The rapid development of collaborative communication technology as an alternative to e-mails provides companies with a possibility of fundamental transformation but will require supporting measures to usher in a genuine culture of knowledge sharing.
The upsurge in businesses of collaborative communication technology from web 2.0 has been both rapid and widespread. Internal social networks, video-conferences, blogs, micro-blogs, wikis, document sharing—the number of those adopting these linked tools never ceases to increase, in the hope of improving productivity and performance; tools that open up vistas of profound change within their companies and in the working habits of their staff. Little by little the traditional ‘silo’ model whereby the various departments, roles and hierarchies are compartmentalized in a kind of internal competition, is being replaced by the new and more open Enterprise 2.0 model based on increased staff collaboration that breaks down this rigid structure and on sharing information through a kind of forum which itself creates knowledge.
Alongside this organizational revolution, collaborative tools may also be an efficient solution to the increasing problem of e-mail proliferation. E-mails were revolutionary when they first appeared and were unanimously adopted in the workplace but they are now a victim of their own success to the point where their overuse becomes a serious obstacle to productivity: staff members get scores of emails each day, spend hours reading them, don’t open all of them, lose them and their in-boxes get filled up. Finally, communication is hindered and collaboration handicapped. Certain types of interaction currently done by e-mail would be much more efficient with collaborative communication techniques and this is certainly the case, for example, for conversations, sharing of expertise or brainstorming within a group or community.
This said, cooperation and knowledge sharing cannot simply be imposed by decree. Although it is extremely important to give staff access to alternative tools and systems, it is equally important to ensure they adopt them in a productive way. More so in that they are disruptive technologies that radically modify work habits and ways of relating.
The essential role of habit
Our research has focussed precisely on determining just how far the habitual use of collaborative tools—their day-to-day and automatic, routine use—influences the inclination of staff to share their knowledge when they no longer have access to e-mail. The theoretical model we developed identified three perceived advantages to using collaborative communication systems: the relative advantage they offer (it’s useful for my job), compatibility (it corresponds to my needs, the tasks I have to accomplish at work and to the nature of my job) and ease of use. We hypothesize that these advantages have a direct effect on user habits and on knowledge sharing. We also postulate that user habit has a catalyzing effect on each of the perceived advantages in relation to knowledge sharing.
To measure the validity of these hypotheses, we undertook a field study in an information technology (IT) services and consulting firm and obtained the following results: if users see an advantage in using collaborative tools they are more likely to make a habit of it and to share knowledge; likewise user friendliness also leads to habit-forming. On the other hand, we were unable to establish a direct link between user friendliness and knowledge sharing. Nor was the study able to establish the immediate effect of compatibility on knowledge-sharing habits. Concerning the central focus of the study, the part played by habit, the results show that it is extremely important in that it strengthens the impact of the relative advantage and of compatibility on skill sharing.
Technological evolution and the human factor
The study confirms that access to these technologies, no matter how efficient they are, is not enough to change behavior. Their use must become a habit. The more at ease staff are with collaborative tools, the more naturally they will share knowledge and the more easily they will adopt the codes and methods of Enterprise 2.0.
Consequently, what management has to do is to encourage these habits, and the study shows that there are two important arguments that can help bring this about: lead staff to understand that using a collaborative system is not only extremely useful but also easy. This implies introducing a number of measures, some of which are very simple: communication, incentives, games and competitions, sharing the experiences of advanced users, targeted pedagogical programs, and so on.
At the end of the day, this study underlines the classic problem when studying information systems: the importance of the human factor. Simply deploying a collaborative system is not suficient for an enterprise to become 2.0. A collaborative culture must created before the tools are implemented.