Using technology to support collaboration in business is far from a new idea – the reason email is so well-entrenched, for example, is that we’ve been using it for decades. However, historically, business collaboration generally meant a small team working together, typically in a single location. And so collaboration tools focused on simply providing a central location where information could be shared among the team, as well as including traditional features such as discussion forums. In today’s globalised business market though, teams are spread across locations, indeed often across continents and time zones. It’s not unusual for team members to have never met before, and sometimes to have never even heard of each other before joining the team. And so we are starting to look for new ways to connect our employees better – not just for the purpose of working on a specific project, but to recreate that togetherness that exists in a co-located organisation.
Social collaboration tools bring a new set of capabilities that are designed to open up the organisation and facilitate communication and awareness of what is going on around you, and they have some fundamental characteristics to support and enable collaboration:
- Everyone has a voice. A fundamental feature of social tools is their open, non-hierarchical approach to collaboration; every user is able to post content, ideas or suggestions, and comment on others’ posts, and all content is attributed to the individual who posted it. What’s more, everyone has a profile in the system, so you can easily find out more about someone, giving further context to their comments.
- Easy to use. One of the key success factors for tools such as Facebook and Twitter is that they have extremely simple and intuitive user interfaces, and are easy to use, even for the less technically-minded individual. Business-focused social technologies take the same approach, borrowing many of the UI characteristics and features that we have become familiar with in using these technologies outside the business context.
- Embedded into day-to-day activities. A major weakness in traditional KM tools was that sharing knowledge was something that you had to explicitly set aside time to do, formally documenting processes in a written report, or conducting post-project reviews, for example. In social collaboration tools, process knowledge is captured in situ, as it happens, through the documenting of discussions that take place within a team as part of completing the task itself.
- Information is accessible to the whole organisation. As a result of the non-hierarchical nature of social collaboration tools, combined with powerful search, content recommendations engines and tagging features, information is no longer locked in silos such as email, file stores or people’s heads; instead it is accessible and findable across the entire organisation, providing a platform for sharing best practice and enabling reuse of work already done.
- Surfacing experts and enthusiasts. Because they capture information about who posted what and who is talking with who, social tools are able to build a picture of where expertise lies across the organisation, supporting traditional approaches of self-nomination with evidence of discussions an individual has participated in, or documents they have posted on a particular topic. This has many consequences; for example, through technologies such as analytics and recommendation engines, people with similar interests or skills can be introduced to each other to enable communities of practice to develop.
- Enabling cross-organisational collaboration and co-operation. Through social networking features, social collaboration tools can surface existing relationships between individuals across the organisation, providing a platform for different teams and departments to connect more deeply to support cross-organisational teams and cross-company collaboration.
Of course, for all the benefits they offer, social collaboration tools are not a solution in and of themselves – as I discussed in my post If you build it, will they really come?, improving collaboration is as much a cultural issue and demands a corresponding business change programme if it is to have any significant long-term impact. But without these new tools, it would be extremely difficult to achieve enterprise-wide collaboration in today’s global organisation.
(A note from the editor: This post was originally published on the AIIM community blog, where Angela posts monthly as an invited ‘Expert Blogger’.)