There is overwhelming evidence that effective online collaboration can increase productivity at organizations of all sizes. Technology-based collaborative working leverages internal and external social networking, video conferencing, document sharing, instant-messaging, and other platforms to enable quicker contact and easy sharing of resources among coworkers and authorized third parties. Research by consulting firm McKinsey & Company found that office workers spend an average of 28 hours a week writing emails, searching for information, and collaborating internally. It estimated that improved communication and collaboration through social technologies could increase productivity by 20 percent or more.
“Online collaboration can benefit small and medium-sized businesses by creating an organized--this part is important--central location for them to share information,” says Nick Brattoli, founder and lead consultant at Byrdttoli Enterprise Consulting. Files and projects can have metadata added to them, making them fully searchable, which enables knowledge sharing among employees and teams, regardless of their physical location. “If one department solves a universal problem, maybe related to project management or information about a client, everyone else can have access to it, too.”
One of the most significant benefits online collaboration offers businesses is workforce flexibility, as technology enables workers--whether they are full-time employees, part-timers, contract workers or consultants--to work from anywhere on any devices. “As the workforce changes, the way people work is changing, too,” Brattoli says. “Work is no longer a place you go from nine to five. Instead, it is what you do, and it can happen from anywhere, at any time. Online collaboration software makes this much more possible.”
Businesses are utilizing many different types of online collaboration in today’s environment, with scenarios involving mobile workers, remote workers and teams, virtual teams, outsourced work reporting to a project manager, and inter-organizational partnerships, says Diane Gayeski, dean of the Roy H. Park School of Communications at Ithaca College and a professor of strategic communications there. Gayeski points out that each kind of collaboration may require slightly different management techniques and cites several common collaboration challenges and ways to address them:
• Keeping in touch without face-to-face contact. Managers should establish ways to connect workers and establish trust and camaraderie. This can be done through regular “catch-up” meetings, similar to what might be done over coffee in an office.
• Ambiguous responsibilities. In remote situations, it’s imperative to clarify who is accountable for making a project happen, who else is involved, and what each party’s specific responsibilities are.
• Establishing communication norms. This should cover what media is used for which tasks and when individual team members are available for collaborative exercises. It should take into account different time zones and work shifts, if applicable.
• Learning new tools and managing the overhead associated with them. “There is a plethora of online tools for collaboration, and they are always changing and improving,” Gayeski says. “This can be a challenge, and managers need to set aside time to investigate and learn new technologies for their teams.”
The many dozens of potentially useful online collaboration possibilities fall into four general categories, with some products straddling multiple categories:
• Knowledge management solutions. These tools make it easy to compile, sort, and access the tremendous amount of critical information that even small businesses compile. Some popular small business programs include Communifire, HyperOffice, Interact, and Simple Intranet.
• File sharing. These tools let SMBs share almost any kind of file securely and enable simultaneous review and revision by multiple users. File sharing programs such as Soonr Workplace, Hightail, Microsoft OneDrive, and others eliminate many of the problems associated with multiple email attachments.
• Web and video conferencing. Business apps such as AnyMeeting, Cisco WebEx, Fuze, GoToMeeting, and others give managers, employees, vendors, and other third parties the benefits of face-to-face communication without the costs of business travel.
• Communication apps. While email remains a primary communication tool for businesses, apps such as Slack and Yammer create a more freewheeling or conversational communication, providing the functionality and ease-of-use common to many social media platforms.
“Companies looking to embrace a culture of collaboration need to remember that meetings and workplace collaboration are no longer limited to a pre-scheduled meeting around an oak table in a big conference room,” says Steve Schult, director of products at LogMeIn. “SMB organizations, their workers, and their customers are using cloud-based tools in ever-increasing numbers, driven by the need to work from anywhere, at any time, and from any device.”