I thought I would open up this month's major theme by asking what the topic in question, Enterprise Collaboration, means to you in your particular organizational context? In this article, we will take a look at the human angle -- the why's and the wherefore's -- and then finish with a look at procuring and using the technology that is available.

Defining Collaboration

Collaboration is generally defined as "working together towards a common goal". The definition, plus our own common sense, dictates that this requires 2 or more people, so we seem to be talking about what might be called team or group work.

Depending upon your organization, your 'teams' or groups may come in many shapes and forms. It's possible to have permanent teams assigned to run particular processes and ad hoc teams formed rapidly to solve a particular problem. You may also have small local teams, or large 'work groups' consisting of many teams distributed around the globe and, just to be fanciful, there is an extremely small group of organizations that have team members beyond the globe (think scientists aboard the International Space Station!).

What about 'Enterprise'? This word has a number of meanings, but in our context, it means a "business venture, organization or a company". So, we have suddenly gone from smaller teams and work groups consisting of many teams to introducing the concept of collaborating across the whole enterprise! Easy, right?

Wrong. Nothing is ever that simple. Therefore, I thought I would borrow a definition that is used in the reports produced by the world class analysts at The Real Story Group when they talk about software deployment scenarios:

  • SMB -- A Small to Medium Business: a single firm in a single location with up to 500 staff
  • Department -- A single department within a larger enterprise, ranging from a small number up to 1000 staff
  • Enterprise wide -- A highly distributed (likely international) enterprise with more than 1000 employees

Using this terminology we can see that you will still need to very specific if you're writing your business case for senior management or preparing tender documents. By enterprise collaboration do you mean a system (including technology) that is really for teams or groups to use to work together, but that will be deployed enterprise wide (i.e. across the whole organization) or do you really mean a system that will enable all employees across the whole enterprise to collaborate with each other?

As you can see, depending on what you want, you will need different strategies, policies and guidelines and different tools or tool sets.

A Multiplicity of Tools

Collaboration has become a bit of a buzzword, somewhat like 'social'. It's almost as if humans have not collaborated since we started driving Woolly Mammoths over cliffs and that only the very latest software releases can unleash our collaborative potential! This is of course utter twaddle, but that does not mean recent trends -- for example the Web 2.0/Enterprise 2.0 approaches to delivering tools based on standard web protocols and interfaces -- cannot help us do a better job of working together on our common goals.

Put 'enterprise collaboration' into Wikipedia as a search term and you can browse through the history of how collaboration tools have morphed from Computer Supported Collaborative Working (CSCW -- anyone remember that acronym?) to 'groupware' and into 'social software'.

Remember that the ability to communicate with your partners, colleagues and team members is a key requirement. Also remember that while email is a "lowest common denominator" for electronic communication, and therefore can be used to collaborate, it rarely makes a good collaboration tool.

My company provides group calendars and task lists as well as email, two document management environments that allow us to collaborate on document production and editing, team workspaces that include forums and wikis, an Instant Messaging system, numerous desktop conferencing systems, multiple conference call systems and very big and fancy video conferencing (telepresence) system.

Do all these systems facilitate enterprise collaboration? That is a difficult question to answer. I would say most of them do, but all to different degrees. If I define enterprise collaboration as being able to collaborate with any individual anywhere across the 140 plus countries my firm operates in, then the global people directory, the search engine and individual personal profiles might be more important

However, with no microblogging or activity stream type applications, if I find somebody I may need to collaborate with towards a set of common goals, I will have no way of knowing for sure without emailing or calling them -- I can't simply read up on what they're current working on. Yes, I realize that is hardly a disastrous situation, but it illustrates the point that you need to consider exactly what it is that you want, to analyze your requirements fully.

People, Process and Technology

Once you have a good grasp of what it is you actually want to accomplish and a working definition of what 'enterprise collaboration' means to your organization, you need to consider some of the rather more intangible factors. For example, do you already have a collaborative organizational culture? Do you, as an organization, share information freely and easily? If so, then you may just need to worry about user adoption issues of any new technology introduced. But if not, will the move to a new method of collaborative working require a major organizational change management initiative?

Will a new collaborative way of working require new, or changed business processes? These are the people and process questions which many say should always come before the technology. Personally, I think that it depends on the context, as the technology solutions available can influence the way people work together and the way your processes are changed or developed, so I would give equal weight to each side of the triangle. An excellent resource for you to get started on strategy, governance and user adoption in the context of collaboration is http://www.michaelsampson.net/

Final Thoughts

So, Enterprise Collaboration, just like "knowledge management", can mean different things to different people. Whether your objective is simply to do what you already do in a 'better' or more efficient manner, or if you're introducing a major change in the way your people do things, the key element here is that you do not leap to the technology solution. You absolutely must undertake a robust requirements analysis exercise, including the development of a definition of exactly what Enterprise Collaboration means for your organization.

Only when you know exactly what it is you want to collaborate on, how you would prefer to do it, why and what the objectives are and what you're going to measure in order to prove success (or not) are you ready to develop your strategies, policies and technical solutions.