At one time or another, we've all found ourselves with a question that no one in the immediate vicinity could answer. And depending on the organization, finding and making the most of that expertise either ended in new opportunities or a source of frustration.

An organization I once worked for invested in a web-based project system to allow file sharing with the many different external contractors and consultants it worked with. But the tool's security layers made it so difficult to use, they needed to run an onboarding program for external users just so they could log in for the first time.

This collaboration tool was used, but never particularly well or with any great enthusiasm. Luckily the failure of the software and the way it was implemented wasn't enough to prevent work and projects from being completed, but the opportunity to work smarter and more effectively was missed.

The Dispersed Nature of Expertise

Globalization, economic development and, of course, technology are changing how expertise is acquired and accessed. In some cases people with expertise are rejecting traditional employment models, while others are finding that geography is no longer a constraint for knowledge work. 

And it's likely that as technologies that augment knowledge work improve, the available pool of certain special expertise will become more dispersed. The ability to collaborate without borders is shifting from a "nice to have" to a core feature of work, which raises the stakes on effective collaboration technologies.

Addressing fidelity is often seen as the critical enabler of collaboration in the workplace. Since we are assured that working together face-to-face offers the best outcome, there's a push to develop new or better technology to bridge the distance gap. Microsoft Research's Room2Room is one of the latest experiments to bring a holographic-like experience to videoconferencing. We can expect techniques like this to evolve and improve.

Yet humans have been collaborating over distance in different ways for centuries using another important technology — the written word. Today we have augmented words with rich media and even emoticons, but the principles remain the same no matter the format.

Instead of worrying about fidelity when collaborating without borders — since the level of fidelity is relative anyway — we should focus more time on understanding what I call the "collaborative posture" of the organizations and people involved. This collaborative posture reflects the overarching attitude towards collaboration rather than any one specific collaboration technology or process.

Which Collaboration Model Do You Follow?

Businesses can take many different collaborative postures, but they usually fall under two key archetypes: Walled Garden and Edge Orientated.

Walled Garden

As the name suggests, a Walled Garden organization provides the people working within it access to a closed information system. Modern enterprise IT systems can do this with less inconvenience to users than in the past, but such closed systems typically restrict the ability to work with unapproved applications or people. 

The result is an excellent user experience, but only for authorized users. As a result, it's still common for field workers and full-time contractors to experience problems accessing the people and resources they need in a Walled Garden.

Picking the right enterprise-grade cloud-based solutions can go far in removing these kinds of collaboration barriers, regardless of who and where that expertise is. For example, general collaboration platforms like Microsoft's Yammer and Jive Software both provide a way to bring external experts into conversations or project spaces.

Learning Opportunities

This focus on user experience extends inside the physical workplace too — like taking simple steps to reduce the friction that might block effective collaboration. For example, simplifying the process for getting building access, booking meeting rooms and even connecting to a presentation screen (ARUP does this well in its Sydney office, with simple controls and a backup cable connection). This applies equally to external collaborators as it does for employees visiting from other offices or even other floors.

Some organizations are also using corporate hackathons and co-working spaces to help break down barriers between internal and external expertise in the pursuit of innovation or new knowledge. Hackathons create a temporary shared space where external collaborators only need a space to work, access to power and a guest wifi network. 

Co-working means employees can work online within the corporate IT environment using secure extranets or a virtual private network, but connect in person with external expertise. A few years ago as part of its own digital transformation, Capgemini sent a handful of staff to work in a Sydney co-working space so they could find out first hand about "new workplace practices and ideas."

Edge Oriented

An Edge Orientated organization has a very different posture from a Walled Garden. It doesn't just involve opening up internal systems, but rather a focus on creating shared platforms for collaboration at the edge of the organization. For some, this might mean an online community, where employees, partners and customers can collaborate on an equal footing.

Mobile phone service giffgaff has created a whole business model out of collaborating with its customers. It rewards customers — its "members" — for referring friends and family to the service or by helping other members.

Around the world some corporations and many civic agencies are using APIs or have opened up their data sets for others to use and innovate around. Technology has also inspired whole new ways of thinking about the nature of work, creativity and innovation — like the protein folding science game, Foldit, and the data prediction competition platform, Kaggle.

We have entered a new era of knowledge work. Whether you work in a Walled Garden or an Edge Orientated organization, a palette of different strategies for working with expertise are available to you.

Title image by Roberto Nickson

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