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Modernizing business collaboration software from the inside out

While business collaboration software often focuses on internal challenges, enterprises must also find ways to bring global, mobile and external collaboration into the fold and create unified processes.

In the world of enterprise collaboration, most technologies -- and processes, for that matter -- focus on the inherently internal world of the enterprise.

While many business collaboration software tools enable external access, they focus primarily on creating access to content or to networks where some communities include external participants and some don't. A more modern approach would blend participants into a unified, secure and globally representative group, all with a common aim.

The real goal with collaboration tools is to pool the collective intelligence of teams and crowdsource ideas, wherever they reside. To achieve that, organizations need to create more flexible communities that can traverse internal and external boundaries -- with the security to protect the company's internal information while ensuring enough flexibility to enable ideas to make their way from external communities to internal ones, and ultimately into business practices.

Connecting a global team

Modern collaboration demands a participant group from around the globe, regardless of organizational affinity. True, in many technical disciplines -- such as pharmaceutical research and technology development -- ideas, concepts and approaches are increasingly coming from many locations. For example, Google bought Waze, an Israeli navigation tool provider in 2013, which brought together teams on near-opposite ends of the earth to collaboratively develop and improve Google Maps and Waze.

"Sharing information among organizations is the major growth driver [of collaboration]," according to May 2013 TechNavio research. "Enterprises are expanding their businesses globally. This increases the demand for international communication facilities for sharing information."

Ultimately, organizations need to develop collaborative processes and tools that recognize this global community. Modern collaboration tools need to accommodate various conditions, from typical language differences to geographic regulations (e.g., data privacy and intellectual property), to address global workforces.

Mobile workforces

Mobility is not a new concept in collaboration. For at least the past decade, collaboration tools have begun to recognize an increasingly mobile workforce. Prior to the advent of mobile phones, the dominance of laptops in the enterprise meant disconnected collaborative scenarios. With smartphones, screen size, bandwidth and interactive techniques must continue to evolve. Tablets are clearly the dominant device choice for the busy mobile professional, supplemented by capable (and larger) smartphones.

Still, there is a wide gap between the mobile experience and a more robust, PC-based experience for collaboration tools. Microsoft, Google, Huddle, Box and others have come a long way. But if you've ever edited a document on a mobile phone, you know the challenges. In addition, the basic interactive techniques for "working" on a mobile device have evolved; Amazon's Fire phone is an example of more sophisticated thinking about how mobility affects interactivity and how to solve those challenges (e.g., dynamic perspective, which allows the phone to respond to the way the user holds and moves it and aims to improve user interaction with the device).

In the end, mobility is the key to modern collaboration. In fact, it's clear that mobile devices, offline and online, are the devices most people will carry in the future. That being the case, modern collaboration techniques, tools and processes need to address key mobility concerns, such as device security; interactivity techniques; artifact lifecycle management (e.g., creation, editing and disposition); data security; and rights management -- across devices and operating systems.

A disconnected world

What may sound like a contradiction is in truth a way of describing the conundrum for any organization trying to solve a problem collaboratively with a collection of internal and external participants. Consider the recent "Ice Bucket Challenge" that raised funds to combat amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or ALS. The campaign involved a single organization committing to a collaborative effort to raise money. That organization, however, inherently depended on a large community of external collaborators to meet its goals. Unfortunately, there were no unified tools, processes, and/or technologies to effectively link the internal work of defining the campaign, organizing measures of success, collecting artifacts, managing progress or allowing the organization to collect "knowledge." This organization, in effect, had little control over the vast and disconnected set of activities and responses to the campaign. This is the case for virtually any collaborative effort that involves consumer and enterprise-level involvement.

In the modern collaborative scenario, organizations should have greater control over these types of disconnected activities. It's unlikely that a completely connected collaborative environment can ever exist. But collaboration tools, processes and technologies need to better recognize the patchwork of tasks and activities that are initiated, operated and distributed across various communities. Even if a campaign is conceived internally on a SharePoint site, is expanded as a part of a YouTube video and progresses through a tweet jam on Twitter, organizations need to connect these events in a unified way.

Making modern collaboration real

It's unlikely that a single technology or tool will effectively solve the challenges addressed in this story. More plausibly, the world of technology supporting collaboration will become more fragmented and difficult for enterprises to control. But each of these challenges can be accommodated and/or diminished through processes and technology.

Global teams, mobile workforces and the disconnected world in and of themselves represent individual challenges that can be reduced. Technologies such as automated translation, elegant application development and search technology can bring some control to each challenge. Unified and well-established collaborative guidelines and principles begin to fill in the technology gaps. Finally, an educated workforce can use human intuition to create an environment that brings modern collaboration to an organization in concrete ways.

This was last published in September 2014

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