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What's at stake when modernizing collaboration systems?

As the pace of business in the digital age pushes companies to break down communication silos, enterprise collaboration systems become more essential. But how can organizations encourage collaboration -- and what is at stake if they don't?

The evolution of business in the digital age has driven massive change in the enterprise, particularly in the area of collaboration. Silos are falling in companies all over the world, as the need for speed breaks down decades-old bureaucracies and calls for people to actually talk to one another. Collaboration, put simply, is a top priority in the modern enterprise.

And yet, collaboration in the enterprise lags behind other evolutionary changes in business processes. While three out of four employees are fluent in social media and use it nearly every day,  fewer than 15% participate in enterprise collaboration systems that are in-house and intended to connect them to others beyond their immediate team or department.

A new exchange

Why is enterprise collaboration falling short? Part of the complacency could derive from our reliance on tried-and-true enterprise tools like Microsoft Exchange, which traditionally have hosted our corporate communications. Grouping people together in Exchange and Active Directory is easy to do and thus commonly done, and it's easy to empower those groups via the same mechanism (and sometimes inadvertently constrain them). "Set it up in Active Directory!" becomes our collaboration rallying cry, and we've reached a point where we seldom think outside that box.

What's at stake?

When collaboration systems come up short, the depth and quality of our collaboration suffers. The consequences of insufficient teamwork can threaten the modern enterprise, considering the pace companies must maintain to remain competitive. These consequences can include inadequate response to the marketplace or to business and supply chain disruption, unstable inter-business partnerships, slow in-house process development, and failure to learn from mistakes.

CRM is one area where internal collaboration is increasingly critical. In the digital age, rapid response to customer needs is a make-or-break thing: If you don’t meet the need right away, someone else will. The customer service arm of any business is more dependent than ever on the other arms that gather the support needed to achieve excellence in customer relations.

It's not just customers who require a rapid and comprehensive response: partner companies also require a high level of spontaneous cooperation. The same rule applies -- internal support across the enterprise, in the service of business partnerships, has to be rapid and pervasive to keep B2B processes robust and running smoothly.

Who are the stakeholders?

Increasingly, external business partners are central in collaborative processes, because those partnerships, more and more, define success in the marketplace. Successful collaboration now means de-siloing not only internally but externally: sharing data resources between partner companies, extending the utility of in-house tools for a partner's benefit, and leaning on each other's capability to monitor the marketplace and the logistics of shared operations.

Internally, de-siloing gets a lot of lip service and is viewed as a best practice. But, as noted above, not all companies have put serious resources and management imperative behind the intent. Microsoft's SharePoint is a standard-bearer in making this kind of collaboration a reality, especially with its embedded Yammer functionality that offers collaborative capability across organizational boundaries. The idea is to tap more innovation and creativity within the enterprise, and to stimulate greater sharing of expertise and know-how -- but it only works if everyone, or most everyone, uses the tool.

A company with an abundance of innovation and creativity, where expertise and knowledge flow freely, will clearly do a better job of providing support for customers and partner companies. Getting there means finding the in-house enterprise collaboration system that is the best fit, and having enthusiastic high-level support to stimulate buy-in across the board.

The new IT

A final consideration in moving collaboration forward is involving IT at a deeper level. Few departments have evolved more rapidly in the past couple of decades than IT, but that forced evolution makes the tech branch of the enterprise all the more essential in empowering innovation in collaboration.

Getting a proper collaboration platform fit and putting it in place is only part of the challenge. Integration with other systems and business processes is also essential to maintain robust, fault-tolerant properties, including a capacity to change rapidly and degrade gracefully. More than ever, IT is the holding point for what is possible -- how enterprise collaboration systems can be adapted to fit the business, what it will cost and what opportunities are realistically available. IT is a critical voice in the collaborative process.

"Adapt or die" has always been the rule. To adapt to doing business in a fast-paced digital world, organizations need to get as much active participation as possible in collaboration.

Next Steps

A guide to modernizing enterprise collaboration

Build a business case for social collaboration

How to corral collaborative communities

This was last published in November 2014

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