Right tools + right contexts + right support = effective workflows

Right tools + right contexts + right support = effective workflows 1024 343 Catherine Shinners

Two recent Harvard Business Review articles highlight the ongoing challenges with using collaboration and digital tools. According to the authors, leaders and knowledge workers are left scrambling through an array of tools often with little guidance and support on how best to incorporate them in their daily work life.

I’ve worked on digital transformation initiatives in a variety of high tech and financial services companies since 2012, and it’s dismaying to see the continuing conundrums workers experience in utilizing the many digital options for collaboration and knowledge work.

That sense of confusion is often the result short-term guidance and support and unclear best use cases.  Thus, we’ve had articles discussing “tech overload” and interrupt-driven workflows going years back with Rob Cross et al., and now these recent HBR pieces, Are Collaboration Tools Overwhelming your Team? and Remote Work Should Be (Mostly) Asynchronous.

In the first article, Hinds et al., recaps a study in which a set of knowledge workers were asked to modulate their own collaboration tool use by eliminating a selection of tools from their own workflows for a period of two weeks.  Called a “collaboration cleanse” participants were able to gain some clarity on just how many tools they were using, but also experienced anxiety – while they were “subtracting” the use of certain tools from their own practice, others they might have to interact with were not.

The authors also call out management to be more engaged, even prescriptive, with guidance and tool selection for their teams and organizations, and to provide more ongoing support.

In the second article, Steve Glaveski notes that the way in which digital tools have often been introduced has not led to ways to “improve how we work” [emphasis mine].  He outlines several tools, like task boards, that can allow people to provide information about project activities without using real-time communication interrupts like message boards or emails. While the article’s focus is about improving remote working, its suggestions are relevant for in-office or hybrid teams as well.  

Two elephants – same room

Both articles cite two issues that predate the digital transformation era.

Line drawing of elephants with major productivity issue of email and meetings

Email – Both articles cite an alarming statistic that “the typical worker receives 121 emails each day.”  Glaveski also notes a worker spends 23% of their time on unnecessary emails and checks email once every six minutes.  Email has been a core communication tool for decades, but its misuse adds to the complexity that workers must deal with.

Meetings & Calendaring – It’s difficult to do meaningful knowledge work when one’s calendar is jammed with meetings.  Meetings are often the default for project team interactions, sometimes including individuals who don’t necessarily need to be. 

Both these challenges have little to do with collaboration and digital tool overload.  Excessive email communication, for instance, can be mitigated by a rethinking of internal communications, using more transparent and two-way digital options.

Ask what’s the context?  Then select the tools and work practice

Thoughtful consideration of tools and practice in knowledge and leadership workflows can address the fundamental opportunities of digital transformation.

Teams should be able to use a set of tools appropriate to their workstreams.  Many workers participate in projects, or business process workflows within and across organizations.  Not all tools are applicable to every work process.  As a team forms, it’s important to norm first before diving into a default set of tools and practice.

-Which tools, and which features of tools to use and in which context?  i.e.,

  • Light communications
  • Project task management
  • Project artifact management (documents, reports, presentations, dashboards

-Do we need to have project meeting (s)?  What will be their purpose?  How will the outcomes be filtered across the team members?

-Check-ins on tool use – how is it working for team members, does anyone need a tool buddy for a period?

Tool norm setting can not only help with “tech overload” but help diminish the amount of context switchingbetween tools and types of interaction.

Hinds et al. provides some helpful guidance for managers that includes identifying preferred tool selection for their organizations and ensuring ongoing support.  I have found that too often digital transformation efforts focus on the initial change, but ongoing enablement and guidance diminishes after early rollout. 

Leaders need to engage with the tools themselves, gaining a sense of their applicability and usefulness.  And rather than defaulting to email communications (especially cascading emails), leaders can adapt their communications strategies and practice to more digital and interactive modalities.  [Topics on Digital Leadership – Social Now, Lisbon, 2019]

Digital tools in knowledge work can bring positive benefits to the way teams work together. 

Not all tools are useful in all contexts, projects, or business processes.  Choosing a common tool set and setting norms around meetings can help knowledge workers get the most out of digital tools and the collaboration they support.