For most companies, succeeding in business has always involved some level of collaboration, both internally and externally. Both types of collaboration remain important--perhaps more so than ever in today’s hyper-connected world--and dramatic advances in technology are making collaboration easier, more accessible, and more effective for companies of all sizes and types.
“Successful companies understand that internal collaboration--a ready exchange of relevant content and data as employees go about their jobs--is vital for efficiency and the development of competitive advantages,” says Lisa O’Neil, associate partner at Control Group, a technology-focused innovation strategy firm. “They also appreciate that collaboration with non-staff stakeholders--suppliers, customers, shareholders--is equally critical to servicing customers, fostering innovation, and maximizing those competitive advantages.”
In the past, organizations have been designed around channels of communication, with this siloed approach creating specialized departments and groups. “In this hierarchical system, information is power, and the information is held as both job security and something where people want credit,” claims Joel Oleson, director of evangelism at ViewDo Labs, a pioneer in enterprise social network analytics and governance. The current trend is toward flattened organizations, giving a voice to information workers at every level. At a strategic level, information is now shared between organizations without the need to flow all the way to the top for prior approval, he says.
Oleson notes that as recently as a decade ago, intranets were designed to be top-down portals for pushing information to employees, but with the emergence of Enterprise Social Networks (ESNs) as a critical collaboration technology, that trend has been reversed. All employees can now contribute through wikis, expert blogs, and other input channels. “The trend is to unlock the information and increase the flow by leveraging innovative technology that provides platforms for transparency, such as social intranets, activity streams, and ESNs,” he says.
New internal collaboration mechanisms aggregate feedback better and allow for data sharing without in-person meetings, greatly increasing the role of multiple stakeholders, suggests Steven Berlin, co-founder and CEO of Uskape, a new collaborative workplace application. “People can now work from anywhere and keep the dialogue going around the clock. The opportunity is endless,” he says. Collaboration helps centralize a decentralized workforce, adds Cory Rehfeldt, director, collaboration practice, at Logicalis US, an international IT solutions and managed services provider. It allows for the creation of virtual teams that can bring a broad range of expertise to bear on multiple projects. Technology-enabled internal collaboration “means being able to put the right person with the right knowledgebase in the right position, regardless of location,” he says.
Bryan Hanson, assistant director at Creighton University’s Werner Institute for Negotiation and Dispute Resolution, believes the increased opportunities for remote work that collaboration creates may lead to better work/life balance. “Technology also allows workplaces to secure the best and brightest for the tasks to be accomplished by removing the limitation of geographic location,” he says.
Technological advances are driving changes in employee attitudes towards internal collaboration. “Today’s employees are well-informed and positioned to have an impact from multiple levels within an organization, thanks to tools like enterprise collaboration networks. Everyone now has a forum for their voices to be heard,” Berlin says. O’Neil highlights the “consumerization” of corporate IT evident in the corporate product roadmaps of Dropbox, Evernote, and other platforms that started out with a focus on the consumers of their apps.
“Companies heavily use social media as integrated aspects of their marketing efforts,” she says. “Most people carry their work email, content, and productivity tools around on a smartphone and check those as often as they check their personal content and notifications. Work life and personal life are extremely blended.”
Technology is having just as big an impact on external collaboration by eliminating or greatly reducing the significant investments in networks and infrastructure once required to support it. File sharing used to require extensive authentication systems, multiple logins, and high overhead costs for setup, administration, and support, limiting many organizations’ ability to access external collaboration. “What has changed is the ability to leverage existing logins and the emergence of simplified administration and tools that need little to no customization to support the sharing of a variety of information,” Oleson says. Technological advances in this area are encouraging businesses to collaborate with their customers and partners more than ever before, he adds.
As collaboration solutions become easier to use and more affordable, more and more businesses are likely to embrace advanced collaboration solutions as part of their corporate culture, Rehfeldt predicts. “The wave is coming, but it hasn’t peaked yet. For companies that have not embraced these things yet, now is the time to start. Your competitors are looking at and adopting these solutions,” he warns.