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Enterprise collaboration tools encourage communication, inside and out

Companies are increasingly using enterprise collaboration tools to brainstorm ideas in a secure, recordable fashion, internally and beyond the perimeter of a company's four walls.

While companies view collaboration software designed for more than one-off tasks, such as document sharing, with circumspection, the role of collaboration tools in crowdsourcing is gathering steam.

As companies have become increasingly global, with employees scattered across the world, creating common virtual locations for people to share ideas and communicate on projects has become more valuable. Companies are turning to collaboration tools to crowdsource ideas in a secure, recordable fashion, and thus drum up conversation internally among workers, as well as expand their knowledge base beyond the perimeter of a company's four walls.

According to a recent study by Computerworld, 58% of respondents said collaboration software has become "very important" or "critical" to their companies' futures. The market for crowdsourced professional services racked up over $1 billion in 2012 and continues to grow more than 60% year over year, according to the site CrowdSource in the article Crowdsourcing Industry Trends: Unique Ways Companies Are Leveraging the Crowd.

"You have to get the organization aligned around a different way of working," said Forrester Research Inc. Vice President and Principal Analyst Rob Koplowitz. "Collaboration software creates access to better information and better expertise, and it crosses geographic boundaries to enable people to act collectively."

Collaboration as global knowledge sharing

The real promises of collaboration are supposed to be crowdsourcing and knowledge management, where companies can get or hone ideas through a community and codify knowledge in a shared virtual space. But these uses of collaboration can be slow to take shape.

"We see pockets of adoption -- which is encouraging, but pockets nonetheless," Koplowitz said.

A weekly event is great for knowledge-sharing. But why not have an online community that is year-round?
Jim Cahillhead of social media, Emerson Process Management

Some companies, however, are experimenting with communities of expertise to share knowledge and boost their own visibility.

St. Louis, Mo.-based Emerson Process Management serves industries such as chemicals, food and beverage, and pharmaceuticals, providing process optimization technologies and services to increase productivity, reduce cost and ensure safety. Its customers are in technical industries with vertical-specific concerns, so Emerson Process Management hosts the Emerson Global Users Exchange, a weeklong event in various locations to enable customers to learn and share expertise. But four years ago, the company wanted to extend its reach and create a digital, ongoing community of exchange to augment its physical events.

“We said, 'A weekly event is great for knowledge sharing, but why not have an online community that is year-round, global and 24 hours a day?'" said Jim Cahill, head of social media. The virtual events broaden the reach of a physical event and bring more minds into the conversation, he said. So Emerson turned to Zimbra, a collaboration tool, to create online communities to supplement its live events.

"Once you move these conversations online, it is not just the customers in North America, but also those in other regions of the world that can participate," Cahill said. "So the crowdsourcing becomes much bigger and allows many more people to get involved than at a face-to-face event."

For Emerson Process Management, the result is a peer-to-peer (P2P) community that enables knowledge sharing and problem solving in these highly technical areas.

"Many of these participants are engineers, and they have a responsibility to keep things running but to be energy-efficient, to understand the whole process: the chemistry, understand process safety," Cahill said. "So they come into the community and have a big basketful of problems. We're not saying the community does everything, but it does help solve particular problems with a technology. It's another problem-solving tool that they have."

Cahill acknowledged that creating a community to centralize expertise is easier said than done. While the community might spark communication and participants can message one another directly, his understanding is that participants often take extensive conversation out of the community, into email. "It's still the dominant form of communication," he said. And creating a more seamless continuum between the community and the company's website is also a challenge. The Global Users Exchange isn't connected to the site for Emerson Process Management. Bridging the gap is still in process.

"We're not comfortable with doing that yet," Cahill said. "We don't want to integrate all over the site, push marketing into [the community] and kill the P2P spirit."

Widening the crowdsourcing net

As Cahill mentioned, a benefit of using enterprise collaboration tools is that more people can participate in communities and events, because involvement isn't dependent on physical location. Collaboration tools also foster ideas in a less inhibited environment and open the floor to those who might be too intimidated to contribute in person. Brainstorming on a collaboration platform provides a structured environment that can help drive and capture the ideas.

Truven Health Analytics, based in Ann Arbor, Mich., is a healthcare information company that serves hospitals, health plans, government agencies and large employers, among others, providing data and services to help organizations make better decisions. According to Emily Twanmo, VP of client services, brainstorming sessions are essential to collaboration at Truven Health -- for example, Twanmo's team recently wanted to identify the topics that were most important to their clients for an upcoming client advisory group meeting.

About five years ago, Truven Health began using a collaboration as a service application called ThinkTank, partly to improve the ideation process. With ThinkTank, admins can set up brainstorming tasks in real time, allowing session participants to make simultaneous contributions related to a specific problem. ThinkTank also allows a voting process in which participants can prioritize ideas gathered from a brainstorming session. Brainstorming and voting can be done in a live virtual meeting, or after the fact, and people can enter the system over a longer period of time to provide input.

ThinkTank maintains a structured approach to collaboration, but it has helped open the floor. For Twanmo, one of the unexpected boons of using ThinkTank has been anonymity. Whether in a real-time meeting or offline, users can remain anonymous.

"It's a way to get people actively involved in a conversation, but in a safe way. No one's intimidated -- a junior person isn't intimidated by a senior person. The quality of input you get is better than an in-person meeting."

In years past, brainstorming sessions at Truven Health were largely limited to in-person meetings with some participants on the phone, but this approach had limitations. "To get everybody's input, you went around the room in a very structured way in an attempt to get everybody involved," Twanmo said. "Often in a meeting with, say 10 people, maybe two or three people participate and two or three remain silent because they are afraid to speak up, and the remainder [on the phone] are multitasking."

ThinkTank also generates a transcript that allows people to go back and look at the problems and solutions that have emerged from brainstorming sessions.

Twanmo is happy with the level of user adoption of ThinkTank, but she noted that job responsibilities don't always require workers to use the application on a regular basis -- unlike email. While some employees can use ThinkTank as admins to set up sessions, Twanmo would like to see more people trained as admins, which could in turn make ThinkTank a more natural part of employees' problem-solving process.

Collaboration tools not yet part of the covenant

While companies are finding use cases for collaboration tools as crowdsourcing mechanisms, adoption remains slow, said Forrester's Koplowitz. "Email is still the only application that has a covenant attached to it," he said. "It's the only application with critical mass, and you are obligated to use it," he said.

You have to get the organization aligned around a different way of working.
Rob Koplowitzvice president and principal analyst, Forrester Research Inc.

Part of the adoption issue may involve, as Cahill noted, how best to integrate internal and external communities and data. While Cahill would like to create a connection between the Emerson Process Management website and the community, he also has concerns about how to meld those two worlds together without affecting the spirit of the community or creating undue sponsorship of the community by the site.

Companies are still trying to figure out how to strike the balance, partly through rigorous privacy controls, but also through appropriate linking and entry points between internal and external worlds.

Koplowitz said companies are still hammering this out. "It creates this additional layer of complexity," he said. "You have to realize that you could be communicating with external people, so you need to be able to apply all the appropriate security to that."

Some companies are using collaboration tools for more circumscribed uses, such as file sharing. For these trends, see part one.

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The accumulated knowledge of company’s employees represents a massive resource and a critical asset but existing tools just seem to add to knowledge worker's "tool time" (time spent using tools instead of doing thier actual work) and, in the end, these tools are underutilized. The key is to make tools that are simple to use and work with a wide variety of other tools as putting everything in a central repository, while ideal, is unrealistic in many cases.
Totally agree with the "tool time" - these types of technology should make collaboration easier, not add to the workload.