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E-mail is still the default collaboration tool -- it’s familiar and effective to a point. It becomes unwieldy quickly, however, when more than a couple of people are involved. How often have you struggled to make sense of a long email thread with non-chronological messages crossing each other? When you use e-mail to send documents for comment, keeping track of versions gets crazy quickly. That’s when you say there must be a better solution. Naturally, Microsoft and Google appear, as if by magic, each with their own supporters.
SharePoint from Microsoft is a big favorite. Ten of my advisors said they used it -- though not all were enthusiastic about it. Companies with broad Microsoft licenses tend to choose it as part of a package. It stores documents, schedules meetings, includes chat… On the downside, for any complex implementation, outside resources may be required. Some say it needs to be supplemented with more communications and social media tools. Jive SBS was mentioned as an option for adding rich social media features for internal (and external) collaboration. Yammer didn’t come up in the discussion, even after I asked about it, so let’s assume it’s not gaining much ground yet.
In support of Sharepoint, Linda says you can't beat using something that integrates with the rest of the Microsoft tools and Office suite. It saves on training and removes the need to have people learn new tools -- she says she’s seen it work for companies with 95,000+ users with a Project Management portal featuring business intelligence/dashboards pulling data from diverse systems (MRP, ERP, CRM, SaleForce, financial systems, etc.), even creating forms that work with legacy systems.
Google apps were mentioned by four people. I work on volunteer teams that use GoogleDocs, which allow any of us to update a document or spreadsheet. (You can work with .ppt files, but we haven’t so far.) Google Docs are good for users who need the cloud because they have no home server platform.
In the other camp, Mike is a fan of Google Apps Premier (GAP). His company has a number of facilities, and one had a fire last year. With a major proposal due, his team used Google Docs and Google Sites with online chat without missing a beat, he said.
Richard also likes Google Apps because it’s on the web, not dependent on internal factors, and collaboration is real time, as several people can work on a document at once.
And Android has the potential to bring Smartphones into the picture.
Some of the other tools mentioned were:
- Microsoft Groove
- Cisco WebEx
- MS Project
- IBM Lotus Notes
Joaquim has a new iPad and is trying apps. He reports that TODO lets you manage projects, back them up on your desktop/notebook, and share activities with your team, via e-mail. He wonders if tablets will change the game.
It's not the tools but the thinking
The anti-tech solution came from one person -- cutting off access to computers to get people to talk to each other. It’s true that it’s too easy to e-mail people who work a few feet from us rather than taking time to talk face-to-face or to have a quick stand-up meeting. As Patrick said, “If your people sit next to each other but never peer over cubicle walls to talk to each other, all the Sharepoint, clouds, unified communications, etc. will do nothing to change that fact.” Shelwyn said that if you have a collaborative team, almost any tool will probably do.
David echoed what many lean professionals already know -- “Collaboration is more about mindset than it is about the tool. A collaborative culture will leverage any of the tools mentioned above. Likewise, a siloed culture will let them go to waste. Focus on changing corporate mindset and the tools will help the process. They'll never drive it.”
Tom likes to get team leaders in a room for 10 or 15 minutes every morning to understand what is on the agenda for the day and where team members can give or get help. He said it helps build a culture where team members openly discuss concerns/issues/opportunities with peers, and the synergies benefit the overall team performance immeasurably.
These comments are apropos to teams that are geographically close. The issues that come up with distance are more complex. Either way, getting people comfortable with the tools, so that the tools don’t get in the way of people interacting, depends on thoughtful choice and implementation.
Gian said tools need to be very easy to use, and interconnected with the applications that people use every day to do their work. They also need to be customized to business unit or clients they serve, he said, and require a dedicated resource(s) to administer and edit content to ensure that there is enough value that people want to use it.
Addressing the need to collaborate before you automate, Madhu shared his favorite ways to break corporate silos and get employees to collaborate:
- A common goal, challenge, or interest motivating employees to come together for a common cause.
- Reward or encouragement during the early adoption stages - This need not be monetary but need to have something to encourage and go the extra mile.
- Feedback once the common goal has been achieved leaves everybody with a good taste and encourages them to do it again.
Afzal pointed to a need organizations often forget about or skimp on: training. While some would disagree, he sees an age disconnect in the acceptance of tools and technology as a catalyst and facilitator for collaboration. “The generations who did not grow up in a world of global communication have a tendency to feel less at home with using SMSes, instant messaging, video and even audio conferencing, not to mention white board applications, distributed file systems, etc.,” he said, adding, “Any CIO who goes into the deployment of tools without understanding the nature of their user base, and their readiness to accept the tools, is looking for trouble!”
Many thanks to the folks who chimed in to answer my question on the CIOs.com: Chief Information Officer Network on LinkedIn.