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Summary:

While communication tools like Skype have succeeded in mobilizing an entire generation of workers, collaboration tools are now driving change within businesses. The enterprise is no longer dictated to by legacy technology, but shaped by collaboration tools that let groups form naturally and enable participation.

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We’re well aware of how advances in technology – particularly the Internet – have transformed the workforce. Thanks to fixed and mobile broadband, workers are no longer shackled to their desks from dawn until dusk. Their office is wherever their smartphone, laptop, netbook or other device of choice is.

While communication tools like Skype have succeeded in mobilizing an entire generation of workers, collaboration tools are now driving change within the walls of traditional enterprises worldwide. Software-as-a-Service (SaaS) tools, such as Huddle, Yammer and Jive Software, are breaking down the communication silos that have developed within organizations.

Traditional, inward-looking enterprise software, such as SharePoint, often reflects the structure of a traditional business. Staff using these complex tools can work with people in their department, but collaborating with people outside of this silo is a challenge. Cloud collaboration tools remove these barriers and enable everyone to connect and work with everyone else. Information can be easily shared, knowledge “gate keepers” are removed, people can see who is contributing to projects (and who isn’t) and traditional business hierarchies start to crumble.

Everyone from the managers in an organization to interns can benefit from the flat structure that web-based collaboration tools are starting to nurture. Rather than being restricted to using people on their team for a project, managers can now draw on expertise from across the organization. Regardless of where they are located, what their job title is or what department they’re in, the best people can be selected for a job. Knowledge and expertise become the defining factors for choosing project teams rather than where people sit within the business hierarchy. Boundaries blur and you simply have a group of people working together.

An example of an organization that treats its workers as a global talent pool is independent digital marketing agency AKQA. With more than 900 employees across seven offices worldwide, AKQA’s staff often need to work with colleagues across multiple territories. Teams are assigned to projects regardless of which office they are based in. For example, a campaign may involve a creative team based in Washington D.C. and a technology team in London. To reduce email traffic between staff and the time spent traveling to and from face-to-face meetings, AKQA deployed Huddle as its standard global collaboration platform. As well as enabling staff to brainstorm ideas and work together on pitch materials, secure branded workspaces enable clients to access campaign content, approve and comment on documents, and keep track of projects in real-time.

Collaboration tools are also shaping enterprises by removing the communication barriers between organizations. Rather than being a self-contained unit, today’s enterprise is an increasingly fluid network of customers, partners and suppliers. As SaaS tools work across firewalls, staff can connect and work as effectively with people outside of their company as they can with the people sitting next to them. Faced with the challenge of successfully communicating and working with its dealer and subsidiary network in an economic downturn, Toshiba America Business Solutions (TABS) turned to Jive Software. An online community called Toshiba eXCHANGE was set up as the key information portal for TABS’ network of dealers. Rather than using email, phone calls and an intranet to gather information, dealers can go to Toshiba eXCHANGE to ask questions, share best practice, and view recent campaigns and product collateral. Three months after the community launched, 1,892 users were participating in discussions and sharing their knowledge.

Since WebWorkerDaily launched in 2006, technology has not just extended the enterprise beyond the office walls, it has started to change its structure. Thanks to online collaboration tools, the fragmented flow of information across organizations is now becoming a thing of the past. The enterprise is no longer dictated to by inflexible legacy technology, but shaped by collaboration tools that let groups form naturally and enable everyone to participate.

Andy McLoughlin, Co-founder and EVP Strategy at Huddle, can be reached on Twitter @Bandrew. See Andy speak about how collaboration tools are reshaping the enterprise at our Net:Work conference, coming to San Francisco on December 9th.

Photo courtesy Flickr user toffehoff.

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  1. But why to collaborate in the first place? Or why does it work?

    Information is Data in Context
    Context is Organized data

    So what these Organization really do is put data into Context to get to the Information. Context also has a past, present and future, most companies haven’t figured that out. Nor do most Web silos. I think just collaboration without understanding why,what and the necessary systems to make it happen and successful is just buzz words with a lot of guessing(to say it nicely).
    Most companies drive their categories from the hierarchical structure they are organized in, which is just a recipe for disaster.

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  2. Hi,

    Great article! I’d like to add that not the tools define the success, but more the processes and the people behind the processes who are willing or not willing to collaborate are key to success. Furtheemore I’d like to suggest a look at http://www.agreedo.com which applies a simple interface leaving enough room for company specific processes to take place

    Best regards,

    Hannes

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  3. A very worthwhile topic Andy. I disagree with your assesment of SharePoint, a product you discribe as “inward-looking enterprise software”. Fact is, I consult with companies that vary in size from 50 to 50,00+ employees and would argue that your assesment of the platform and its ability to address cultural and collaboration needs is much broader and powerful than you suggest. Allow me to point out a few capabilities that address the needs of businesses and their relationship with both employees and customers.
    1. SharePoint is available as a set of “foundational”, core features in 3 ways: As part of Windows Server 2008 (called SharePoint Foundations), as a hosted service from a variety of top-tier hosters, and as a hosted, dedicated server. In my business, we have presented all 3 as options to clients, depending upon their budget, technical resources and comfort with “cloud” services. I think it is shortsighted to distance one’s solutions from “traditional” deployments right now.
    2. What you may term as complex, I find customers welcoming in terms of consistency in the UI with how they use the web and desktop applications. For example, the ability to subscribe to a discussion just as you would an RSS feed is built-in. As is the ability to synchronize a discussion with your Outlook inbox, enabling the ability to converse there without going to the web.
    3. Customization. This can’t be overlooked, as no 2 businesses are alike. What many of the web-based collaboration suites lack is the ability to mimic the business environment and workflows that make up their culture.
    4. Access & Security. Desktop, web, mobile device. Check. Ability to give secure access to clients & busiiness partners. Check. Ability to restrict access/rights to certain documents, pages, activities (through Msft & 3rd party add-ins). Check.
    5. Scalability. 900 employees is alot, but I wouldn’t use that as the litmus test for the viability of an enterprise solution just as I wouldn’t suggest a 90,000 employee environment validates something across all segments.

    Frankly, I think the pool of opportunitiy is large enough for a multitude of vendors. In my opinion, however, you do a disservice to your own product and credibility by implying a knowledge of other vendor’s products and implied deficiencies. It’s a worthwhile conversation, I just think your post would benefit from more research.

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  4. Hi,

    Nice article. However, while the “social” collaboration systems are great in some regards, I think the real revolution is with online project management software.

    OK, I am biased: I work for Apollo ( http://www.apollohq.com ) which provides collaboration-based project management; we use it internally, we love it, and love the way things are just “ticked away” — social networking is fun, but getting things done is another story…

    Bye,

    Merc.

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