The Value Of A Digital Water Cooler
By Bob Shear, CEO, Greystone Solutions
I was speaking with a client the other day who leads a rapidly growing company here in Boston. She noted how difficult it is, in today’s fast-paced business world, to keep everyone in synch with the many things happening at her company. I smiled when she said: “this was all so much easier when we had a water cooler.”
Some younger professionals may not know about how important the water cooler used to be in business. When we went to the water cooler, it was a chance to clear our minds, exchange ideas, ask questions and just share some time and space with our co-workers.
I remember thrashing out some great ideas around that water cooler. There were conversations that challenged and inspired me. The water cooler created a sense of community and sharing. But those days are over. Those water cooler moments have nearly disappeared.
I believe the need for company cohesion is even more important now than it was then. Knowledge workers today have more demands and distractions on their time than ever before, not to mention more geographic separation. How can company leaders increase that sense of belonging to a great team so they inspire great performance?
A big part of the answer just might be a digital water cooler. I’d like to share some insights to help you build a great digital water cooler that inspires company cohesion and unites your teams.
From The Streets Of Boston
I work in a pleasant office building in Boston’s financial district. As chance would have it, looking out the window, I can see the building where I located the first company I founded in 1976. And when I look out the window, sometimes it feels like I haven’t come very far in my career. In 40 years I’ve only moved two blocks.
When I think back about all of the companies I’ve been privileged to serve over the years, I can’t help but think about how much business has changed. Before the information age, “white-collar workers” had to travel to the office to get their work done. That’s where they read their mail, dictated and edited drafts of letters, requested files from the “records department” and where they answered their phone.
Today, we can do in a a few minutes (or sometimes a few seconds) what took hours or days to do back then. And we can usually do it from anywhere. It’s pretty amazing.
But there’s one thing that I miss. It seems to me that we had better team spirit in those days. We knew who was working on what and how they felt about it. We ate lunch together. The physical presence helped to keep us on track and motivated.
There was a break room. In the break room there was a water cooler and a bulletin board. The bulletin board had postings ranging from picnic invitations to used cars for sale. The moments at the water cooler allowed us to catch up with colleagues and read about activities that our fellow employees were engaging in. It was a nice feeling.
While I don’t want to go back to the days of paper, pencil and typewriter, it seems to me that a lot of organizations in this high-velocity, always-on world, can recapture some of that team cohesion that we nurtured around the water cooler.
What Is A Digital Water Cooler?
Put in simple terms, a digital water cooler is a private company portal that only your employees access. It is something we used to call an intranet. Now I know what you might be thinking. You might say – we already have a company portal. Okay. Let’s explore this a little bit.
Does your company portal create cohesion? Does it create a feeling of belonging? Does it unite your entire organization around a digital space that people love to spend time in, much the way certain people love to spend time on social media sites like Facebook? Does it allow people to share with fellow employees the things they are working on?
Does your company portal create a feeling of being inside the inner circle? Is your company portal more than just a repository of documents? Is it the very digital heartbeat of your organization?
If your company portal does not function in this way, I submit that you are missing a huge opportunity. And here is the good news. You probably already own the technology that is required to make a great company portal: SharePoint.
Who Needs A Company Portal?
The New England area is fortunate to have a thriving business community. We have both fast-growing companies and headquarters or primary bases of operation for many sizable, sometimes global, companies. That’s the good news.
The challenging part of this is that both fast-growing companies and globally or regionally distributed companies often find it difficult to maintain a feeling of cohesion.
Fast-growing companies in particular need to keep rapidly growing teams in sync. This is critical to maintaining a healthy company culture and to keeping people aligned as the business grows.
Companies with globally or regionally distributed teams almost never get everyone together in the same physical space. What’s more, with teams working in differing global time zones, it is often difficult to get people together at the same time online and in phone meetings.
A company portal can create company cohesion in all of these situations because it allows people to engage on their schedule, in any time zone and from nearly any device. But this is not as simple as building a SharePoint portal and then sending an email to everyone in the company about it. If only it were that easy.
But having worked with several companies in New England to build their company portals, we have learned some lessons about what to do and what not to do. To help you get the most out of your company portal, I’d like to share some things we’ve learned.
A Tale of Two Portals
Let me tell you a true story about two companies that recently took up the challenge and implemented portals. Let’s call them Company 1 and Company 2.
They both built SharePoint portals. The portals are both up and in production. The home page of each has company news, search and links to frequently used information. They both have a message from the executive on the home page.
At Company 2, most of the employees start and end their day on the home page of the portal. When there is a special event or project, everyone knows that it ought to be put on the portal and everyone knows to look for it there.
There is a steady stream of requests for additional ways to collaborate and share information. This has led to an exponential growth in value of the portal to the employees at Company 2. They love their portal.
At Company 1, there was a very different adoption path. At first, people begrudgingly used the portal because it had some information that they needed. The amount of useful information added to the portal was low. The IT function had to force the portal on the employees.
For example, to increase adoption, the IT team forced the portal home page to automatically open when staff launched their browser. You can imagine how much this improved attitudes toward the portal! While Company 1’s portal is well used, it was a slow and painful process.
The companies are more or less the same size. Both have adequate financial resources and access to technology. Both have employees who work hard and are proud of the companies. So why is Company 2’s portal so much more successful than Company 1’s portal?
How The Two Portals Were Built
At Company 2, the CIO started by identifying three departments to work on a first release. The first release was to be small enough to produce a working product quickly, in 60 to 90 days. But it also needed to be broad enough to have a positive impact on a wide swath of the employee population.
The departments were strategically selected. They had the energy and enthusiasm to help shape the first release of the portal. They worked directly with the portal development team to shape content and and design that could make a real difference.
At Company 1, the CIO set up a team of two analysts from his department. This team interviewed the users, came back into the IT department and brainstormed the solution. The IT department then went to a visual design form which mocked up what the pages would look like. These were then given to the development team who built and launched the portal.
So what can we learn from these two different approaches to development and their outcomes?
Strategies for Success
Here are they key lessons we’ve learned about how to build a portal that creates company cohesion, rather than a portal that you have to force on your employees.
- Set goals that are appropriate for your corporate culture. The more clear you are about the goals you want to achieve, the more likely you are to build a plan and a portal to achieve those goals.
- Understand your users’ needs and capabilities. The more your portal delivers information and content that is useful and appreciated by your users, your employees, the more they will use it. Consider developing a portal user community to help guide the development of the portal.
- Identify your organization’s strengths and weaknesses. Play to your strengths. Accept your weaknesses. For example, some companies have great writers who could contribute to a portal. Some have great designers. Other companies have good project managers who can help keep the portal updated and vibrant.
- Use templates and examples for inspiration, but do not copy them. They were designed for someone else’s strengths and weaknesses. They may not work for you.
- Create the most powerful and effective home page possible. Consider these options:
- Include social and interactive elements along with access to needed business information.
- Surface hard data specifically directed to the individual user. I’ll talk about this more in a future article.
- Only build what you can commit to sustaining. Nothing looks worse than a news feed that starts with a 14-month old article.
- Measure. Evaluate. Improve. Remember, this is a journey, not a destination. If you commit to improving your portal based on hard data, like user sessions, time-on-page and the like, you increase odds of success.
Company 2 exhibited confidence in their users and engaged them deeply in the process. They were patient and allowed adoption to evolve. They were handsomely rewarded with a portal that is delivering real value to their company.
Company 1 skipped some steps and had a technical success, but less of a business success than they should have had. But that doesn’t mean that all is lost. In my next article, I’ll share with you my ideas for turning around an underperforming portal.
About the author
Bob Shear is the founder of Greystone Solutions, a technology consulting firm located in Boston, MA that serves clients through out the greater New England area. Greystone Solutions empowers New England companies to realize all of the benefits of great technology while reducing the risks inherent to technology systems.