Enabling Collaboration in 7 Steps

By Tyson Hartman

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In the global marketplace, businesses, customers and employees are publishing and consuming vast amount of information. In fact, according to the Harvard Business Review, there was more data generated in 2009 by individuals than in the entire history of mankind through 2008.

People who discover, share and increase the value of that information put their businesses ahead of their competitors. Such information has the power to accelerate innovation, move products to market more quickly and enable employees to more easily collaborate and share information where and when they need to do so.

This emerging, decentralized business landscape calls out for collaboration. And, collaboration is fast becoming perceived as essential for business success. As markets become more and more dynamic, product and service adoption rates are increasing while innovation cycles are decreasing. Companies need to identify new product trends and customer trends sooner and make the right investment decisions in order to capture more market share ahead of their competition. Collaboration is the vehicle for capturing these trends, and then aligning internal resources to move to market first.

In this age of instant expectations and the need for enhanced speed to innovation, meaningful collaboration is crucial. For rank and file employees, it might mean simply having the tools to enable faster communication. For professionals, it might mean immediate access to essential people to manage a strategic project or client requirement. For companies, it might mean being able to engage business units, separated by continents, in a planning session via video Web conferencing without the need for travel.

Consider the following medical industry example: A doctor reviews a patient’s medical records online and decides she needs another interpretation of certain lab results quickly. The patient sits waiting in an examination room. The doctor checks her computer. A “presence” indicator in the application indicates a colleague she wants to confer with is present. She opens an application and contacts her colleague instantly. A response from her colleague arrives shortly afterward.

This approach ensures that the doctor can immediately know who is available and provides a routing process that enables her to connect with the doctor in real-time. In this specific example, this type of collaboration not only helps the doctor but it greatly improves patient care. The technology enabled the doctor to see who was available, but without a routing process in place to reach them, the doctor would not have been able to connect with her colleague.

In the enterprise, today’s fluctuating and competitive business landscape requires that employees increasingly work more effectively with teams across geographies. Companies need to move from static organizations, where people perform mainly repeatable tasks, to composite organization models where people work together on an ad hoc basis to drive projects and initiatives. In this composite set-up, companies can utilize the best available resources as needed, helping them do more with less, deepen customer relationships and make smarter business decisions more quickly and efficiently.

While technology is the enabler, it can’t be understated: meaningful success only takes place when an organization considers the people, the process and the technology. They all feed on each other.

Key considerations

Technology can provide huge value in increasing collaboration. Leveraging these technologies to achieve sustainable competitive advantages requires a comprehensive approach that includes technical and human aspects. Projects that focus on just the implementation of the process, or only the technology, often fail. Successful engagements result from a careful examination of each.

For collaboration, a "build it and they will come" approach is not the right answer. Deploying technology without proper guidance or directions on when or how to use it will only confuse and, potentially, annoy employees. For example, we’ve seen companies deploy collaboration platforms and just expect that they’ll begin seeing improved business and employee productivity as a result. In reality, the opposite may happen without a well-defined governance model and deployment plan.

Before implementing an enterprise-wide collaboration strategy, companies should first determine what they want to solve and how collaboration will affect the way employees work. For example, collaboration platforms are a Swiss-army knife of technologies -- encompassing everything from email, instant messaging, presence, team portals, document sharing and content management. Without a well-established vision and problem statement that defines the business problem to be solved, deploying this broad base of technology will likely just be an expensive process with little return.

However, if it’s well understood within the company what the key area of focus should be, such as improving team coordination across geographies in bringing new products to market, the company can devote its investment to the best solution. In this example, the best solution may be a combination of team portals and messaging with presence to start.

Success is dependent on building a roadmap that aligns with the business priorities and capacity of the organization to absorb change. Key steps include:

1. Create a list of potential business processes and domains where enhanced collaboration could be beneficial. For example, customer service could leverage team workspaces deployed by product line with specific wikis on each product to capture support information. Ultimately, portions of the wiki content could be exposed externally to drive more self-service, or even allow customers to make their own entries.

Other areas could include a multi-channel content management solution, using a common platform and processes for managing content internally, externally and for partners. This reduces total content costs as well as real content reuse is actually possible across these channels.

2. Identify the required capabilities to increase agility and productivity. With customer service, this could mean where employees find the right information, identify experts to assist with problems, collaborate to make decisions on key customer concerns.

3. Create a vision or ultimate design for what kind of collaboration technologies could support and streamline collaboration. Continuing our customer service scenario, this could mean an expertise portal where agents can search and identify experts for different areas, supported by presence and communication channels to reach those experts in real-time. Often the fastest route to solving a customer problem is based on knowledge in someone else’s head -- if finding this information faster was possible, customer satisfaction could improve.

4. Build business cases for each process or domain that has been identified. Then, stack rank these initiatives according to the business impact or ROI they can provide. For example, a company could define the different collaboration workloads that you see having the greatest return -- such as messaging/presence, team portals, document management, content management and search -- and then align these workloads with the priority business cases.

5. Implement in steps. Based on how you prioritized the potential processes to enhance with collaboration, keep the change manageable by implementing slowly. This helps to establish credibility and results -- real momentum as users individually appreciate the benefits. With this momentum, it’s easier to implement collaboration tools more broadly and realize more benefit.

6. Communicate business goals to the users. Tell them not only how to use the new collaboration capabilities but why they should use them. In some cases, it may even make sense to invest in building a baseline metric of productivity or some other measure to allow reporting of improved success over time.

7. Monitor success and adjust, if required. The benefits of collaboration can be notoriously hard to quantify. Measuring the direct effects of the act of collaborating is very difficult. Collaboration yields improvements as both the technology and the human behaviors permeate the business. Measuring applications misses the point. What matters most to organizations is the effect of these changes over an extended period of time and how they help impact business outcomes to bring about company improvements.

There are many different examples of quantifying success with collaboration. For instance, some customers have tracked financial metrics or reduced travel or telecommunications spending. Others track their ability to attract and retain employees as a result of a collaboration platform or report on the "green" benefits they’ve seen. When the collaboration solution targets a specific area, you can also monitor user or customer satisfaction as a result of the process as well.

Companies that effectively use collaboration services will find themselves accomplishing certain goals more quickly: establishing collaborative workspaces for content management, sharing documents and insights, and enabling teams that can connect quickly and more efficiently. They also will be able to adapt to business opportunities more effectively because they can connect and innovate with agility. It accelerates their entrance into the markets they want to dominate. It improves how employees do their work. It drives innovation. It stretches across the globe. It can be the difference between success and failure.

Tyson Hartman is the CTO & VP of Enterprise Technology Solutions for Avanade. Tyson is responsible for Avanade’s technology vision, solutions and R&D investments. Focusing on how best to leverage the latest Microsoft technology to solve customer problems, Tyson leads the incubation and engineering teams to deliver differentiated solutions across the complete enterprise IT lifecycle.

Markus Sprenger is the global solutions director for Information Management and Avanade's primary business intelligence (BI) expert. He defines and directs the implementation of Avanade's solution strategy relative to Microsoft's BI products and alliances, including the creation of intellectual property (IP) and reusable implementation assets that accelerate customer deployment.