collaborative working: an introduction

The dispersed workforce of a global enterprise needs to be able to work together across continents as efficiently as a team working together in one room. The availability of multiple channels of communications from instant messaging to the latest telepresence tools is helping make global collaboration become a reality. How well an organization uses these tools to collaborate internally and with customers and partners is becoming key to its profitability.

The increasingly competitive environment that most businesses operate in today brings the need to be agile and to be prepared to change the structure of the enterprise at short notice, merging teams, shifting resources or mobilizing sales forces, for example.

Collaboration is not just about communication. It is also about organization, having a clear workflow that people can contribute to whatever their location. Single versions of documents in clearly identified locations not only prevent duplication and confusion by version control, but are also essential for compliance and legal reasons.

presence makes for effective collaboration

Effective enterprise collaboration will start with enabling presence in conjunction with instant messaging (IM). Presence conveys whether an employee is online and available for communication. It provides visibility to other communication devices, but more importantly, enables you to know whether a person is available and the best means of contacting them before communicating. Presence also ties in with your calendar to tell others your availability based on your schedule.Calk

Once your presence strategy is in place, then augment this by integrating telephony. This provides a more effective way to communicate. You may start communicating with some via IM, but go beyond the limits of chat. With telephony integration, an end user can effortlessly click-to-call the other person. Telephone status, including mobile phone, can be viewed in real-time through your unified communications client.

Next comes unified messaging, coupling email with telephony voicemail which allows messages to be stored centrally. All messages are delivered to the employee through their email client, rather than checking in three different areas.

Collaboration will encompass personalized team workspaces to accommodate workflows allowing global and remote access to applications and individual employees who will be able to work on projects or processes with each other in real time. These can be linked to audio and web conferencing to enable groups to collaborate.

who can use collaboration tools?

Collaboration technology provides an infrastructure for everyone to begin working together quickly and efficiently, from employees changing roles to new partners and suppliers. Potential candidates within your organization include:

  • top and middle management, business professionals, knowledge workers, sales
  • mobile employees (on the road, home office workers), field services
  • distributed workgroups
  • "expert" agent - people working outside the contact center that can be called upon for expert input

Once a collaboration infrastructure is in place it can be used to extend the enterprise virtually through federated IM, for example. Suppliers and partners can participate fully in the organization's workflow and add value to the core enterprise.

why might I need to upgrade my collaboration technology?

According to one poll, accelerating work, retaining knowledge and improving innovation and creativity are the top three reasons to introduce collaboration technology. Yet as the number of communications channels grows and their complexity increases, effective collaboration may become harder to achieve.

The pressure to respond instantly to communications coming from all angles alongside the difficulty of locating contact details across multiple systems can have a negative effect on responsiveness and productivity. The impact of this is not only to raise employee stress levels but also delay innovation and time to market.

A single collaboration interface where employees access all the collaboration tools in the same place will improve productivity and speed up business processes, as people no longer have to spend time opening and checking multiple channels of communication.

Presence functionality lets people know when employees are at their desks. Communications are improved as the person can choose to communicate with someone who is available to work with them.

what's new in collaboration technology?

The aim is for people who are not physically working together to be able to communicate easily through multiple channels while at the same time sharing data too as if they were in a meeting room together.

Collaboration technology has moved on and there is a real recognition of the need to replicate the benefits of face-to-face working as closely as possible.

Face-to-face meetings begin with a handshake and are helped along by smiles and nods. The latest telepresence technology consisting of high definition life-size video images and CD-quality audio marries the human elements of voice and facial expressions to documents, data and business applications.

Tools, including telepresence, can be critical to enhance the informal culture necessary for creativity enabling working on the fly, and acting as a virtual water cooler.

how can I measure the value of collaboration to my business?

The million-dollar question! Building a business case for collaboration technology based on return on investment or similar value measures is a challenge.

A starting point is to look at the cost savings, which can be considerable. Teams work more efficiently; travelling less, working more. Companies report saving money on voice calls by using IM. Infrastructure savings are also there to be made as multiple channels of communication are consolidated.

The travel bill for global enterprises is huge and collaboration technologies can minimize the need to pay for travel while maximizing Green points as organizations seek to limit their impact on the environment. A number of multinational corporations report paying for a complete telepresence system in less than a year through travel savings alone. If you add in hours spent not traveling that can be put to more productive use, then the return on investment (ROI) drops to 6-7 months.

Businesses are looking hard at cost cutting in the travel budget. Overall, 70% of European business people said their company has sought reductions in the travel budget, while 80% were looking for cuts in the US.

The reduction in travel costs is relatively easy to measure. It is perhaps less easy to measure other elements affected by collaboration such as employee turnover or business process time savings. It remains a challenge to link these metrics to collaboration and attribute a value to their contribution to the enterprise.

Research company Gartner acknowledges that proof of value is a stumbling block but says that although it is difficult to measure the business value of collaborative interactions, there is a growing demand for real-time team collaboration technologies.

Gartner expects that instant messaging (IM) will become as popular as email by 2010 and employees will expect IM to be available in the enterprise for collaborative work. It believes that videoconferencing will shift to the desktop to support impromptu conversations and become better integrated with other collaboration tools and technologies such as web conferencing and IM.

Of course the major benefit of collaboration tools is to make existing relationships richer, and that can be difficult to quantify. The key benefits of collaboration go beyond costs savings on travel and focus on business creation, making not just saving money through increasing quality and ease of communication and supporting decisions.

who is buying into collaboration software?

Collaboration software is a high growth market. Gartner reported an increase of 22% growth in worldwide software revenue in 2008 compared with 2007.

Converging technologies and consolidations, along with a greater emphasis on workplace communities, are driving the worldwide web conference and team collaboration software market revenue, according to Gartner.


This article was co-written with Tracey Caldwell.

Anthony Plewes

After a Masters in Computer Science, I decided that I preferred writing about IT rather than programming. My 20-year writing career has taken me to Hong Kong and London where I've edited and written for IT, business and electronics publications. In 2002 I co-founded Futurity Media with Stewart Baines where I continue to write about a range of topics such as unified communications, cloud computing and enterprise applications.