Everyone has heard about the wide variety of tools available to support and encourage enterprise collaboration. But collaboration doesn't start with a tool, it starts with people.

Collaboration is a hot topic right now, and has been for a good few years. Put the word ‘enterprise’ in front and the term becomes even more newsworthy. “Enterprise collaboration -- yes that’s what we should be doing” is a sentence that can be heard in various guises across boardrooms all over the world.

Every enterprise wants to be seen as encouraging collaboration, every company would like its staff to be working together more closely and sharing ideas more effectively. Very quickly these goals lead in one direction -- a new IT platform, some form of enterprise collaboration platform.

Before they know it, staff have a fancy new eRoom to work in, a SharePoint workspace to document meetings or some similar technology solution to a problem they weren’t sure they even had. 

This is a common issue with IT projects, often the fix arrives before anyone is really sure what they are trying to achieve. Collaboration is a special case in point, so particular and personal is this activity. Companies really need to take a step back before they take a step forward.  

Collaboration Through Conversation

Look around the typical office and you will see collaboration taking place in a number of different ways. People chatting across their desks are collaborating in the most basic of ways. They might be discussing a client, a project or possibly just the price of coffee -- but they are working together in a very simple way.

Bouncing ideas off another person in this informal way is something many of us do all day long. If we don’t do it across a desk, we do it over the phone, over instant messenger or email or even at the water cooler. Often, it will be taken a step further and people will head into a meeting room. Meetings are another simple form of collaboration that take place almost constantly across the business world. The art of a good meeting is the topic for another article, but each and every one is a form of collaboration between different stakeholders.

The point is that collaboration is simply an interaction between two or more people. It can be hugely informal and brief, or it can be an organized event between a large number. It may be documented, but more often than not it will be a transient encounter. It can be carried out in a very personal individual way, or it can follow a stricter process. It can be facilitated with software tools, be that Microsoft Word, SharePoint or Salesforce.com. Or it might be that a pen and paper will suffice. The means and methods of collaboration can vary hugely, from person to person, and project to project.

Examining Existing Collaboration First

The important point here is that before an enterprise platform is brought in, this existing culture of collaboration needs to be considered carefully. The way in which people work offline needs to be looked at and analyzed. Why do people interact the way they do? What is their motivation? A collaboration tool could be of huge benefit to them, but it has to work with existing methods and play to existing strengths.

If a particular firm's employees are all based in the same office, and currently work with post-it notes across desks, then SharePoint team sites might be overkill. But a wiki might support their existing way of working. Similarly, if a global firm gets by using Microsoft Messenger, than maybe the wider toolset of Communications Server (recently renamed to Lync) will be of benefit.

Collaboration in any business starts offline. It is already happening in every single office in one form or another. This existing culture should be thought of as a blueprint for a collaboration system.

The technology needs to support and enhance this culture, not replace or remove it. So before you bring in SharePoint, Huddle or something similar, have a good look around your workplace and think carefully. The collaboration you want to foster might already be there. The tools you bring in should build on what you already do. That’s the way to really succeed in enterprise collaboration.