Demystifying Collaboration Technologies

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For many years the IT industry has been talking about the importance of collaboration and how companies should invest in appropriate collaboration technologies. The term “collaboration” is quite broad and the technologies to support collaboration are many. In this blog post, I want to demystify what collaboration means and give an overview of the supporting technologies. In next week’s blog article I’ll map these technologies to the collaboration products offered by Microsoft.

The definition of collaboration

If you look up collaboration in the dictionary it says, “The act of working together with one or more people in order to achieve something”. If you translate this to collaboration being done in the workplace it can be anything – a sales team working on a proposal, scientists researching a new medicine or a leadership team defining the company strategy.

The basic components of collaboration

To easier understand the technical support we need to improve collaboration in the workplace it helps to look at the basic components of collaboration. What do we need to do in order to collaborate?

  • Communicate: In order to collaborate with each other, we need to be able to communicate. This includes all ways of communicating ranging from the richest form of in-person meetings to talking to each other over the phone or sending messages to each other via computers or mobile phones.
  • Share: We also need to share things with each other. This includes working material and resources. In our example above the sales team needs to be able to share the proposal document, the scientists need to share lab results and the leadership team needs to share the strategy presentation.
  • Access information: Finally we need to be able to access relevant information. This might be things like sales data, lab results or market research.

The collaboration technology components

When you break down collaboration into the three components above it becomes much easier to categorize the many technologies involved.

Technologies for communication Technologies that support communication include support for various types of meetings such as video conferencing and web conferencing. It also includes technologies for voice-based communication like telephony, conference call systems and voice over IP. Finally, it includes technologies for sending messages, from faxing to email, instant messaging and voicemail.


Technologies for sharing
Sharing technologies include things like Intranets and Extranets where people can share workspaces, documents and tasks. It includes sharing calendar information and being able to share applications with each other in real-time.

Technologies for accessing information
The technologies included in accessing information are copious. This includes, among other things, document libraries, files shares, databases, surveys, wikis and blogs. A key component in order to easily access the information you need is a powerful search engine. We don’t want to waste valuable time looking for the information we need.

How do you measure collaboration productivity?

One of the key challenges for organizations is how to accurately measure the productivity gains from improved collaboration.  In the McKinsey & Company article called Using technology to improve workforce collaboration, the authors write, “For production workers, productivity is readily measured in terms of units of output; for transaction workers, in operations per hour. But for knowledge workers, what might be thought of as collaboration productivity depends on the quality and quantity of interactions occurring. And it’s from these less-than-perfectly-understood interactions that companies and national economies derive important benefits.” Since each collaborative situation is unique, and the gains derived from each situation differ, it’s impossible to define a common measure for collaboration productivity.  Many companies feel the need to measure the impact so they often revert to the easiest observable measure – cost saving. There are numerous case studies where companies show enormous cost savings on travel after introducing collaborative technologies for video conferencing and shared workspaces.  However, this is just the tip of the iceberg, the impact that improved collaboration has on the business in terms of faster time to market or improved innovation is much greater.

Technology adoption is key to realized value

As you know I am a strong believer in leveraging new technologies to improve business productivity. But as with all technologies, in order to get the return of investment you are looking for, users need to be able to use the technology to improve business processes. There is no point in implementing a new IT system if no one knows how to use it – or why to use it. But if the introduction of new collaboration technologies goes hand in hand with behavioral changes driven by a desire to improve – real value can be realized.

(If you have difficulties reading this article, you can access the full article in pdf here)