David Smith

Navigating the archipelago of collaboration

26 Oct 2020   |   Collaboration Technology

David Smith

Navigating the archipelago of collaboration

26 Oct 2020   |   Collaboration Technology

To say that collaboration is dispersed is a huge understatement. It’s blown to pieces and sitting everywhere.

David Smith calls this the archipelago of collaboration, a collection of small little islands. Even if you could connect them all with efficient bridges and highways, is that really the best way to collaborate?

David has been an analyst in the industry for a long time and knows the issues deeply. When looking at the big arc of collaboration at work, David feels like we are in the part of the play when the audience takes over. Shadow IT is more rampant in collaboration than in any other field. There are endless solutions out there, and each one has a unique position.

Adding context to collaboration

Often the biggest challenge for teams is just figuring out what everyone is talking about. You have one place where your text conversations happen. But that’s not the same place where you manage the project. And you might need to switch to a video call on a different platform. After you fix the issue, you write up some notes and post it somewhere else.

One app to replace them all?

David says the best-of-breed vs. single platform argument doesn’t have a simple solution. He says you have to start with finding the right solution for the problem. But the tool you use needs to fit well within your larger integration plan.

Listening to more voices

David says, “Promote voices who are not always loud, seeking out input from people across teams, diversity of thought, multicultural thought, and so forth. It’s creating an environment in a culture where people feel that they can contribute, and that they can be collaborative.”

A collaboration metric

Is there a way that organizations can use a metric to judge the quality of their conversations?

David says most of it relies on getting the pulse of the team which includes an employee engagement score. Whether or not you hit your goals is also a good indicator. Frequent testing for pulse is essential.


More from David




“The nature of email was great, it just got abused.”

“If the culture is not collaborative, tools aren’t going to make it.”

“Where you find dysfunctional teams, you’ll find dysfunctional relationships with customers.”


Today, our guest is David Smith. He is the founder and principal of InFlow Analysis. Hi, David. How you doing today?


Hey, I’m doing great.



It’s great to have you on the show. You were part of our big digital workplace day celebration. We were happy to have you on there. And so we wanted to bring you on the show to introduce you more to guests and other people that are out there listening to the show. So tell us a bit about who you are and what your background is.


As you mentioned, I’m David Smith. My background, I started my career actually at Gartner covering, of all things, email. Yes, imagine that, your Lotus Notes even at one point, dated myself a little bit. And then ventured into covering broader collaboration topics such as collaboration, communications, UC, venturing into UCC, and then the Epiphany for me while at Gartner was I would go on these business strategy calls or business strategy days with different clients, and vendors and so forth. And in the room would always be lines of business folks, marketing people. And while I could geek out on the technology, their issues weren’t about technology, per se, but how it enabled them to get the jobs done. And so I began to venture more into, okay, what’s the application then of technology into specific business process? Whether that be sales, marketing, HR, or what have you, how can technology be brought to bear, collaboration, communication be brought to bear to help people get the jobs done, and to help them work better as teams?



So let’s walk back. We’re not going to drop the email conversation too quickly. So tell me now, when we’re talking in 2020, what’s your take on email? Is it something that companies, is there very specific use case they should just use it for? Or is it still used as widely as it should be? Or too widely? What’s your take?


I think email was made too much of a thing. It was made too much of a thing when people started bashing it. But I think it’s just asynchronous messaging. It got abused, right? Because when people started adding things like attachment, trying to transfer content, so forth, it got abused. But the simple form of email in terms of asynchronous messaging is great. It’s what we have now in some of our chat solutions. It’s asynchronous messaging. And so that part is good. I think it’s how do you begin to bring that type of messaging into context? And so how do you make it contextual, for the most part? I think email does get a bad rap. But the nature of it was good. It just got abused.



Yeah, it’s almost like it became too feature rich, there were too many things you could do with it.


Exactly. But the lesson from email, and which is what I think collaboration vendors have to learn today is that I can email anyone, no matter what system you’re on. And so the longstanding issue with collaboration has always been interoperability. And I think email figured it out. Email figured out interoperability, and we’re still working towards that.



Do you think that’s where like, let’s just take Slack, for example, we can pick on them for a while, is that where you think there’s an option for them to move to make it to where you could really send a Slack message to anyone?


Yeah, exactly. I think the problem is, I call it this archipelago of different collaborations, but these islands of collaboration, and never the twain shall meet. So, the idea and the promise was that with the cloud, we could democratize them and have interoperability, but that never materialized. So you have vendors, people like NextPlane, people like Mio, who are trying to serve as a bridging service to bridge these disconnected islands together. And so there’s some hope there, but when you have proprietary vendors who are just providing their own platform and ecosystem, it does become difficult. So we have to depend on these third party bridging services like NextPlane and Mio to bridge the gap a little bit, but yeah, that’s still something that we need to solve interoperability. And then adjacent to that is the whole area of integration. Because if you want to have contextual collaboration where those particular tools can then integrate into your business processes, whether that be your CRM, your application, your back office stuff, or whatever, your HR system, that’s going to be key. So back in the day, that was hard. We didn’t have like a collaborative system and then you have your on premises SAP system, those never the twain shall meet. So we are seeing some promise now with cloud based systems back in easier interoperate.



As someone who’s been in this world for a long time, like I said, we’re in 2020 right now. Where do you feel like we are in terms of, if the story of collaboration at work were like a three act play, where are we right now? Like, did we just finish act one? Are we moving into the final act? Or what kind of metaphor can you give us to help us think about where we’ve come since this digital age started with email or pre courses to that?


I think we are in the act where the audience is not a part of the actual show, because what’s happened? We have 2020 threw a monkey wrench, right? So you have actors are on stage, they’re going through their thing, and then they’re throwing a monkey wrench from the audience. They’re hecklers right now. And what’s happened is that what we thought was collaboration, what we thought was, we’ve decided on Microsoft Teams, we’ve decided on WebEx teams from Cisco, we decided on Google, G Suite, and so forth. All those things were top down decisions, and what we’re seeing, especially with cloud and the whole concept of consumerization of IT or shadow IT, or what have you, is that people want to use what they want to use to help get the jobs done. You look at Slack, you had a marketing team and advancing this putting on an event and they had to talk with a bunch of different people in that event ecosystem, and their internal collaborate systems didn’t work. So they went to Slack. And so we saw that was the out of the norm that the people that were not a part of the play, so to speak, we thought weren’t part of the play were actually part of the play, because one of the things that happened with enterprise collaboration, we focus so much on internal collaboration that we forgot when the most important parts of collaboration is external, because that ecosystem goes beyond the four walls of the organization. So I think that’s where we are now where teams are expanding, because your internal team may be collaborating with external teams, that’s a part of that team that’s bringing value to the organization. So how do you prioritize that collaboration interaction as well?



You’ve used the term often called contextual collaboration. Why don’t you go deeper into that for people who aren’t as familiar with it?


Yes, sure. Contextual collaboration is that every business process within an organization is made up of different interactions, different collaborative interactions. Some are asynchronous, some are real time. And so I’ve always said that companies need to look at collaboration technology from the perspective of solutions, where it’s not just about getting a chat solution or Slack or WebEx Teams or Microsoft Teams or Google Hangouts or Google Meet. It’s actually looking at the overall ecosystem, the overall solution. What are you trying to do? So look at it from a solution perspective, like you need a recruiting solution. What does that entail? You need a team collaboration? What does that actually entail? And that may entail that every specific piece of that solution may be different technology. It may be from different vendors, but they all have to work together contextually. And they all have to support the content that’s going to be created via those interactions. And also being shared within those interactions as well, too. So the contextual piece of it has to be like every piece, every interaction, every people within that interaction, every piece of content that’s shared or created, has to be intertwined and embedded within that interaction as well, too.



So where do you fall on a best of breed versus a one stop solution platform that you can build everything off of?


From the perspective of the organization, they need to look at solutions. Now that solution may include some best of breed and some sweep because not every vendor does everything. And so the fallacy is that you have to settle on one vendor, not so. The only thing that you need to do is make sure that you have an internal framework infrastructure that’s focused on solutions, but it’s also focused on interoperability and integration. And so only invest in vendors that can be brought into bear and played nicely with everything else you have. So, when you’re valuating vendors, check out their API game, their integration game. If they can’t fit in with what you’re doing, then you have to look away to someone else. So solution mindset, and only invest in technology that can actually plug and play and help you as for your business process and your people.



We wanted to really focus this discussion on collaboration in teams, because a lot of times, like you said, we can think of collaboration as, hey, that’s technology. It’s software we’re talking about, but really, we’re talking about people and how they interact together. So where do you see the biggest struggles right now that actual human beings are having on teams when they’re trying to collaborate? Where should the focus be of a leader, a CEO who’s trying to give their teams the best tools what should they be focused on?


Yeah, I think at the heart of it is that culture of collaboration, because if the culture is not collaborative, tools aren’t going to make it that way. There has to be this sponsorship from senior management, of course, but also a grassroots trust and nature to collaborate. So I think incentives for collaborating, incentives for teamwork is going to be great and it’s going to be key. And also to promote voices who are not always loud, seeking out input from people across teams, diversity of thought, multicultural thought, and so forth. It’s creating an environment in a culture where people feel that they can contribute, and that they can be collaborative. That’s at the heart, and that goes into behavior, and some other stuff that’s, as you were alluding to, beyond just the technology stuff. It’s you have to focus on the people.



When you look at a team or when you’re interacting with people, what’s a telltale sign that these people or this team has some collaboration issues that go deeper than practices and rules, than tools. It’s a culture thing. How do you know if your team’s a little bit dysfunctional in this way?


Oh, my god, it goes back to grade school, middle school, and high school, the cliques and silos, right? When you start seeing those and people not want you to eat at the cool folks lunch table, right? It’s those interpersonal, those issues where people are siloing, where goals and objectives aren’t aligned, and if goals and objectives aren’t aligned, then we’re not all on the same page. And usually, at the heart of that is trust issues, because you won’t collaborate with someone that you don’t trust, you won’t meaningfully collaborate if you don’t trust them. So, again, that’s where that culture piece comes in and how do you create the culture where people are willing to share for the common goal. And so that goes to focusing on employee experience, engagement, how is the employee experiencing the workplace, right? It’s not just about your experience. It’s the same thing with customer experience. A lot of companies, we’re focused on customer experience, but they’re talking about their experience, not about the customer’s experience. And so the same thing with employee experience. And what I found is that internal people’s experience reflect the customer’s experience. And so they both go hand in hand. So dysfunctional teams, you’ll find dysfunctional customers or dysfunctional relationships with customers.



Yeah, absolutely. I think a lot of the tools out there almost, when you’re able just to create a private group, a quick chat group or something like that, with everyone else that can promote a lot of bonding, can promote a lot of feeling like you belong in a certain place, but it can also come at the exclusion of other people on the team. So how can people do that in a good way? You talk about employee experience, but of course, it’s employee experiences, like everyone’s got a unique thing that they got to deal with. So how can you be both open and create a sense of, hey, this is our team, we’re tight, we’re together. What’s a good balance for that?


It’s how do you make it comfortable for everyone to feel that they can contribute and that they’re welcome to contribute. And that goes at the heart of what we’re dealing with a lot of issues today. We’ve been hit with a couple of different pandemics. There’s the COVID pandemic, and then there’s the whole racial inequities and social justice pandemic that we’re hit with. It’s not that they weren’t there before, it is just now being exposed with people being at disadvantage with healthcare with COVID and just overall in their communities. Gosh, I remember talking to people just at the beginning of the pandemic who were so ashamed of their work environment now that they have to work from home, and they didn’t want to get on video, because they didn’t think they had a professional environment, the dogs are barking, the kids. And it’s like, my initial reaction was like, it’s okay, this is life. The dog’s going to bark, the kids are going to cry or be loud. This is life. And I think there was this universal consensus that it’s all right, it’s okay if you don’t have this super TV studio background for your Zoom call or whatever, it’s okay. And I think it’s that how do you, as an organization, make people feel that it’s okay, and make them feel that their voice matters, that their experience from their diverse multicultural background, ethnic, whatever, it matters. How does that black woman feel that her voice matters? How does the black guy feel that his voice matters? And the Asian person? And so it’s looking at your overall work environment, your culture and realize that there are these differences of thought, diversity of backgrounds, and they’re all valuable because if brought to the table in a coherent collaborative way, they’re going to enhance the company. And so I think companies are starting to look at that and kind of see that more, but I want us to move beyond just the Black Lives Matter statements, the racial justice statements, and actually put the stuff into practice and in action. And that’s what I see. We went from talking about and putting up these statements on Twitter and LinkedIn and so forth. And now I want to see those like step by step guidelines where they’re actually going to be really committed to it in practice. How do you begin to fix that? I saw one stat or some infographic or something that someone’s like, yeah, we’re going to have equal pay with women, I’m forgetting, like 10 years. I mean, just it’s like, what’s the immediate urgency?



Yeah, I know, a lot of times these discussions, we look at large institutions, large enterprises that are putting up banners about this, but what about a small company, 100 people that are there, they have people of diversity that they’ve brought in and that are key to the success of the company, they’re in essential roles that are there. What kind of infrastructure needs to be in place from a collaboration viewpoint, especially if it’s a digital environment. Let’s say it’s a totally distributed team where no one’s going to come up and tap you on the shoulder and say, hey, can I talk to you about this for a second? What are the ways that leaders can make sure that their companies are open environments where it’s okay to voice those concerns, and leaders know that they’re going to get the honest feedback that they need in those situations?


Yeah, I think for a lot of companies, they’re just not good at it. One of the things that’s been exposed is that you’re not good at this. So I think a lot of companies will need external help, to really sit down and be like, okay, I don’t know what to do. Because, again, we’ve gone years and decades of the same thing. So I don’t expect you to be, overnight, we’re going to fix this. No, you have to begin to understand people’s background, understand bias, implicit bias, unconscious bias that’s prevalent within every company and every organization, small teams to large teams, small organizations to larger ones. How do you begin to now offer some training where it’s not just about learning some five step program. It’s understanding people. So I think the understanding piece is going to be key and so there needs to be a series of training in every organization to begin to understand the different members of the organization and their backgrounds, understanding your bias and unconscious bias, implicit bias, and how that’s impacting how you work, and how you hire, how you pay, and what have you, if that makes sense?



Yeah, absolutely. What’s your view on transparency? Working in public, like putting as much information out there as possible for people to see who are part of that. One, everyone agrees to that to some extent, but how far would you take that with a company that wants to move forward, how much should they be sharing about, hey, here’s all of our strategy discussions, here’s all of our spreadsheets that you have access to. Where should that be in terms of accessibility to all the employees?


Yeah, that’s a great question. It’s a conversation that I’ve just started to have with some HR leaders and businesses leaders, because it’s like, we say we’re going to do this, we’re going to be more open, and we’re going to include a bias training, and all this stuff, but how do you begin to show some accountability? What’s your measurable outcomes? How do you measure success? What does success actually look like? And I think, to your point, and what you learn to, that needs to be shared, I think the success, the progress needs to be shared. What’s last year’s numbers in terms of pay equality versus this, right? It’s how do you show forth, not just the statements, but let’s measure the outcomes and make it a KPI.



No, it’s great. I think this is definitely good advice on where we should go in the future, how we can get there. Let’s zoom out again, and just look at teams that are there. When it comes to collaborating, especially if they’re not in the same location, what is the kind of metric that you feel like is good for teams to judge how good their communication is? Like, we don’t really have a good standard metric to say, hey, we all get a 10 out of 10 on this. What are some of the ways you would suggest people say, yeah, if you’re doing these things, you’re good. Otherwise, maybe you’re going to get a lower score on these. What are those metrics you would rely on?


Yeah, again, I think it goes back to what are the objectives, the goals that we’re collaborating on, and then it gets back to my last point as well, too, about KPIs and measuring, because if you have aligned objectives, success will be the completion, and the success of those objectives and those have to be measured. Those are measured outcomes. Whatever the initiative is, the team initiative is, those things have to be met. So success is going to be, we accomplished this, but we accomplished it with everyone’s input. Everyone’s contributing, and this is the end result. And then those results have to be weighed against. How did that impact the actual organization, as a culture, how did it impact customers as well, too, directly or indirectly. And so that’s how you begin to measure that stuff. And obviously, it’s frequent testing for pulse, frequent testing for pulse, because a lot of times people are involved in initiatives and they’re not happy about it. So how do you test for how employees are experiencing being on the team? Are they being heard? So while you’re in an initiative, or some collaborative interaction process, keep testing for if people are feeling valued, is their input valued, are they contributing, and so forth. So as you’re going through the initiative, test for that, but also, at the end result, test for the success, if that goal or initiative has achieved its intended purpose.



David, I’m just dreaming here and imagining so you tell me if this is even realistic, but I’m wondering if there’d be a way to even put together some kind of analysis on a team’s collaboration. So you could analyze what percentage or what the volume of communication is? How many messages they’re trading back and forth? What’s the difference in media? What’s the blend of textual versus audio versus video that’s there? What’s the share of voice? Who’s talking the most? Who’s talking the least? Do you see a world coming soon where we can have those kind of analytics at our fingertips, and we can say, hey, this is what’s a healthy range for a team and you’re off to the side and some things you can work on?


Yeah, I think we’re starting to see some of that now where we can begin to look at, I mean, just from a tech standpoint, you can look at traffic and medium and so forth. But I think more so than just that, per se, it’s how you take that, and then follow the effects. One of the things that people always, even back from my Gartner days, one of the questions you always get is how do you measure the success and productivity? It’s hard with collaboration and when it’s more team based stuff, because you can’t just say that’s it. For something like real time collaboration, like meetings, Zoom call, yes, I can say I didn’t travel to X, Y, and Z, but did virtual, so that saved us, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah. That’s easy. But when it gets to some of the more people issues and team interaction with people, that harder, softer goals, it’s following the effects of those collaboration, and again, it gets back to what were the intended purposes, goals, objectives, and were those met and how do you measure us meeting those goals?



Yeah. And I feel like it’s a tricky thing to do. Even at the end, if you’re evaluating a project, and you did or did not meet the objectives, how many times did people come back and say, well, we didn’t meet it because we didn’t collaborate well?


Yeah. Yeah, exactly.



This has been a fascinating discussion. I loved jumping into this. How would you like to leave people in terms of, if everyone could take one giant step forward in their collaboration mindset, in their teams, what would you encourage them to do today?


Do one self assessment of yourself. I spoke with an HR leader the other day, and in their company, well known company, won’t say the name, but they had bias training for managers, and been going on all day, around three o’clock that day, and one of the last session, this manager comes to my friend and was, like I just don’t see color, like, I don’t see color. And I’m like, were you in the training all day? The whole point of the training was that it’s…


He was honestly saying that he’s colorblind, and he’s honestly saying that.


Exactly, dog whistle. But it’s doing the honest assessment of yourself and realizing that we can all learn to be better, we can all learn from each other. And I think that will help collaboration when you realize that what someone has to say is important. I gave a talk recently, talking about my own experience as a black American guy, and being in meetings sometimes when I was more of a junior analyst, and I’d make a comment or a suggestion and make a point. And it just gets looked over. No one pays attention. Then Brad or Todd makes the same point. Oh, great idea, Brad. Great idea, Todd. I’m just like, I just said that. And the amount of woman that came up to me after that talk was like, oh, my God, that’s such a thing that happens to us all the time. But again, it’s valuing people, valuing their input, that will make collaboration a lot more easy and fun, because when you value people and their input, you’re going to want to talk and you’re going to want to share with them and then together build something and have more successful outcomes.



That’s really encouraging. I feel like from a leadership perspective, if you don’t have a way to listen to the diverse voices on your team, even on something as in your face right now and very prevalent as race, then what else are you missing? If you can’t even hear people out on those topics, then you got deep problems and they’re probably affecting so many other parts of your business, too.


Absolutely. It’s all connected. It’s all interconnected.



David, tell us where people can go to learn more about you, your work.


Yeah, so inflowanalysis.com, and funny, in that name, that’s my website, but it’s my long running mantra that technology has to come in flow or into the flow for people actually were to give any benefit.



Great. Well, thanks for coming on. Thanks for being a part of our community being on our show and the events we’re doing we really appreciate you and look forward to learning more from you in the future.


Awesome. Thanks for having me. This has been fun.


David Smith is a Gartner veteran of over 16 years, and an IT industry professional with 20 years of experience in the collaboration and workplace technology markets, having helped thousands of enterprises with their collaboration and workplace strategies. David’s career spans from being a senior analyst at Gartner to Research Director and Lead Analyst at Aragon Research.

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