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Collaborate to accumulate

To some the term ‘collaborative working’ would sound like a cross between fraternising with the enemy and co-habiting in a new-age commune. But the fact is that the idea is rather more rounded and sensible than it sounds. After all, people must, by definition, collaborate and co-operate to some degree in order to work with one another.

The critical factor of course, is how efficiently people work together. And this – the ability to work with each other smarter, better, faster, cheaper – is essentially the distillation of collaborative working as a concept. Its emergence, therefore, should hardly come as a surprise. It is perhaps, more of a surprise that the idea of IT enabling specific types of collaboration has not happened on a massive scale already.

The answer of course, is information technology. Businesses and individuals can already use email, remote access, mobile computing, broadband, wireless communications, virtual private networks and other technologies to work together and to some extent all of this enables people to collaborate or work together. But there is also a breed of application that has been designed to enable collaboration as a distinct function and has not, as yet, been adopted by many organisations.

Access all areas

At their simplest, collaborative software, or ‘workspace applications’ as they are sometimes called, promise to help businesses work more efficiently and to save money by allowing workers and partners to access the same information and applications at the same time, regardless of their location. This might be just two people, or it could be several.

Geographically dispersed colleagues or partners can “meet” on-line and collaborate on projects, presentations, and documents as if in the same room, with the ability to share any application or file on either computer, and make amends in real-time. People can work in teams, even though they are miles from each other.

As such, many of the processes that colleagues, partners and customers would usually have to perform within close physical proximity can be conducted at a distance. Documents – whether they are business proposals or technical diagrams – can be reviewed and updated while two or more experts look at the same image. Information can be shared instantly and the master document updated as both parties work on it together.

Many and varied applications

The potential uses for this type of application are many and varied. Two engineers – one working on an oil rig, the other in a London office, could examine structural diagrams for damage repairs and make changes as they speak. A medical specialist in Los Angeles could perform expert consultations with colleagues in Europe. Researchers could compare and contrast historical documents at a distance. Architects and planners could review development proposals together. Company directors and committee members could go through reports and statements and make changes while they are in conference.

It is important to understand though that collaboration does not mean that you all have to be working on the same document at the same time. It merely gives all team members who are involved in a process, access to the relevant documents, information and tools at the relevant time. It dovetails with the use of workflow systems and enables the whole process to move much more smoothly from start to completion.

Entire processes can be automated using collaboration software, so that the software will alert certain users at key stages of a project. If you thought of it as a living, breathing, pro-active project management system, you would not be far from the mark.

In design, in learning, in healthcare, and in every-day office environments, collaborative applications have the potential to revolutionise the way people work. They could, in theory, make it possible for all organisations and teams to become entirely ‘virtual’ so that people no longer need to meet physically in order to get the job done.

Flexible, productive & cost-efficient

The benefits are pretty easy to understand. The time and expense of travel can be saved. Important tasks – such as the diagnosis of a serious injury or damage to equipment – can be undertaken without the delay that could lead to further complications or cost. Expert help and further advice and assistance can be called upon more readily. Difficult and lengthy approval processes can be made simpler and shortened considerably.

In short, it has the potential to make any organisation – large or small – and any individual more flexible, productive, and cost-efficient.

The features of collaborative applications such as Microsoft’s SharePoint and IBM’s Lotus QuickPlace are sophisticated. They include white-board functionality so that users can ‘draw’ on documents and advanced editing and versioning, profiling and publishing options. They are centred on an on-line portal – a central point of contact for all members of a collaborative group through which all information and resources are shared and accessed.

Central point of information

When you start to think about it, having a central point, from which all users who might be able to utilise information can find and act upon it makes sense. In most businesses, users tend to store, manage, and manipulate their information independently and a lot of data is locked away inside the hard drives of individual users. Most of the time it remains hidden and inaccessible to other users.

If it could be shared it would, potentially, be much more valuable. This in itself is a reason for using collaborative software. But the concept can take you much further than this as well – it just depends on how far you really want to go. For some organisations, adoption can mean a change in working practices will be needed. There are also potential implications for information security so adoption of this type of solution needs to be carefully considered and planned.

Getting in some expert help to ensure that collaboration delivers all the benefits it can, improves processes for customers, suppliers and the business is certainly advisable. But if you can get it right, collaboration promises much and may deliver a great deal more.