An executive recently commented that everyone claims their technology is collaborative, so surely this must be confusing, especially for someone not familiar with collaboration tools and why tools are important.
Collaboration tools are essentially about the technology we use to work together toward a common goal. For centuries people have used collaboration tools - take for example, writers of the Renaissance era. But our most contemporary collaboration tools are computer-based technologies that facilitate collaboration far better and further improved through networks.
What you need to know is that collaboration tools do three things: connect people, facilitate interactions, and retrieve available resources to enable groups to work together. Let's review what each of these elements need to contain.
User profiles. Most user profiles include full name, address, phone, fax, email address, and IM name. To build well-rounded and robust user information, user profile fields will include personal and professional information and a photo.
Group setup. Groups are the essential element of connecting people. Typically, groups are arranged by function, like sales or engineering. It is also advantageous to create groups for project teams or special projects and provide permissions for users to be added to the group or follow a group to keep informed.
Administrator. The collaboration tool administrator ensures permissions are properly given for each of the users, often called user roles, and groups. The administrator must keep users informed of tool usage, enable features to keep users connected, and add new users to the system. Lastly, an administrator or moderator if one is employed, will keep activity streams visible to inform users in areas of interest and encourage participation.
Communications. Status updates are a popular communication feature in many collaboration tools similar to social media applications (Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, and Google+) to give users the ability to broadcast questions as well as collaboration and support requests to others in the group or entire organization, depending on permissions and group level access. Microblogging is like a status update but as a short form of blogging, will provide an ability for people to communicate concepts, opinions, and best practices, depending on usage favored in your organization. Instant messaging, chat and email provide person-to-person and group contact. Some integrated tools will include advanced features to conduct web and video conferencing.
Tagging features. Users enter bits of information in the collaboration tool that become tagged, as a function of the system, by username, account name, like @mentions to pull others into an online conversation (similar to Twitter). Intentional tags at the bottom of a blog, microblog, or wiki are useful to infuse relevant keywords and aid search results -- tagging features are necessary elements to build a robust search function. Through further tagging, the use of keywords, titles, tasks, and status variables in the collaboration tool enable users to track and follow interactions, such as conversations, shared information, and coworker requests.
Notification system. Alerts through email notification, toolbar icons, text messages, or widgetized areas to send you timely posting inform users of pending contact requests, time-dependent tasks, or announcements as well as system-wide messages.
Retrieving Available Resources
Search. Capabilities to search people, topics, documents, keywords, and surface relevant information is timely and enables users to find what they need.
Information sharing. Collaborative groups require the ability to work with the same document or information resources from other applications through plug-ins or application programming interfaces (APIs), and easily exchange information.
Document management. Access is needed to document storage repositories, whether on network or cloud-based servers. Users must have the ability to check in and check out documents, maintain document version control, and establish archives.
Tips to Get Started
Whether you're an executive to sponsor purchase of a collaboration tool, the technology buyer, or user, try to establish a framework within your organization what you want the collaboration tool to do and how people may work more effectively together. Sometimes internal processes become silos of information and are so ingrained that people are reluctant to change them. A common approach to solve this problem is to know your existing processes that work well. Then, you may consider improvements to add on through stakeholder acceptance.
You can do it. Collaboration tools will help you grow an online community to bring products to market, engage with customers, and contribute to broader knowledge sharing goals. International organizations are saving travel budgets by acquiring collaborative tools and platforms to enable geographically dispersed groups to work together. Public and private organizations are instilling a culture of collaboration through internal guidelines and a broader vision of community. Overall, collaboration tools are your best bet to support the future of work in your organization.