Interview: Mindjet’s Chris Norfolk on collaboration and working socially

Chatting with the newly appointed UK Director for Mindjet, Chris Norfolk, we explore the intricacies associated with how technology is changing the way we are collaborating within the workplace environment.

Can you give us a brief overview of Mindjet?

In a nutshell, Mindjet is a collaborative project management solution that facilitates more effective team working and improved productivity through a central visual interface. The software can help teams through every stage of a project, from planning and brainstorming to task and project management, giving you a holistic viewpoint the whole way. Because it can be accessed through the desktop, in the cloud or via mobile apps, Mindjet is perfect for remote collaboration, bringing together ideas and updates from all around the world.

Is collaboration in the work place changing then?

Absolutely. Before, brainstorms and other idea generation had to come from people sitting in a room. Now, through the growth of technology, collaboration can happen from anywhere whether it's via a webcam using Skype, a group on Yammer or a shared map on Mindjet. That's not to say that face-to-face collaboration is redundant: many great ideas can still appear from sitting in a room together! The great thing about collaborating online is that the ideas can flow constantly without the constraints of all being free at the same time.

Can you give me an example of social collaboration tools being put in to practice?

Digital creative agency Zeta uses Mindjet maps to give them a holistic overview of a project it is working on and to help spot flaws and improvements. The maps act as a central project hub and are easily shared between the team and client to add comments and links as well as supporting documents. This is great, because it helps keep information and ideas in one place. We conducted research last year which found that teams collaborating on projects use 10 per cent less mental resources and are eight per cent more productive when using visualisation tools.

What is enterprise social networking and why should we care?

Social networking has become a massive part of our private lives. Facebook is now the number one most visited site in the world and is engrained in the way we communicate. So when we get in to the office, resorting to much more traditional methods of communication such as emails and phone calls can be counter-intuitive and counter-productive, when all you're looking for is a quick update. Because of this, it's important to look at ways of communicating and collaborating that emulate the way we do so in our private life. This is where enterprise social networks come in. They allow employees to communicate in a way that is familiar to them but is suitable to an enterprise environment – for example, sharing updates and providing a secure platform to do so.

It sounds ideal. What's the problem?

Worryingly, Gartner has found that only 10 percent of social collaboration initiatives have succeeded to date. The main problem is getting everybody behind the new tools, because without the majority adoption, it ends up not being as productive. The solution to this is finding the right incentive for your employees as it will vary from company to company. Another strategy is to create a group of super-users who champion your new tool and drum up support from everybody else. Whatever you choose, be persistent, it's worth it.

But didn't you say that social networking is so engrained in our personal lives, so shouldn't it be easy to adapt?

Yes, but we're also creatures of habit. The traditional methods of business communication - email, phone etc - have become second nature in the office and some employees can be reluctant to try something new. Again, the important thing is persistence. Once you have the majority on board seeing the benefits, the rest will naturally follow.

So should we replace email with social networking?

Email is still an essential part of communication. Completely replacing your inbox with a social networking platform would be incredibly difficult. However, using an enterprise social network will help you save crucial megabytes of inbox room and will mean that when an important email does come in, it doesn't get lost among less vital internal messages. Using something like Mindjet or Microsoft's Yammer is ideal for internal communication. It works very similar to Facebook, so won't be daunting for new users and will have a familiar feel. It's also important to point out that these tools shouldn't be designed to replace programmes like Microsoft Word and Excel because we understand that these tools are integral to running a business. Instead, Mindjet integrates with Microsoft office and allows users to link to or insert documents in to maps. This way, it's much easier to keep track of everything you need.

What are your views on remote working?

Remote working is great, but both employees and their employers need to be flexible and share a common understanding. It's often not simple to put in place an effective and inclusive remote working policy and it can be a worry for managers. That said, it has a very valuable place in business and can make individuals and teams much more productive. I often need to travel to a few meetings over a day and it's not always practical to come back to the office. I'm much more useful if I'm working remotely and able to answer the phone and respond to emails – it's a much better use of my time than sitting in traffic on the motorway.

The key to successful remote working is setting clear ground rules at the start, establishing core working hours when everyone should be available and putting collaboration tools in place so everyone can communication and work together effectively – wherever they are. And don't forget the important of face-to-face! Whether it's via Skype or having a monthly meeting in the office, nothing can replace the interactions you get in-person.

How can these tools help with remote working?

The first thing to understand is that the definition of remote working has changed over the last few years. Before, you needed a laptop and an Ethernet connection to work away from the office. Now, tablets and smartphones mean that anybody can work remotely as soon as they leave the office. The second thing to note is that the majority of these productivity and social tools also have mobile apps. For example, Mindjet project maps and tasks can be used through tablets or smartphones and can be accessed and updated anywhere on demand, making remote working incredibly easy.

Should all businesses accommodate remote working?

It's important to understand that remote working doesn't work in every business. Marissa Mayer's recent decision to stop Yahoo employees working from home was considered by some as controversial, but was obviously well thought through for her business strategy. Ultimately, a remote working policy varies from business to business. For some businesses, it's simply not suitable, for others it will help streamline productivity but for most it sits somewhere in between. The key lies in developing trust between the employer and employees to start with.