Digital collaboration platforms provide innovation opportunities for diverse and distributed teams.

In business, difficult problems mean companies need diverse expertise to innovate and problem solve. Take the biomedical engineering company EpiBone. Facing complex problems such as bone reconstruction and implantation, the company relies on knowledge from a diverse disciplinary team of scientists, engineers, clinicians, and entrepreneurs. CEO Nina Tandon describes how this diverse collaboration has put the company at the frontier of bone reconstruction: “We take two things from the patient: a tridimensional X-ray, and a sample of fat tissue so that we can extract stem cells out of it. We use these stem cells to fabricate a living bone on the basis of the data coming from the X-ray. After three weeks, we have a bone ready for implantation.”

Businesses guided by a similar imperative to innovate can also leverage diverse expertise, but their teams often face the challenge of geographical distribution. Recent research conducted by Gartner states that over 50% of team communication occurs through collaboration platforms.

Based on projected market values, collaboration software revenues are expected to grow by 40% between 2015 and 2022. Demand for collaboration platforms is already at an all-time high, particularly with the proliferation of SaaS-based subscription models. Established incumbents such as Microsoft (Teams), Cisco (Spark), and Facebook (Workplace) all compete in the team-collaboration platform space. As the race to support team innovation rages on, businesses should focus more on how their distributed teams orchestrate collaboration and the conditions team leaders create. The specific collaboration platforms they choose are less important.

We conducted a study of over 600 team members, team coordinators, and managers who use collaboration platforms. Team members filled out an online survey, rating the effectiveness of the collaboration platform for supporting team interactions, and assessing leadership behaviors of team coordinators. Team coordinators were given a questionnaire about their team’s ability to integrate knowledge, and team supervisors were surveyed on team innovation success.

Our results suggest there are two key factors or challenges that affect how much of a benefit teams get from collaboration platforms. The first factor is how well the collaboration platform supports activities needed to integrate team knowledge, despite geographically different locations. The second is whether team leaders can establish conditions that foster knowledge integration in a digital environment.

Ideal Collaboration Platforms

In organizations, success for teams requires fitting different individual knowledge bases and perspectives to particular problems and opportunities. Attempting to do this through a collaboration platform involves many considerations. Our analysis of survey data, corroborated with experiences shared during informal interactions with participants, shows that ideal collaboration platforms enable knowledge integration and therefore team innovation, by supporting three main aspects of teamwork: preparation, execution, and well-being.

Enable team preparation. Orchestrating the integration of diverse knowledge for innovation means teams need to set the stage for coordinated action. This need is particularly acute for distributed teams, because they cannot observe each other’s behavior beyond what happens on the collaboration platform. They also don’t have the advantage of understanding each other’s availability and needs, enjoyed by teams working in a single location.

Setting the stage entails reaching a common understanding of the team’s mission (What is our charge?), establishing team goals (What innovation outcome are we attempting to achieve?), defining team members’ roles and responsibilities (Who is responsible for what in this innovation process?), and formulating a strategy to achieve the innovative outcome (How do we get there?).

We found teams were better prepared to integrate diverse knowledge when the collaboration platform allowed them to document their mission and goals, roles and responsibilities, and create a process road map. Team members could access and revisit these documents on the go at their convenience. Having access to these documents gave more meaning to the independent actions taken by members who were subject matter experts in different knowledge domains. It also let them see the forest for the trees.

For example, one participant in the study underscored the importance of working with a collaboration platform that allows team members to have an immediate picture of who is responsible for what, and how each member fits with the overall goal. When team members are distributed across different geographical locations, they need to know each member’s role in the overall plan. Otherwise, you risk having team members rowing at 120% but in different directions.

Empower complex execution. Setting the stage is not enough. Complex problems, diverse experts, and a variety of information formats can complicate the process of collaboration. Platforms supporting a great breadth of media forms give teams more options. Knowledge can be exchanged and integrated via text, audio, video, images, virtual 3D environments, and shared whiteboards, among others. Our research shows that collaboration platforms supporting multiple formats gives teams the flexibility they need.

Team members also need to be able to coordinate their activities in terms of sequencing deliverables, evaluating results, and tracking progress. When platform technology does not support these activities, team members may tend to focus on their own local goals and overlook the team’s objectives. Teams need collaboration platforms that let them determine the availability of team members in real time, receive status updates when deliverables have been shared, and track how deliverables contribute to achieving key milestones in the innovation process.

Shared digital workspaces, combined with digital archives of the group’s work, should also allow team members to back each other up if the need arises. When problems emerge, teams may not be able to wait for unavailable members, especially when working across different locations and time zones. In one team we analyzed, a member noted the importance of being able to support team coordination by providing constant updates on who is doing what using the platform. They indicated that this real-time awareness of each member’s progress presented opportunities to course correct, whether to reassign tasks or reassess priorities and deadlines. This transparency allowed team members to respond immediately to unanticipated problems, and other team members could be made aware of actions taken to solve the issue.

Facilitate well-being. Collaboration is a human endeavor, and digital environments can be fraught with potential minefields that can derail a team’s innovation efforts. Innovation itself is difficult because there are no predefined solutions. This can lead to tensions and frustrations when teams face major headwinds. Teams composed of members with diverse expertise inherently bring different perspectives and understandings of problems and possible solutions — which can easily lead to conflict. Finally, work in digital spaces can be isolating, leading members to feel disconnected from social interactions.

Failure to empower team members to openly share their points of view can build resentment and leave members feeling like their ideas are not valued. Our study showed that team members are more likely to engage with each other to resolve impasses and misunderstandings when they feel the collaboration platform supports expressive communication forms. As an example, one member noted that emails are usually a source of conflict because of the misunderstandings that may emerge through written text when face-to-face interaction is lacking.

Collaboration platforms that afford members a unified workspace to discuss, share opinions, and work jointly can be seen as the digital “watercooler.” Team members need visibility into all ongoing discussions and interactions so they don’t feel left out.

Leading People, Not Platforms

Giving distributed teams of experts a digital collaboration platform doesn’t always mean success. It’s common for leadership to focus on enforcing use of the tool, given the investment an organization might make in acquiring a collaboration platform. However, our study suggests that leaders cannot stop at simply implementing a collaboration platform. They must play a central role in enabling innovation, by providing a vision of the future and nurturing a climate of fairness, where team members can express their views and treat each other with respect.

Leaders need to ignite inspiration in their team, by setting the vision for what the innovation will achieve and inspiring them to make the most of their diverse expertise. Our study shows that inspirational messages from leadership reinforces team members’ willingness to try new problem-solving approaches. Such messages also encourage them to innovate through continuous recombination of their expertise.

When leaders promote an atmosphere of fairness, team members feel empowered to provide and request feedback, even if they are physically isolated and have little visibility into interactions that might occur off-platform. Leaders should ensure transparency about how decisions are made within the team and encourage team members to have accountability for their interactions — such transparency will guarantee nobody feels left out in the innovation process.

As with many user-facing technology decisions, managers and team leaders need to consider both the complexities of the work being done and the people doing that work. In making these decisions, leaders need to shift their emphasis to people utilizing these collaboration platforms.

The key to achieving innovation success through collaboration platforms — make it about the people — not the technology.