboration in business terms, in a quantifiable way. Try to show both the investment and the returns. Also, show research and case studies to make the leaders more aware of the implications and value of collaboration.

If you build the business case with both tangible and intangible outcomes, the CEO will be more likely to be keen on spending money and giving the buy-in.

This article originally appeared on simply-communicate