In 1998 I discovered a skunk works project in the organisation I was working for. It was a project to take instant messaging to the next level and provide a platform for collaboration in a global organisation of nearly 40,000 people. I, although not alone, allowed it to continue and it was hugely successful and was eventually spun out as a start-up during the dotcom boom. Ultimately it was bought by a major software company. That was the first time I got used to using the word “collaboration” to describe the purpose of a software system. I’ve used many IM systems since and this was still the best I’ve ever come across.
Since then I’ve been continuously involved in initiatives and projects (skunk works, viral and endorsed) to help people collaborate better at work. Or should I say, in their working lives, which are no longer constrained to the times and places they are “at work”. Although I was able to measure and feel the positive impact of each project that succeeded and learn from the failures, I certainly didn’t always get what I expected as outputs for each of these projects. I have learned that there isn’t one collaboration tool that is suitable for everyone or every workflow.
The drivers for improving collaboration are usually fairly simple and boil down to everyone’s natural feeling that a significant portion of their working time is wasted organising the deluge of information they need to do their job. This gets expressed as: Needing a tool to reduce the number of emails. Needing a place to share work product that is being developed by several people. Needing to have a coherent multiparty conversation in real time or in delayed time. As the IT guy in the room I’m always in the position of adding. Needing to do it all safely and securely.
In the past 16 years I’ve seen many approaches and finally I think some mature thinking is being brought to bear on the subject. The oldest collaboration tool we’re all familiar with is email. A lot of collaboration solutions try to be either a replacement for email or a complement to it. Some of the most successful replacement models sprung up in the social media space and that has often driven workplace thinking: The Facebook for the enterprise goal. The complementary approaches typically bring profile, presence and IM into an email-like environment. Both approaches share the same weakness. They provide a place, portal or application where you go to “do” collaboration.
The realisation I have come to is that the most successful collaboration software actually fits into the existing ways people work and provides additional methods for them to share information that are right for that content at that time. How many times have you sent someone an email and then told then so via an IM. This is not inefficient, it is collaborative, allowing the poor strategy of sending an email and hoping for a reply to be replaced with the better deal of sending some content and having a brief exchange to set expectations. The flow is even more natural in a file sharing environment. Where the expectation that someone who is busy will watch for changes or pay attention to alerts is not productivity enhancing and often not realistic.
This means that collaboration needs to happen across existing systems and inside established workflows. A document may need to change collaboration context multiple times during the active part of its life. At any moment I may need to email it securely from within a file sharing application. I may need to invoke a collaborative editing workflow from a shared file or from a file stored in a DMS. I may need to share internally or publish to a trusted cloud provider for external sharing. I may need to provide and host a secure file sharing environment or deal room on demand. If I am going to stay productive my key value adding applications also need to be available in these environments. Especially those that support my skills and help me serve my clients in the way they expect. Collaboration is a landscape not a system or a process.
If I am working on something that I feel okay about sending through regular email then I use the tried and trusted document attachment method of collaboration. Even in this environment I probably want control over metadata and protecting from some of life’s snafus; replying to all when I’m only BCC or forwarding a long email chain with something embarrassing buried within it. I might also like something that makes my emails look more polished or allows me to convert attachments to pdf or combine them into a binder.
When I am more concerned about security or I have a large attachment it would be most efficient if I could also send than from my normal email client with all the same features and protections. As a courtesy I should be able to request files from someone this way as well so that they don’t have to find an appropriate service and I don’t have to join it.
If I’m working in a file sharing world rapidly co-creating content with others I need a fast reliable and secure platform for that. It needs to work on PCs, Macs, mobile and anywhere I can use a web browser. I also need value-added tools to manipulate documents. Tools that I rely on when I’m at my desk need to be available when I’m on a mobile device, tablet or phone, and at any web browser. When the team produces an output document that we need to share with other secure email might be the best choice so that they don’t have to navigate our shared folders and we don’t have to administer too many changes to the team membership.