Collaboration software: It's not about the tools

The success of a collaboration software tool starts long before its purchase. First design a collaboration strategy that delivers measurable results.

Often, when enterprises confront the issue of collaboration, the initial reaction is to search for a new tool. And companies don't just look for any tool; they want the tool to bring colleagues together in blissful collaborative nirvana.

Some companies may take inventory of their systems and discover that they already have collaboration software in-house -- a commendable first step. But often, certain stakeholders will stand firm that the market has matured and the new tools available are easier to use and more effective. Companies sometimes end up with a patchwork of collaboration systems and little strategic vision on how to use them.

This scenario plays out across firms every day. But a tool is simply that: a tool. Tools are only as good as the strategy behind them; they don't solve problems on their own. If you make a purchase without a plan, you'll end up with a tool that can never assist you in fully realizing the collaborative paradise you've dreamed of achieving.

There are some best practices for choosing collaboration tools, however. Here are some to keep in mind.

Determine success criteria

At the outset, you should ask what you hope to achieve and how success will be measured in using collaboration software tools. Surprisingly, few organizations establish answers to either of these questions before embarking on a search. But it's critical to understand business needs and measurements that will gauge success. As Stephen Covey is famous for saying, "Always start with the end in mind."

If you dig into tools, you'll find that features and functions play a crucial role in success criteria. For example, if we consider 37 Signal's Basecamp product, you'll find it's good at generic operations. You can easily create a to-do list, assign individual tasks to specific people and even set due dates. In addition, whether it's in the context of an individual to-do list, a contributed document or a more traditional discussion topic, participants can add commentary to virtually anything.

But consider trying to find a specific piece of content for an initiative that has a long duration (of months or years). Consider the volume of content that may accumulate under any given item. Because Basecamp's search is limited to keyword queries, it may be difficult to establish which discussions resulted in a decision in the case of a to-do list masquerading as an issues list. If we compare Basecamp with Atlassian's Jira, for example, you'll find Jira is far more suited to an issue-log scenario. You can effectively track issues and move them through various stages.

Preserve and manage outcomes

The general idea behind collaborative efforts is that colleagues, working together, can solve enterprise challenges. The solution may be new software, written policies, a proposal or another output. During the course of collaborative activity, ideas are generated and recorded, information is gathered and artifacts are created. All these items may or may not need to be preserved. However, companies need to establish policies and governing principles to decide the fate of content to make the right collaboration choices.

Many people will point to Google's collection of tools and speak highly of their collaborative capabilities. Google Docs allows simultaneous editing, Google Drive can preserve outcomes for long periods and Hangouts offer virtual face-to-face interaction. All these features make Google's products compelling.

However, in scenarios where automating disposition rules or moving content into various hierarchies is critical for preserving (or disposing) of content, Microsoft's SharePoint may be a better choice. Both features mentioned are native to SharePoint. Conversely, SharePoint is far more complicated to set up and manage than the Google products, even if you subscribe to Microsoft's Office 365 service.


User engagement is key to supporting the sharing and preservation of content that is at the core of a successful collaboration plan. Huddle is famous for poking fun at Microsoft's SharePoint product for having a steep learning curve. In part, the criticism is deserved: Huddle guarantees that your users will use the tool, whereas Microsoft can make no such claim. As a result, Huddle may provide an advantage, because its usability gets people to engage -- and engagement is the first step toward allowing your sales team to find that sales spreadsheet it will need to make informed decisions and maintain a competitive edge.

Content accessibility is also critical. It's unlikely that any business problem will be completely isolated -- three of your colleagues may be trying to solve the same problem as you are. Consider how the information you've gathered and the outcomes you've produced will be "findable" by others in your organization. Only then will your company really benefit from your efforts.

In the end, the concept of collaboration has multiple dimensions. A tool is simply an enabler. Success lies at the intersection between the guiding principles of your organization and the tool's fitness for achieving your ends.

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