May 27 2020

When Business Growth Leads to Chaos, Collaboration Tech Is Part of the Answer

When coworkers communicate more effectively, businesses can simplify their operations and focus on their customers.

Like most organizations, the Michigan Farm Bureau Family of Companies relies on close collaboration among employees to innovate and provide the best service possible to its 200,000-plus members. But until it introduced new collaboration tools, employees relied on clunky, outdated processes to share information back and forth, making it difficult for everyone to get on the same page.

“It was attach and send, and then hope everybody could work off of the same document,” explains Tom Nugent, director of human resources at the organization, noting that employees also sometimes used USB drives to share information. “We would route things around and we’d end up with 14 different versions. Eventually, managers would bring everybody into the same room to look at the same document. We needed to find a tool that would allow us to work collaboratively.”

The Michigan Farm Bureau was founded in 1919 to defend the rights and interests of farmers, and over the past century, it has become the parent organization for several subsidiary companies. These include Farm Bureau Insurance of Michigan, started in 1949 to satisfy the insurance needs of its membership.

Together, the companies have around 2,400 employees and independent contractors, and the organization’s leaders recognized the need to collaborate better in real time, especially as they brought more remote workers into the fold. To meet this need, the companies adopted Microsoft Teams and OneDrive.

That effort required a culture change and extensive training for staff. But it is paying off in the form of enhanced collaboration and better support for remote workers. That’s crucial right now, explains CEO Scott Piggott.

“At first, I struggled with the concept of introducing Office 365 last fall,” Piggott says. “It was a tough time of year for our organization, folks were frazzled already and I wondered about our capacity for adoption. But we now live in unprecedented times, where flexible work and connectivity via Office 365 and Teams is needed more than ever. While the pandemic situation may have expedited adoption, it is because we moved forward when we did that made it possible.”

In business, growth is the goal. But in some ways, it can also be the enemy. When organizations add employees, clients and locations, things can get confusing, and communication lapses are common. If organizations aren’t careful, this confusion can quickly turn to chaos. Many businesses are turning toward cloud collaboration platforms to help streamline their workflows and bring clarity back to their environments.

Collaboration Helps Keep Things Simple

TrueCar, a California-based car-shopping website, moved a couple of years ago to standardize most employees on Google G Suite. The organization had already moved much of its back-end infrastructure into the cloud, and Joshua Go, senior director of i­nfrastructure engineering and IT for TrueCar, says the company wanted to replicate ­benefits like scalability and simplified ­management by migrating to the cloud c­ollaboration suite.

Before the move, Go says, TrueCar was experiencing inefficiencies — both in the way end users collaborated and in IT management. “We ran into a lot of scalability issues and had troubles with back-end IT management,” he says. “The issue of different versions of the same document floating around, and confusion resulting from that, is another reason we made the move.”

The organization is also taking advantage of automatic, rolling upgrades to the cloud software suite. “Before, we would have had to schedule and stage and put a communications plan in place every time there was a major change,” Go notes.

Similarly, Lieser Skaff Alexander, a real estate and business law firm based in Tampa, Fla., has made the move to Microsoft 365. The firm has a staff of around a dozen across three offices, and multiple collaboration platforms were already becoming unwieldy before the move.

“Sending litigation-related emails back and forth was just inefficient,” says Ghada Skaff, a partner at the firm. “Some people were using different platforms, and it just wasn’t streamlined.”

Many law firms bill in six-minute increments — a fact that helped Skaff and her ­colleagues see more concretely how much those inefficiencies were costing them.

“If you spend two or three minutes searching for a file or figuring out an issue with your calendar, that’s time you could have been invested on a client project,” she says. “You stretch that out across eight attorneys, and that’s a lot of lost productivity.”

Katie Bye
Before we made the move, I heard users say, ‘I don’t know if I can handle Teams, it seems so complicated.’ Now, those same people are excited about ­collaborating on Teams.”

Katie Bye Director of IT Infrastructure, Farm Bureau Insurance of Michigan

Get Worker Buy-In for Collaboration Success

But it’s not enough for organizations to merely adopt cloud collaboration suites. They must also build buy-in among employees. They can mandate compliance for certain software, such as payroll systems — but when it comes to collaboration platforms, employees will often find their own if they’re unhappy with their employer’s offerings, notes Art Schoeller, vice president and principal analyst for contact center and collaboration technology at Forrester Research.

“These collaboration tools can move the dial in terms of workflows,” he says. “But you need user training. And you need some specialized groups — maybe it’s sales, maybe it’s internal communications — groups that see the value and help you communicate that to the rest of the organization.”

This is the approach taken by the Michigan Farm Bureau, where leaders invested in both online and in-person training and also sought out between 30 to 50 “champions” who would advocate for Teams and OneDrive and help their colleagues become familiar with the capabilities of the suite. It ended up with more than 150 volunteers. “A lot of people genuinely have an interest in making this place better, and that really showed,” says Katie Bye, director of IT infrastructure for Farm Bureau Insurance of Michigan.

“This was their opportunity to lead change and innovation that they could all see the need for,” says Nugent.

MORE FROM BIZTECH: Learn how to protect your organization's meetings during remote work.

Empower Workers to Collaborate Quickly

At TrueCar, the move to G Suite has led to efficiency gains that reverberate throughout the organization. One simple example is its product-planning documents, or “one-pagers.”

“We collaborate much more in real time,” says Go. “There might be one person responsible for writing the one-pager, but throughout the process, there are now more stakeholders involved to strengthen it.”

The outcomes of the collaboration technologies will depend on each organization’s business model, but the core benefits are generally the same: Staffers are able to coordinate with one another much more quickly, not only improving their efficiency but also ultimately leading to successes in the field.

At Lieser Skaff Alexander, the move to Microsoft 365 also had an impact on litigation.

“We had a trial, which was the c­ulmination of many years of work, and everyone was collaborating about what the trial attorneys needed help with,” Skaff recalls. “We also recently had an attorney taking a deposition, and within a minute of a nuanced legal issue popping up, several staff members were working on it, and we were able to get something back to the attorney right away via Teams.”

Because collaboration suites enable employees to access information in a centralized location, they can help organizations trim meetings and reduce the number of memos they send out. Microsoft Teams has helped Michigan Farm Bureau employees (especially remote workers) feel more connected. At the same time, the solution provides people with the opportunity to prioritize essential meetings, giving them more time to concentrate on their core work, Bye says.

“Previously, a lot of us were invited to a lot of meetings about a lot of different projects,” says Bye. “We wanted to make sure everybody was included, and sometimes the person planning the project wasn’t sure who was going to play a role, so they would just invite everybody. Now, with Teams, you can just be in that group, and you can read the meeting notes and look for the action items for your team rather than spending all those hours attending the meetings to just get a couple of minutes of value.”

“Before we made the move, I heard users say, ‘I don’t know if I can handle Teams, it seems so complicated,’” Bye adds. “Now, those same people are excited about collaborating on Teams. They’re saying, ‘It’s a lot easier than we thought.’”