What is a collaborative work environment? Almost all work has collaborative elements: we work with co-workers, managers, and subordinates in teams, committees, and departments. We use many environments and tools to share information and ideas. While working together is not a new concept, technological advances and shifts in workplace culture have changed the way we work.
Think about collaborative environments as technological "spaces" where individuals share ideas and files, store useful information, and move from the linear model of "create, review, revise, approve" to ongoing, simultaneous involvement by everyone on the team. These spaces may include features like checking out a file so nobody else can work on it, editing tools available to anyone viewing a chunk of information, or version control to track who's changed what. However, technology alone does not create collaborative work. The phases of planning, tool selection, and implementation and adaptation are critical to success.
In the planning phase, consider how collaborative work will function for you:
Budget questions are also important. However, the cost/benefit result is unique for each situation. Some savings are not obviously tied to collaboration, like those associated with flexible work options or "greening" through technology.
Workplace culture is key to collaborative success. Has your CEO decreed an open work environment, or has interest come from the grassroots? In turn, who is reluctant? Change introduces resistance, whether from IT, end users, or managers.
The second phase is tool selection. Once you've determined how collaboration will enhance your workplace, think about technologies to enhance this practice:
IT issues are critical. Does your team have the time and skills to manage your tool choices? Do you have storage and network capacity to handle increased traffic as users work in shared spaces across the network? What about Web hosting and traffic limits? Will sensitive data be affected, such as HR information or financials? How will information be protected?
Many technologies support collaborative work. For example, email is often a collaborative environment, with quoted messages used to store information. Companies committed to Microsoft software might consider SharePoint, which offers document repositories with check-in/check-out features, wikis, and bulletin boards.
Web tools are also popular. Wikis let users create and edit pages to share knowledge. Web meeting software permits remote desktop sharing, real-time polls, and other features that let remote users work together. Blogs and message boards can promote conversations and information-sharing, whether internal or worldwide.
A company that wants to provide a wide range of tools with only one implementation may choose an enterprise-level content management system that supports text, video, audio, images, and other document types. While expensive, this option reduces training, rollout time and expense.
The third phase is implementation and adaptation. Some issues, addressed earlier in the planning phase, must be revisited once the plan is approved:
Management may involve more interpersonal skills and conflict resolution than before. As projects shift from sequential deliverables to constantly changing group work, management personnel must identify new ways to measure workload and quality.
A pilot project can help isolate and fix problems before full implementation. Whether a single department or an existing cross-business project is chosen, participants can test the process and evangelize to the larger company.
Offer training of all types and of all lengths of duration. Some people prefer to read a manual, while others want hands-on workshops. A range of training opportunities, from five-minute videos to multi-day retreats, gives everyone the opportunity to learn.
Whatever your industry, some collaborative element can make the process and the finished product stronger. A document repository of reusable chunks of information or code, a shared space to discuss documentation, or a vibrant message board used to build internal best practices are all collaborative tools that can enhance innovations you've already implemented.
You may already be doing much of this. Teaming, cross-business support, and remote-work solutions are now part of doing business. If you already have some elements in place, you may need only to change the way you describe this work. To expand, you can identify missing links and create training that identifies the existing process as collaborative work, along with offering new tools or opportunities to spark interest.
Collaborative work is a solution with both business and IT elements. Focusing on tools without addressing process, or vice versa, is an incomplete approach. The most successful collaboration initiatives consider both aspects before jumping in.
Kate Wrightson Merlino is Senior Technical Editor in the Technical Communications Services division of nSight, a Massachusetts-based company that helps its clients "make every word count" in their technical, marketing, and corporate communications. She has overseen the delivery of content ranging from traditional published books and marketing communications to network diagrams, help systems, and wikis. She holds advanced degrees in education and English, and has contributed to more than a dozen books on Open Source software.
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