Shown to improve productivity, collaboration tools are proliferating. Problem is, companies may soon have more collaborative tools than they know what to do with.
As the old Irish proverb goes, "Many hands make light work." That, of course, is the idea behind every collaborative technology, from two-man saws to Web conferencing. Only recently, however, has the variety of networked software aimed at corporations reached the point where it can be taken seriously.
Gartner Inc. defines collaboration as "a process, supported by a wide variety of technologies, that occurs when two or more people take actions in pursuit of shared high-level goals." Jared Spataro, director of collaborative solutions with Open Text Corp., a Waterloo, Ont.-based vendor of enterprise content-management software, says, "Business is the intersection of people, process and information. Collaboration is nothing more or less than making sure people are tightly integrated at that intersection." Those definitions are true enough, but may try too hard.
Simply put, collaborative software can be useful any time an exchange of information is needed for people to work well together. It can improve coordination between geographically remote sites, streamline specific processes and increase productivity.
"At the end of the day, collaboration is a productivity play," says Bruce Richardson, a senior vice president with Boston-based AMR Research Inc. Superior collaboration can translate into faster time to market, shorter cycle times, improved customer responsiveness, regulatory compliance or any number of other corporate imperatives. Collaboration tools can also eliminate delays common with other modes of communication, such as the phone and e-mail, and create a placesay a Web site or an online conference roomfor people to work together toward common goals. Or, to look at it another way, now that economists have unequivocally linked IT to individual productivity growth, corporations want to extend those productivity gains to groups and even entire organizations.
Take Chicago-based Grant Thornton LLP, a firm that provides accounting and business advisory services to midsize companies. Four years ago, Grant Thornton began exploring more cost-effective and efficient ways to keep its roster of 3,500 professionals, mostly consultants and accountants, up to date on frequently changing regulatory legislation, and evolving accounting and tax assurance practices. The goal: to improve the quality of work for clients, sure, but also to meet a licensing requirement to provide a certain number of continuing-education hours to its staff each year. This ongoing education requirement, as well as volatile business travel costs, prompted CIO David Holyoak to investigate Web-based alternatives to live training sessions that had been conducted all over the country. After evaluating a dozen vendors, Holyoak went with Lexington, Mass.-based Centra Software Inc.'s Web-based learning software.
Today, Grant Thornton uses Centra for all manner of online meetings. It has adapted its training content for online presentation and added interactive features such as chat (which allows for more give-and-take among training participants and trainers) and polling (which lets the firm quickly "take the pulse" of a group of participants to see how well the information is being received and understood). Holyoak acknowledges that while the cost savings and efficiency are clear, effectiveness is more difficult to measure. "When users are sitting in a remote location, we sometimes wonder: Are they paying attention? Are they multitasking? We know the training is good, but is it being effectively received?"
Holyoak also recalls a conundrum faced by the firm in November 2001, when many partners were reluctant to travel in the wake of Sept. 11, yet the firm was obligated by its partnership agreement to hold an annual meeting so that partners could tend to issues facing the company in the coming year. Grant Thornton held the two-day meeting via Centra's Web-conferencing software, thus satisfying its obligation while respecting partners' concerns.
For many CIOs, the key challenge now, and for the next two years, will be to get a better handle on their collaboration assets. Says David Coleman, managing director of Collaborative Strategies LLC, a San Francisco-based consultancy: "The marketing guy brings in WebEx while the head of sales is using Open Text. Multiply that by dozens of groups and the complexity quickly becomes unwieldy, especially for the CIO ultimately charged with overseeing it all." CIOs should start by taking inventory of the tools that have been brought in by individual groups or business units over the past several years. Next, they need to understand exactly how each of those tools is being used, and by whom. This is also a good time for CIOs to look for business processes that might benefit from collaboration technology, just as Holyoak did with Centra at Grant Thornton.
Ask your CFO:
How much could we save on travel and phone costs through better collaboration?
Ask your business unit managers: