Use Cases: The enemy of collaboration?

Today’s modern workplace offers a plethora of collaboration tools, as we shift away from face-to-face interactions and increasingly towards digital connections. But making these work has always been complicated by:

  • Too many tools to choose from
  • Choosing between social or document-based collaboration
  • Having overlapping collaboration functionality within suites such as Office 365   
  • Low collaboration maturity in organisations to begin with

When deploying collaboration tools or determining the best way to use existing ones, we often draw upon standard IT project management practice and develop use cases for them. A well-worn route for connecting tools to users, for giving those tools a business goal, a purpose.

And that’s great, we always need a clear goal. And here is where we encounter the problem with use cases and collaboration: forced to try and reconcile two very different types of goal.

1. Tool biased goals

Use cases are biased towards the tool. They represent transactional needs and are viewed from the perspective of the tool and not of the user. We can refer to these as functional use cases, based on the function of the tool. But isn’t this just putting the cart before the horse?

We are unwittingly pre-determining how people should use the tools based on what the tools say they can do, and of course tools speak in a very different, very functional language. For example:

  • To share files with anyone in the organisation
  • To work on files at any location

bot-not-userMakes sense, but if we are after collaboration, this simply isn’t good enough. We have to ask ‘why’ to these questions. Why do we need to share documents? Why do we need to work on them at any location?

What are our ‘users’ doing? In fact, they are not users, they are people. They might not even need documents at all. The problem is we look at everything as an incremental solution. We used Excel to capture project data, so therefore we should continue to use Excel, only now we should do it in the cloud! That way we can work on the one file, anywhere! Is this a better way of managing a document? Possibly. Is it a force for collaboration? No.

It doesn’t ask any of the deeper, more fundamental questions we need to ask. Why are we capturing data? Who do we need to share it with? What happens at the end? For a moment, let’s forget we ever had an Excel file, forget how we’ve historically worked, and start again. If we actually mapped out people’s interactions based on answers to those questions, we’d have an entirely different use case.

Collaboration as a goal

Another approach would see us having collaboration as a goal in its own right. However noble this is, it still won’t help. Collaboration is never an end goal in itself, it’s a means of achieving an end. Basing a use case purely around what we think collaboration is (or would like it to be) will still drive us towards incremental changes, such as:

  • To have multiple authorship at one time on a file
  • To target content to selected groups
  • To be able to comment on anything at any time just because we can

Again, we have to look a little deeper and understand why we are collaborating. What are we collaborating for? What is the end result for the customer? More important than trying to roll out the broadest, smartest tools that allow us to collaborate better is trying to understand how as people we collaborate. What will motivate us, what will stop us. Where is the link to business outcomes?

What about user stories?

User stories at least acknowledge the perspective of the end-user. However, we still constrain our thinking by the capabilities of the tool and what we expect of it rather than what the problem is that we are actually trying to solve. For example: “As a remote site worker I need to be able to access data logged by the previous shift to identify my tasks”. All sounds reasonable, but all we do is find ways to connect the user with the previous shift’s data. We’re not looking into the actual process of collaboration: who are these people, why do they need to access their data and what does this data tell them? It may be that we’re actually trying to facilitate a conversation between two shifts, but instead only capture data because that’s what we’ve always done.

Use cases and user stories both still drive us to look at previous habits, building on functional capability rather than looking for real opportunities to collaborate based on deeper, fundamental business needs.

It’s about the people

Collaboration is never going to be built on a set of use cases and user stories which too often allow the tools to be the driver of the outcomes. It’s a people thing. It’s what we do when we need to work together to solve a problem or create new solutions and fresh thinking. Understanding what our people are doing, and who they need to collaborate with to improve our work is where we should start. I have absolutely nothing against collaboration tools, in fact they are capable of awesome things when properly used. But we need to challenge our assumptions on why we are using them, on why we are using documents as our vehicle and not conversations, on why we are collaborating in the first place.

A great way to start is to imagine you don’t have any IT tools – to forget about how we’ve historically done things. All we have instead are some people, a place of work, some roles and some customers. Then apply the same projects. What can we do to exceed our clients’ expectations? What can we do to do things better than last time? How would we work? Who do we need to work with? Answering these questions will give us the real use cases we need for our collaboration tools.

Flattening hierarchies, creating more visibility to our work are what collaboration tools are capable of. The question is, how can we leverage this in our own unique situations, what will it achieve and what do we need to do to engage our people in this? If we jump to this more openly communicative world, we need to understand what it means to the way we work, and crucially how we feel.

What if our use cases addressed emotions rather than functions? “I feel confident to highlight a failure on our enterprise social tool”. Now we can actually start to address some of the issues that hold us up truly collaborating.

What’s the Point of Your Digital Investment?

Congratulations on your investment in the digital workplace. It’s how we do business. Big hitters like Office 365 and Workplace by Facebook, numerous cloud-based collaboration and networking tools. These are now largely the norm for medium and large businesses. But before we get too excited about all this new technology, let’s first ask ourselves a fundamental question: what are we deploying these tools for?

Robot IQ Cartoon

Are we really procuring something as powerful as Office 365 just to create and store documents? Common reasons for deploying digital tools include ‘to be able to work anywhere’, ‘to connect with my colleagues’ and ‘to find the resources I need to do my job’. And is that really the point? To do our jobs? After all, we’ve always needed tools to perform jobs, from crude wooden implements through industrial machinery to the latest in artificial intelligence. These are all tools, yet they all need a purpose. What is the job we need to do with them?

Shovels and pick axes weren’t procured solely to dig holes for the sake of it. They were used to extract minerals, to build railway lines, to plant orchards. And email wasn’t introduced to replace conversations, it was actually intended to leave messages for colleagues to retrieve when they arrived at work.

So why do we see lavish roll-out of digital tools rolled out without a clear purpose beyond a task? When we say we need to find colleagues, we need to ask why do we need to find colleagues? what’s the necessity that makes us want to talk to people outside of our office?

Digital workplace confusion

It’s actually very simple to see why we struggle to find a clear purpose for our digital tools, as the graphic below shows. We try and band everything together as the digital workplace yet our expectations of it change pretty much annually. It’s actually rather unhelpful to try and group all of these disparate things together.

Expectations of digital working

An example of confused purpose is enterprise social platforms commonly being used as communications tools, to disseminate top-down messages. Sure, they are more than capable of doing it but is that the reason they exist? Is that why we should be on there every day? To see our CEO proudly talking about some shareholders we have no connection with?

Communications, networking, finding content, working on documents collaboratively. These are all ‘what’s’. These are what we do to do a job. And with so many ‘what’s’ in play, it’s increasingly difficult to focus on the needs of our workforce and our customers. So let’s dig a little deeper and see what digital tools can really do by thinking beyond the ‘what’. By thinking about the true capability – the ‘why’. Why do we really need these potentially powerful tools? Here are some suggestions that provide a higher purpose.

Empowering the workforce

‘We need these tools to give our workforce a voice.’ Not an occasional opportunity via surveys, but a voice across everything that we do to improve everything that we do. Typically new projects look backwards, following convention, experience and ‘best practice’. Fine. But if we want to change, to raise the bar, we need fresh input, new ideas, candid learnings. Consider digital tools as empowering tools: throw away the shackles of the cubicle and have these discussions out in the open, ‘working out loud’.

Tools alone, of course, won’t fully deliver this. Left alone, people will continue with their existing habits. But using these same tools we can unearth the blockers to collaboration and challenge them. Out in the open, in candid discussions. With these two simple, empowering motivators we can realise the maximum potential of these tools.

And that’s why it’s critical to determine the ‘why’. The high level driver. Once we see and understand that, we can determine the tactics to deliver it. Digital tools will be an important part of this mix, but we may also need other tactics: training, engagement, leading by example. The digital workplace tools become the place where we can safely and honestly put it all out there. To offer a view or to feed in a problem – not a passive workforce, but a workforce with a voice, influencing decision making and delivery.

Network-driven innovation

The quest for innovation often bypasses the collaborative power of digital workplaces in a focus solely for new ideas. Innovation thrives in environments where seemingly unconnected elements combine into new thinking. The organic, spontaneous realisation that we’ve stumbled across something. Digital networks are excellent innovation engines, connecting people with people, allowing half-formed ideas to intersect with other half-formed ideas, opening the door to insights, trends and problems.

Deploying digital collaboration tools to support an innovative workforce is a truly powerful purpose. And again, like any broader business purpose, we use the tools as part of the mix. An innovation strategy needs engagement, training, catalysts and communities powering the way. But then how amazing that we have such great tools to deliver all of these things: enterprise social networks for innovation communities and engagement, team spaces, spaces for disruption, content and collaboration spaces for training.

To be more innovative is a clear high-level purpose. It gives us permission to disrupt, it links bottom-up thinking via the various tools that comprise the digital workplace. This is an environment in which innovation thrives.

Find it yourself

Digital workplace tools open the door to many possibilities. But whichever way we go, we’ve got to get that clear purpose out there. Once we know that, we can plan. Providing hands-on and bottom-up engagement to make us thrive. Getting us to think of how best to make the digital workplace a safe place to work out loud, to be open and honest, to disrupt. As long as we’ve thought about why and how we will work, the digital workplace is an exciting place. Without this, digital tools become a mess of overlapping, under-used and sometimes counter-productive tools.

Don’t leave the tools to it. A spade won’t dig a hole by itself, likewise SharePoint won’t deliver collaboration by itself. What are we collaborating for? Uploading documents is one tiny piece of a digital future. With a bold vision, we can unleash the power of our workforce to achieve so, so much more.


Welcome home. Oops, we meant, “Welcome to work.”

welcome-home-spacesThis was the sign that greeted me, when I entered the excellent co-working location called Spaces in late March.

Spaces was the venue for the very first J. Boye event on “Workplace of the Future” held in Amsterdam in late March and a fitting location to think about how to make true progress.

Clearly most organisations are not designed for a digital age. The line between home and office is blurring, and together with the participants we identified key problems, co-created potential solutions and discussed lessons learned.

The Human Resources department was identified as the missing stakeholder in most organisations. Below, I share some of the notable discussions for each session.

Your company culture is already changing

During the past years, organisational culture and issues around it, has been a common topic in many J. Boye group meetings around the world. A popular HBR article from 2016 titled Culture is not the Culprit, helped shape my view on the topic by saying that culture is not something you fix. Rather it is something that evolves over time.

At the event in Amsterdam, social business expert Monique van Maare from IBM, shared their story of igniting cultural transformation for the future of work. IBM was founded in 1911 and has managed to reinvent itself more than a few times. Monique showed this brief video on the new IBM:

Monique shared some quite impressive examples of experimental learning and cross-company collaboration. Some of the key questions we tried to answer were:

  • How do you sustain new ways of working?
  • What’s the role of e-mail? In particular with the advent of many new tools

Improving the employee experience using apps

impossible-signAt the German-based T-Systems MMS, more than 70% of employees use the employee app. Susann Wanitschke is their Internal Communication Manager and travelled from Dresden to share a glimpse behind the scenes.

Learning from success stories is always helpful and clearly they’ve done something right when it comes to ensuring adoption. Having an element of fun seemed a crucial element in moving the employee experience into the pocket, onto the smartphones and far beyond the usual legacy intranet.

An often overlooked point, when it comes to the app vs. no app discussion, is that push notifications is one of the real game changers for internal communications.

Finally: The T-Systems app is available in the Android Marketplace and iTunes Appstore and developed by Staffbase.

The Philips journey into a digital workplace world

Similar to IBM, Philips is one of those giant companies, which have managed to radical change in recent years. When they can do it, why can’t your smaller organisation?

Dennis Agusi is Communication Channels Lead with Philips. He shared key parts of their journey in moving away from their legacy intranet. Read more in the documented case study on how Philips moved their intranet from 123,000 to 5,000 pages.

As a part of the discussions, we arrived at this slightly adapted and simple definition of the digital workplace:

“Provide best access to people, data and tools”

A new approach to knowledge management

workshopSimilar to e-mail which was discussed throughout the day, knowledge management also carries a fair amount of baggage in most organisations. We realize knowledge is valuable, yet we tend to treat it carelessly.

Herman Limburg of CGI took us through an eye-opening workshop where he made us think different about knowledge management. In particular, he helped us see the many non-technical means that are essential to knowledge management.

Do you want to become a learning organisation? The simple advice was to start writing up lessons learned.

We also discussed missing governance around finding subject matter experts and how to ensure that content becomes validated and remains valid and trustworthy.

Making it a productive workplace

The final session was by Casper van Amelsvoort from Rabobank, who shared how they work to increase productivity, collaboration and agility.

Shadow IT might be great for productivity, but what about governance, training and security? Casper offered this advice on how to deal with it:


Discussions in this session focused on trying to achieve 2 major objectives:

  • How to realize big cost savings
  • Speeding up innovation while staying in control

The conversation continues

Thanks to everyone who participated and helped make it a most interesting day. Feel free to share a comment below with your reflections and insights on the workplace of the future.

Enterprise messaging – an integrated part of work

enterprise-messaging-t-systems-mms-deWas enterprise messaging a big topic in your organisation in 2016?

WhatsApp and other alternatives are increasingly being used in many organisations and our members at T-Systems Multimedia Solutions in Germany recently published a whitepaper on the topic which includes a case study from Airbus, an expert interview with me, tool comparisons and much more.

Based on many J. Boye group meetings in Europe and North America, our take is that enterprise messaging is now moving onto the center stage. Many have used tools like WhatsApp unofficially to get work done, but now organisations are finding ways to make it an integrated part of work.

For more information, download the whitepaper free of charge on the below page on the T-Systems site (registration required):

Whitepaper: Enterprise messaging – WhatsApp for companies

If you are a J. Boye member, you will get a printed version at the upcoming group meetings.

For more about the future of work, do consider attending our upcoming Masterclass on the Workplace of the Future in Amsterdam on 30 March, where T-Systems will share their employee app success story.

PS: The whitepaper is also available in German – see our German blog: Enterprise Messaging wird die Unternehmen erobern