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On collaboration: interview with Luis Suarez (second part)

Here we are with the second part of the interview with Luis Suarez. In the first part we talked about the collaboration between people working remotely, how culture influences collaboration and cost of Enterprise 2.0. Let’s go.

Roberto: Could we have a look at another infographic, “Dare to Share” from SocialCast? There is a quote from Darwin: “In the long history of humankind (…) those who learned to collaborate and improvise most effectively have prevailed”. The focus is on collaboration. If we learn to collaborate, we could have success.

Luis: That’s right. This is a great quote, because it does send a very clear message, that we cannot achieve as much working as individuals as working as groups or networks. And for most people that’s common sense. But one of the interesting things is that businesses are starting to realize about that. For a good number of years, companies knew very well that they were having communities inside of their business. But they were not endorsing them, because there was this thinking:  if my employees belong to communities, they’re goofing off, they’re lazing about, there’s chit chatting and everything else. So they never endorsed them. They could not stop them, but they could never go ahead and endorse them.

Now here comes social software to prove the power of the network. And all of the sudden we see this huge change from businesses where they start saying not only do we have communities, but now we fully sponsor and we actually endorse them tremendously. Because we realize the value of collaboration amongst groups, amongst social networks. It’s almost better to have multiple brains thinking about the same problem than just having one brain. Like I said before, that’s pretty much common sense. I think that point comes to highlight how collaboration is for us in today’s working environment. And here’s what’s an interesting concept. With regards to collaboration, we’re no longer talking about collaboration amongst employees, but we’re also talking about collaboration of employees with their customers and also their competitors.

So we’re seeing how the system is expanding itself. And it’s expanding itself beyond the traditional structures, the traditional organizational structures. Now those are not going away, obviously. But certainly what we see is how they have become a lot more lenient, a lot more agile. And certainly they’re no longer the bottleneck, they are actually enabling that people go ahead and collaborate because they see it as providing a value for using one of these social tools.

Roberto: From an enterprise perspective, the social software and the change in the behavior of employees is not only a question of efficiency or cost reduction, it’s a matter of survival.

Luis: It is. And actually I’m glad you mentioned that, and you should have. Because to be honest with you, I have always believed that that’s the case, ever since I first got involved with social software around 2001, when I was involved with knowledge management. Back then I realized that the way we were progressing further with social software, it was going to be able to separate the companies who would be surviving in the 21st century based on the knowledge they produce and share, from those companies that are actually labor based, so they don’t use knowledge to the best of their advantage.

I’m seeing how those companies are going to disappear over time. They won’t be able to keep up with the competition. They won’t be able to keep up with a working environment that works 24/7, 365 across the globe, across time zones, in real time, where everyone is part of a giant network of collaborators. Unless you join that network, you won’t be able to compete.

It’s as simple as that. And there are two different keywords in there which are very critical or very crucial. One of them you mentioned already, which is “survival“. And the other one is “flexibility“. For a good number of years in that case, corporations have not been flexible. They have always been going to customers saying, “I know better than you yourself what you want from my products.” And now they’re saying, “Hey, we’ve got this product. We can actually be flexible enough to modify it to your needs. What are your needs?” That’s a whole change in how conversations have taken place. And that flexibility along with that matter of survival is what clearly highlights how critical collaboration is going to be.

Roberto: In the same infographic: “20% to 50% of collaboration activity resulted in wasted effort”. There are three main factors:

  1. poorly planned meetings
  2. unproductive travel time
  3. bad communication.

I think you agree with that, but which one do you suggest to consider first? Which one do you think is the first to fight with?

Luis: That’s a very interesting question, because I actually think that it’s all three of them. Traveling, we all know it has become more of a pain than a pleasure. So that’s no doubt. Now interestingly enough we’re seeing a transition, how virtual collaboration tools are helping replace traveling. For us for instance, we are saving huge amounts of money per year using our own collaboration software in order not to travel. Right? So that certainly is one of them. But I think I’m going to compromise with meetings, and I’ll explain why.

Email is there, is a big black point of productivity. But at the end of the day it takes you two to three hours a day. Right? And we conducted some studies a little while back and we found out from our employees that they were spending an average of two to three hours per day working on email. Now we go to meetings and you talk to people and the thing that they tell you is that they spend the whole day in meetings. You know, we go from like six, seven, eight. I mean, I have got colleagues who do like 10, 11 conference calls every day. And then they have to do their work. Right? Now when I talk to them and I say “Do you really need to be on all of those meetings”? They say no. And I say “So why are you there?”; and they “Because if I don’t, people will think that I’m not working!”.

The corporate world seems to have this very sick, this very crazy sickness of managing work through meetings, and it shouldn’t. Meetings should be used just for reaching our conclusions and confirm decisions that have been taken before through collaborating online. And one of the things that we keep saying is how more and more employees, they get a higher number of different calls. Especially for one other reason, they are working in multiple projects. Before, you know, 10 years ago, we all used to work on a same single project. One team, one project, one meeting, that’s it. Now we end up that we have to work with four or five different projects, four or five different teams, multiple sub teams. Multiple calls, sub calls, etc, etc. So before you know it, you have the whole day scheduled up with meetings. If we find a way to break out that dependence and addiction to meetings in the work place, it will probably be the biggest productivity gain that we ever had.

Roberto: How many tools do you use in your daily work in order to reduce mail overload?

Luis: Right. There are a number of different tools that I use, and actually I combine them in two groups. I use internal collaboration tools and social software tools, and external collaboration tools. Internally I mainly use and rely on one of our own products, which is called IBM Connections. Which allow us to combine a whole set of differing interactions. So it’s a product that combines multiple services. So in Connections, I can interact through blogs, through wikis, through social bookmarks, with peoples’ profiles, through microblogging, through activities. And all of that in the same single front end. Right? So that’s the tool that I rely the most on escaping that email overload. I rely heavily as well on instant messaging, for a single reason, web presence. Just knowing that I have colleagues that I can reach out for a quick question and get an answer is a huge productivity boost. Because it allows me to understand whether that person is available and whether they can help me. And if they cannot help me, when I can have their help. So the combination of instant messaging, Connections, and then virtual meeting software like LotusLive Meetings. So that I can conduct real time collaboration happening with groups. Those are the three major tools that I use internally.

Externally, there’s a little bit of a split up in two. They are the social software tools that I use with customers which are based as well on Connections outside of the firewall. So we do have a couple of Connections instances there. And then regular social software tools that I use to keep in touch with other industry leaders, with customers, with business partners, with our competitors. And the main tools that I use from that particular case is my blog, obviously. I blog there on a regular basis. Twitter, I rely on Twitter tremendously. Along with my blog it’s probably my favorite social networking tool out there. And LinkedIn. LinkedIn to build up relationships and in the long term, with customers especially. SlideShare as well to share presentations, and so forth.

Roberto: Each tool is an opportunity to keep in touch with customers, colleagues and partners and so on.

Luis: Yes, and I’m glad that you’re making that comment. Because most people feel, you know, “How is that going to make it easier for you to move from one tool which was email to multiple tools to manage those interactions?” And I say “Well, the way it’s helping me now is that I’m fragmenting the interactions and diversifying the interactions.” So I know that if I need to go and get in touch with one particular customer, I know exactly where to go. And I know exactly where to find him or her and interact. If I’m going to go ahead and share interesting links or presentations or whatever, I know exactly where to go as well. So what I’m doing there is I’m diversifying the way I interact with things. And that helps overall in my perception of how I interact with multiple different groups.

Roberto: When do you foresee to arrive to zero emails?

Luis: I don’t think that I will ever be. I started this experiment four years ago and I started with 30-40 emails a day. The average that I’m doing is 17 per week. And of those 17, most of those are from people who either haven’t heard of me or don’t know that I don’t use email. And they use their preferred method of engagement which is email. The key message for me is that I don’t respond back to email. I basically use social software tools to engage back. So I teach them what are better ways of reaching out to me. Right? So will I ever reach zero? Probably not on a consistent basis. But for instance in the last two years, there have been weeks where I didn’t get any emails.

When I first started doing it, I was very frustrated I could never see the end, number zero. Right? Then over time, through experience, through getting to know the dynamics and everything else you realize that you’re never going to go out and reach zero.

What happens to me, the biggest learning has been that I have gone from two, three hours a day of email to five minutes a day. And that’s a huge productivity gain for me because those two hours and 55 minutes I’m spending now out in the open. Sharing content, helping people out, sharing my knowledge and expertise with other people in the industry as well. So they all benefit from it…

Roberto: Thank you for all your time, your availability, your courtesy.

Luis: My pleasure. Thanks for your time. Thanks very much.

Roberto: See you in Milan, next June at the Social Business Forum.

Luis: That’s right. Excellent. In Milan next June. Yeah.


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