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Innovation
Pulling together
by David Woodward

Research by the Future Foundation shows collaboration fuels innovation, but most companies are failing to take advantage of collaborative tools

In a lift to the third floor of Google’s London headquarters, two employees are discussing their attempts at home working. “How’s that working out for you?” one asks. Not well, it seems—the Googler's screwed-up face says it all. It’s a timely piece of eavesdropping, considering Google is the venue for the launch of a new report into future work trends. Google is betting the farm on remote connectivity, backed by increased collaboration, powered by Google.

According to the Future Foundation’s survey of 3,500 employees across a variety of sectors in the UK, Germany, France, the US and Japan, 57 per cent still prefer the sociability of office-based work and choose to spend at least part of their working week in the company of colleagues. This could be down to the lack of available technology. Only 12 per cent of employees said they were satisfied with the level of collaborative technology made available by their employer.

But if collaborative technology became ubiquitous, would all employees use it, and more importantly, would they find it useful? Carsten Sorensen, a senior lecturer in IT and innovation at the London School of Economics, says we need to get over our “old-fashioned notion” of what work really is. “The biggest fallacy is to focus on whether people are working remotely or co-located,” he says. “The future is undoubtedly an extreme mix. We have an old-fashioned notion of what work is, and we have this notion that you can only really do high quality work [together] if you sit in the same room at the same time.”

The slow take-up of collaborative tools is often blamed on over-sensitive IT departments, but the Future Foundation survey questions that connection. Over half of IT managers surveyed said their employers were not doing enough to promote the use of collaborative technologies, citing lack of vision and lack of investment in greater connectivity and so-called enterprise 2.0 technology, which enable businesses to take advantage of social networking tools.

According to Google head of enterprise Robert Whiteside, low-cost collaborative technology offers a chance to connect larger proportions of a company’s workforce than any other IT system. He says there are big swathes of employees at many companies who are not connected to the organisation “in any shape or form other than the fact they cross the threshold in the morning and leave in the afternoon.” Collaborative technology, he says, “has an opportunity to expand the traditional technology footprint to 100 per cent of the workforce, whereas historically that would have been prohibitively expensive.”

The research highlighted a strong, positive correlation between collaboration and innovation. In the UK for example, employees given the opportunity to collaborate at work are twice as likely to have contributed new ideas. Sorensen says that for colleagues who already know each other, remote collaboration is just as effective and innovative as a face-to-face meeting.Some of the groundbreaking research within my field has shown that people who know each other quite well and who stay in touch, don’t feel any different [using collaborative tools] than if they are in the same room.”

Whiteside says that at Google, employees are brought together both “physically and online” to ensure the best ideas filter through to the top. “Fostering collaboration is something we focus on heavily,” he says. “We have a very global business, but we also have different groups of people in different buildings within the same country. We want to give those people an ability to communicate across what traditionally would be organisational barriers. We have a social networking tool within Google, which very quickly allows the CEO to have a conversation with somebody working quite low down in the organisation. People can watch that conversation in real time.”

Whiteside believes collaborative tools are making organisations much more democratic. “You’re starting to see engagement of the people on the factory floor, the person driving a white van. It could be just to consume information, or in the right culture it could be to contribute ideas.” 

That two-way process is noticeable at Google, too, he says. “To see one of the founders make a comment about a product and within 10 minutes have the engineer responding and changing the problem based on that feedback,” is an affirmation of the software’s effectiveness, says Whiteside. “You see very quick solutions and you see intelligent debate in areas that you wouldn’t normally venture into without bringing those people together online.”