Another View: Isn't it time you tried online collaboration?

Gabe Goldberg

If you want to mold your staff into an efficient, productive team, consider tossing out your current office habits and installing online collaboration tools. The right technology will foster new ways for teams to work, such as telecommuting or virtual projects with shifting structures.

Telecommuting is the simplest step away from traditional office structures, though to this day workers and managers oddly resist it. Call forwarding, caller identification, broadband Internet access, instant messaging, virtual private networks and file sharing reduce offsite workers' sense of isolation.

Collaborative tools can give workers shared spaces within which they work and pool information. Such tools can replace individual workers' paper files and keep people linked.

Keep in mind that collaboration is a process, not an end in itself. No organization exists just to collaborate internally, so systems need explicit goals, such as improving customer service or speeding workflow.

Collaboration starts by inventorying how you work now, surveying industry for tools, identifying similar organizations' successes and running a pilot project.

When you initiate a project in which remote people will collaborate, until momentum and early progress occur, collaboration tools are empty'and lonely. It's easy for participants to be discouraged when nothing new appears in a project workspace.

Yet until tools are widely used, there's no reason for people to participate. Breaking this circle requires evangelism'yours and committed project staff making essential information available and talking up the collaborative aspect. Success means hands-on management. Create high allure and low obstacles to entry. Offer training, documentation, context-sensitive help and support.

You already have the basic building blocks for successful collaboration: a network, e-mail, Web browsers and such. When it comes to applications such as discussion threads and online calendars, documents and databases, accommodate peoples' learning curves and be ready for resistance.

Don't dazzle people with an arm-long features list; let them adopt interfaces at a comfortable pace. Twenty percent of a system's features will provide eighty percent of its potential benefit. Where there's been nothing but one-to-one e-mail, a tool like project-oriented mailing lists with searchable archives will seem like a bold leap forward.

Collaborative tools often give you unexpected benefits, such as connecting people isolated by organizational structures, unaware of colleagues with whom they share interests and knowledge. Some organizations create communities of practice; for example procurement officers in different departments.

The tools let specialists and experts share their expertise widely, often via online lists of frequently asked questions. Check out www.thoughtlink.com for information.

Instant messaging, often derided as a teen toy and banned by agencies, shows up in muscular enterprise editions from vendors like IBM.

When designing, starting and operating a collaborative system, be sure to apply records retention, privacy, Freedom of Information Act and similar policies to material you create.

Don't let politics hinder collaboration. Have all constituencies participate in shaping ground rules. Encourage information sharing. Soon, people will joke about the old days, when the office was fueled by paper.

Gabe Goldberg is a technology consultant and writer in Bethesda, Md. Visit him at www.cpcug.org/user/gabe.

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