Thursday, 12 December 2013

Europe's un-collaborative, un-innovative workplaces revealed

How about that for a headline, eh? Sensational, but true, I'm afraid to say. This year I’ve been working with Google on some research about the role of collaboration tools in the workplace. This has just been published in six European markets (English version here). It even made it into Italian Wired!

To whet your appetites, I thought it’d be good to summarise what we found from interviewing 3,600 employees of large businesses and 30 of their bosses. Convention means that I should have three points. But I don’t. I have two. Better make them good, then…

One. The average European business is un-innovative and un-collaborative

This was the major finding: just under sixty percent of employees in major European employers feel that they work in an environment where they are discouraged from innovating and rarely collaborate effectively with each other outside of basic team interactions. I wish I could say I was surprised by this, but I’m afraid most large businesses remain obsessed with hierarchical management structures with little responsibility for or ownership of outcomes devolved down to those at the coal face.

The trouble is that innovation is regarded as a must-have capability in the global economy. Although it’s easy to fixate on silver bullet innovation (jet engine, microprocessor, iPad) in truth, most innovation is incremental improvements to processes that collectively deliver improved efficiency over time. If most employees are discouraged from that kind of innovation then most organisations will stagnate or become dependent on huge process improvement initiatives, employing such “proven” techniques as activity-based costing and “change management”…

…which doesn’t work in a low collaboration environment because most employees respond best to change when they are supporting each other rather than being told about it by an organisation’s propaganda… sorry – internal comms – team. Oh, and innovation is usually a group activity as well, so lack of collaboration is a double problem.

Two. Many European organisations are stuck in 1998

Despite the majority of people using social media, mobile devices and IM instinctively in their everyday lives, most organisations are firmly stuck in a 1990’s world of big process systems and email as a communications medium. And that’s the situation in pushed “Enterprise” apps. Two thirds of employees are unable to use their own applications and devices at work – most of the other one third do so without the permission of their bosses. This is shambolic. All businesses should have Wi-Fi in the office for the use of their employees and partners; firewalls should have looser permissions to enable use of productivity and collaboration tools that are not made by MS, Oracle or SAP.

The barrier here is lack of trust in employees, which is principally due to the fact that most businesses equate a given amount of input effort (person-hours) to a given output, rather than actually measuring the output volume and quality in the right way. If they did the latter then it’d be up to the employee to take ownership of their task – there is considerable evidence to suggest that working without periodic distractions makes people less productive and the odd check of Facebook or a bit of casual Buzzfeed/ YouTube is a low impact distraction.


My analogy (and I like it, so I’m using it as much as I can J) is that the modern European workplace is the digital equivalent of a library. You can hear a pin drop. And who wants to work like that?