The word ‘collaboration’ is frequently listed amongst the benefits and functionality of modern IT applications and solutions.

It is common-place to see phrases such as “enable close collaboration between your employees” and “increase internal collaboration” associated with a myriad of products and methodologies designed to help us work more closely with our colleagues at a time when our physical locations are becoming ever more disparate.

One thing, however, that always strikes us as odd whenever the word collaboration is mentioned is that the focus is on collaboration ‘within’ an organisation, amongst the organisation’s existing teams. There is very little emphasis on collaboration in a customer and provider relationship.

The expectation of this relationship is that collaboration is minimal or non-existent. The customer requests a service from a provider and the provider delivers it at an agreed price, to an agreed specification, on an agreed date with no ‘collaboration’ required. This is fine in certain circumstances, but I wouldn’t expect to have to collaborate with my telephony provider over my broadband supply, but in complex implementation projects, and that’s CRM or ERP delivery in my world, collaboration between provider and customer is critical to success.

Strong Project Teams

Having a strong project team can help ensure project success. Traditional views of project delivery suggest that there are, in fact two project teams – one on the customer-side and one on the provider-side. Both project teams are working towards the same goal – successful delivery of the project, but ultimately they are separate with formal channels and methodologies in place to facilitate communication. The strongest project team contains members from both the customer and provider organisations. A project team of this nature helps to foster open, honest and transparent relationships. It also allows a level of knowledge sharing that cannot be achieved by keeping the teams separate.

Whatever the motivation for undertaking a Microsoft Dynamics 365 project, there are two things central to delivering an outstanding solution, expert knowledge of the solution and expert knowledge of the business.

On day one of the project, the solution provider is an expert in one of those things, the customer is an expert in the other. The distance between these two things can be considered as “the knowledge gap” and it is within this area that the opportunities for collaboration exist and the risks to successful project delivery lie. If the devil is in the detail then its nephews (bad assumptions, mismanaged expectations, missed deadlines and poor user adoption) are in the “knowledge gap”, and it is these that ultimately lead to overrun, increased costs and unrealised expectations.

A strong, collaborative project team with representatives from both organisations can help to “shrink the knowledge gap”over the course of the project; this must be a continuous process.

To achieve this, the project team needs to contain “business experts” from the customer organisation, and this is not simply limited to “process experts”. It also requires other subject matter experts, such as an expert in the customer’s IT infrastructure, compliance specialists. Less obvious is that there is a place for individuals who not only understand the culture of the organisation, but can anticipate and influence the impact on end user adoption of new IT systems.

The team also requires implementation experts from the provider organisation – business analysts, solution architects and application experts. In “non-collaborative” projects, all of these roles can exist but the tools often used to try and shrink the knowledge gap are formal training sessions about the solution for the customer or and process maps issued to the provider in order to educate them in the business process. Whilst these tools undoubtedly shrink the gap, do they go far enough?

In any complex implementation it is simply not the case that the customer can express a set of detailed requirements at the outset, which the provider will implement in a solution to meet the requirements exactly as specified without any further dialogue.

Collaborative Projects

In a collaborative project, the “business experts” will develop a sound understanding of the boundaries of the implementation, i.e. what can or cannot be reasonably achieved. The implementation experts will develop a sound understanding of the business, i.e. what is the impact to the business of implementing a requirement in a certain way.

If the level of knowledge amongst the project team is elevated in this way then better decisions can be made. If the business experts are able to understand that implementing a requirement verbatim is likely to require an overly elaborate solution that is costly to deliver and maintain, then a preferable option may be to tweak the requirement and reduce the complexity. If the solution experts have multiple options for implementing a particular requirement but are able to truly understand the business impact of each approach, then the best option will be selected. In a collaborative environment where such informed decisions are made, there are clear advantages in terms of cost, quality and levels of user adoption.

Collaboration must, however, be consciously strived for. It isn’t naturally occurring. It begins by agreeing a set of key principles and working practices that enable collaborative working:

  1. Establish direct relationships between the project teams, both formal and informal (enabling any project team member to contact a counterpart outside of the formal workshop, communication or reporting structures)
  2. Agree responsibility boundaries between the project teams
  3. Creating an integrated and shared project plan, rather than both parties operating independently
  4. Agree a communications plan
  5. Agree the joint reporting structure
  6. Agree a Change Management framework and processes
  7. Agree an integrated approach to System and End User Testing
  8. Select effective collaboration tools (consider Yammer, Microsoft Teams, SharePoint or Visual Studio Team Services).

Total Involvement From All

On any project, there are likely to be very few activities that can be completed entirely by one party without involvement from the other. At Incremental, we firmly believe that we deliver exceptional quality in all project activities that we undertake, but we also believe that the correct resource should be selected for each activity.

There are some project activities that can be made more effective by being delivered, or at least led, by the customer. For example, we can advise on user adoption best practices but nothing truly promotes user adoption like a well-coordinated customer-driven campaign of roadshows, super user sessions and project marketing communications. When individuals from the customer organisation are the “faces” of the project, it promotes a level of end user confidence that is difficult to match by asking the provider to fill this role.

Many of our customers agree with our view and have seen the benefits of collaboration. In one instance, working on a complex Microsoft Dynamics upgrade, we witnessed several examples during the project where collaboration between individuals from both organisations was critical to the success of the project.

On this project, communication was everything. We had the project controls in place, with structured, agreed communication channels, but beyond this was a shared ethos that any team member, from either organisation, could pick up the phone to any other team member at any time.

Project members from the customer organisation truly “owned” the solution and believed in the benefits being delivered. The customer drove the communications and training for end users and implemented a super-user programme that was critical to the success of the project. For our part, we provided the specialist solution knowledge and flexibility in approach that allowed the customer to respond to changing environment conditions and truly understand the solution impact of their requirements.

Read our customer stories to discover how we have helped organisations like you implement Microsoft Dynamics successfully.