How do you know you are using the right collaboration tool? With 2000 + tools in the market place today, how do you know you have the best solution to your collaborative challenge? The goal of this article is to give you some general rules of the road for collaboration. What technology to use and the best time to use it.

1. Email

This has been around for a long time and everyone uses it. But it is often used inappropriately. People copy everyone on a message (cc), and a recent Skype study found that 35% felt that e-mail was contributing to their information overload. E-mail will not go away because it is an easy messaging tool. It is asynchronous so an important question for you to ask yourself is "does your e-mail need a quick response?" if it does, then it is probably better to see if you can detect that person's presence on IM/Chat and resolve it quickly in real time. If it does not require rapid response is it to be sent to one or many people?

If it is sent to one person, than e-mail is probably fine, if you are going to send it to many, and expect many responses, then e-mail is not the right tool. It is a lot better to post in a forum, or have a document posted in a shared space. E-mailing a document around is not a good idea, nor is putting it into Google Docs (can't always control who can append what to the document), but posting it into a secure team space is probably best. Tools like Huddle, PBWorks, CentralDesktop and many others offer a space to post documents, a way to do check-in, check-out and deal with version control.

Email vs. Social Network Communications

However, most notifications either from people or from applications are still through e-mail. Last year for the first time there were more messages in social networks than in e-mail. A recent Nielsen study shows that Indians now spend more time per day on social networks than e-mail.

We expect this trend to continue. One reason is that Gen Y tends to favor real-time tools rather than e-mail. My nephew recently told me that “e-mail is for old people!” We are also starting to see tools that will combine all of your inboxes from both e-mail and social networks (Outlook, Twitter, LinkedIn, Facebook, etc.). Some examples of these tools are: unifiedinbox.com, Twezr is basically a smart, social, unified inbox that lets you read and respond to messages from both e-mail and social media services in one place (for iPhone). Microsoft offers Outlook Social Connector to bring these two data sources together, and another tool I use is Gist (which was recently bought by RIM) which unifies your contacts in one place. Xobni (inbox spelled backwards) is also a tool that will help you unify your e-mail and contacts as well as your social networks.

2. Web Conferencing

This second rule of the road is about "Web or data conferencing vs. screen sharing. I interact with lots of people at a distance all day long. About 70% of the time I am on a phone call and want to show someone something or share something on my desktop. Now I know most Web conferencing tools do offer a screen sharing function, certainly WebEx, GoToMeeting, Adobe Connect, and Microsoft Live Meeting do, but they also come with some "overhead."

Keeping it Simple

I often like to keep things simple as one of my first rules of collaboration is "that if the tool gets in the way of the conversation it is not a good collaboration tool." One of the tools I have used successfully is Glance. Not because I have known Rich Baker their CEO for a long time or think he is a good guy (and smart), but rather for the simple elegance of the user experience with this tool. It is very good at one thing, screen sharing. Because it can only take a few seconds (there is a small initial Java download) to get into the tool, I can use it on an ad-hoc basis when I just want to show someone something I am working on, or share a web site. I just give the person I am talking to on the phone a URL (a permanent Glance URL for Collaborative Strategies) and with Java-based browser they can see my screen in seconds, therefore not letting the technology interrupt the conversation.

This is a great way to collaborate by sharing my context. But sometimes I have more formal interactions that may be planned in advance. This is most common when I do an analyst briefing with a collaboration vendor and they want to schedule a Web Conference. Meetings are time-bound events, and most Web Conferencing tools were built in a time where companies were not so agile and people so social. Some of these tools require a good sized download each time you use the product. Then there is the whole dance of scheduling, and getting all the people in the meeting together (virtually) at one time. You do have additional functions for Chat/IM and presence, as well as the ability to do application sharing, audio conferencing and these days mobile and video conferencing. Some Web Conferencing tools support a meeting agenda, voting and polling and even ways to do brain storming.

Timing is everything

The point here is not so much about each tool, but when is the right time to use the tool, and when not. Many people do not know about Glance, Join.me, teamviewer, yuuguu, or mikogo (for sharing with > 10 people), and that these are often free or low-cost options that have low overhead, and a low context switching cost. When I can pop someone into the tool in 5-10 seconds and continue the conversation, that is a low cost context switch, when I have to take 10 minutes to get into another program and make sure everyone else is in also, that is a high cost context switch. Any context switch can cause you to lose people and lower collaboration greatly through high cost context switching.

So determine if you just need to show someone something on your screen: I use this for working on proposals and letters with my colleagues in real time, or to share some complex information (picture, drawing or even a specific web site). Just the other day, I did a web safari (where I drag along their browser as I cruise the Web) with a past client which focused on "online communities." Because I knew where to look and they didn't it just took me a few minutes to show them their options. It would have probably have taken them hours of research, and in the end they would just be overwhelmed by the number and variety of choices.

Rule summary

When my communication is more formal, then web conferencing is the appropriate tool, especially if I am trying to come up with new ideas for products and services. Then the ability to support brainstorming, mind mapping, voting, doing SWOT analysis and other functions are really appropriate and can make me (and the team) much more effective.

I will examine additional “Rules of the Road for Collaboration” in another article.