Team Collaboration & Knowledge Sharing Platforms: Considerations and Lessons Learned

By Abby Clobridge, FireOak Strategies Founder and Consultant

February 2, 2019

Over the past few years, we’ve seen tons of collaboration and knowledge sharing platforms become popular including Slack, Facebook for Work, and Microsoft Teams. On top of those platforms, popular project management tools such as Trello, Asana, and Basecamp also include capabilities designed to increase collaboration and knowledge sharing as part of their feature set.

So what works best and what doesn’t work well for real teams? What are the keys for having your organization successfully adopt a collaboration platform?

While no platform is best for all situations, here are some lessons learned based on what we’ve seen in the wild, our clients’ experiences, and in our own practice.

1. Purpose Matters

More important than anything else, have you asked yourself this question: what organizational or business problem are you trying to solve with this particular collaboration platform?

Is there a real need for this tool or is this a case of technology for technology’s sake or a fear of missing out?

“Better collaboration” is too vague. Instead, framing the purpose of the new collaboration tool might include outcomes such as:

  • Making it easier for groups to have real-time and asynchronous conversations
  • Making it easier for groups to switch between communication channels, i.e., from typed messages to face-to-face conversations
  • Making it easier for groups to access or find all of their in-progress files by providing a single space for working drafts, documents, slide decks
  • Making it possible to find nuggets of information exchanged in the past via an informal chat by having chat conversations searchable
  • Making it easier for remote teams to connect to each other and work together
  • Supplementing formal communication (email, newsletters, meeting notes) with informal team conversations

People are generally more willing to change their workflows and try new platforms if they understand how it will help them on a personal level (how it will make their lives easier, how it will let them complete a task faster) or how it will help the organization.

2. Strike a balance Between noise and function

Sure, dancing penguins and silly gifs can be fun. But if your collaboration tool turns into a deluge of silliness, lots of people will quickly lose interest and will abandon the platform.

If you’re thoughtful in the architecture of how you set up the space, it should be possible to create separate channels or rooms for informal conversations (“happy Friday!”) from information and knowledge sharing that everyone needs to know.

3. Balance security and sharing

This point is critical, yet it can be tough for organizations to properly implement.

From a security perspective and in terms of users’ adoption, adding another platform or system to the mix is rough.

At organizations without single sign-on (or when it isn’t well-implemented), staff members are already typing their usernames and passwords into a ridiculous number of systems -- workstation log-in, email, HR or time tracking, CRM, an intranet, the phone system, and plenty more. With some of our clients, before implementing single sign-on, we’ve seen that number be as high as 20 systems a day. (!!!) In these types of environments, password reuse is rampant, putting organizational information and data at high risk of a cyber attack. Attackers routinely break into organizations by re-using passwords leaked from non-work-related sites.

From a staff member’s perspective, one more system means one more thing to have to remember to log into each day, one more place place where they’re expected to read or post or do something. Even more annoyingly, another platform means even more dark and dusty corners where organizational information and knowledge go to wither and die.

Single-sign on helps as it at least eliminates the need for a separate username/password for all of these systems, but going into a separate platform still means extra work and effort for staff members. The benefits of using a dedicated “collaboration” or knowledge management platform must be huge for staff members to legitimately have to keep track of yet another platform.

Read more about balancing security and sharing

4. Be clear in your expectations

If one of the goals is to scale the adoption of the collaboration platform so it is used by all members of the organization, it’s important to be clear in your expectations for staff. For instance:

  • How are we using this tool? Is it for all internal communication or only for groups/teams? Is it only for back-and-forth conversations within a team?
  • What kinds of content should be posted where? Slack and Microsoft Teams both can turn into a very jumbled space quickly. What goes into an all-staff channel vs. team, group, or project channels? Should items be posted in multiple places?

Regardless of intent, be clear about the expectations for staff. For instance, are all staff members expected to read a particular channel? How often -- multiple times a day, once a day, once a week?

5. Define how you’ll measure success

Regardless of which platform your organization adopts or for what purpose, how will you know if adopting a collaboration platform has been successful? How will you measure success? What metrics should be considered? How will these metrics be tracked?

Consider this question early in the planning process, long before a roll-out. If you can establish what data points are meaningful, it might inform the architecture of the platform or what reports are critical to have in place prior to a launch.

In addition to data that can be captured and collected by the platform, consider qualitative input as well. How will you solicit input from staff before, during, and after a launch? What mechanisms, if any, are you incorporating into the platform itself so staff can provide input and suggestions? How will you respond to input? Creating a feedback loop is critical for the success of any platform.

6. Involve leaders and champions

Get the leadership team involved by demonstrating the behaviors you’re trying to have staff emulate -- i.e., get leaders to “walk the walk, not just talk the talk.”

With a collaboration tool, that might mean getting leaders to use the new tool early on as the place to share organization-wide information. But it could also be a place to reflect and share knowledge in new ways.

One successful strategy some of our clients have used is for high-level members of the organization (in particular, CEOs and COOs) to use the new platform to share weekly reflections -- what went well, what didn’t -- and some insights from these experiences. Using the tool to share such reflections more broadly within the organization can serve as incentive for staff to log into the system and engage with leaders.

Another important way in which leaders or champions can help drive adoption is by interacting with other people -- ideally, engaging directly with staff, particularly staff members who are outside of their immediate network. Even small things such as “liking” a staff member’s post can have impact.

Likewise, tapping a small number of staff members from throughout the organization to serve as champions to take on these roles and lead by example can help to drive adoption.

7. Rollout strategies matter

As is the case with most new tools and technology, having the CIO or head of IT send out an email to staff to announce that a new system is available is a rollout strategy that never works. Way too often, we’ve heard comments such as:

“We have a whole bunch of millennials. They can figure it out.”

“Our team is tech-savvy. They don’t need training.”

“It’s just a different version of Facebook. Everyone already knows how to use it.”

While your tech-savvy, Facebook-using staff may not need much hand-holding, they probably won’t know how they’re expected to use this new tool or for what purpose without meaningful communication.

Moreover, don’t assume that everyone on your team uses social media, which serves as the foundation for most of today’s collaboration tools. Many of us, particularly those of us who are introverts, have spent the past two decades doing our best to avoid social media. In this case, understanding what the organization is trying to accomplish and why can make a big difference in getting us to adopt a platform that we might otherwise shy away from using.

In any case, collaboration should be about connections and engagement. To some degree, keep the rollout light and fun -- but not too noisy!

8. It’s all about change management

At the end of the day, it’s all about change management and the longer-term transition -- how you introduce the change, the messaging you provide to staff, how you support the people involved in adopting a new platform or using an existing platform in new ways.

One last point: if you’re shifting from one platform to another, don’t forget to formally retire the platform that is about to be decommissioned.  Resist suggestions to keep legacy platforms online “just in case” -- this just hurts adoption of the new platform.

Change is hard. There’s no easy or simple way to get everything right, so be intentional in your approach, plan to fine-tune as you move forward. Start small, talk to staff about what to expect, pilot, adapt, and expand. Scaling and then keeping staff engaged in order to sustain adoption over time takes work.

Talk about -- or, better yet, share within the platform -- what’s working, what’s not, and what you’re doing to evolve the approach based on what you’re learning as you move forward.

About the Author

Abby Clobridge is the founder of FireOak Strategies, where she works to help clients manage, secure, and share their information, data, and knowledge. Abby has been working in the field of information and knowledge management for over twenty years. 

FireOak Strategies is a certified Woman-Owned Small Business (WOSB) and Women's Business Enterprise (WBE). More information about FireOak Strategies: https://fireoakstrategies.com/about-us