The culture of collaboration

Bert van der Zwan, VP EMEA, WebEx examines the cultural challenges of web collaboration

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Collaborative technology has come a long way over the last five years. From simply being seen as a cost saving tool, businesses are now beginning to realise the greater benefits it can bring – benefits that can actually grow the business. This is reflected in research from Gartner, which estimates that the web conferencing and team collaboration software market will be worth $1.1bn by 2008, more than doubling in size from 2002. Such rapid growth in such a short period can be explained by several factors: a strong return on investment with higher productivity, savings on unnecessary business travel and the ability to cut carbon emissions and an enhanced global presence. Hot on the heels of consumer ‘mashup’ or collaborative applications, business mashup technology is also coming to the fore – allowing workers to share structured and unstructured information while group collaborative sessions are underway. The ability for anyone to create their own applications quickly, cheaply and easily is extremely powerful, and is igniting a sea-change in the way that workers interact and collaborate over the web. Yet adoption of collaboration technology still proves to be a challenge for some companies, with many employees either unaware or unwilling to learn and use another new communications tool. Any company that employs collaborative technology without thinking carefully about an adoption strategy could only be getting half the benefit.

Culture change
As is often the case with slow technology adoption, the heart of the problem is cultural. Established methods of communication, particularly the prevalence of email, can mean employees don’t see the need to use any alternate method of communication. However this ignores the fact that existing collaborative technologies, namely email, Instant Messaging (IM) and groupware, are very different from online collaboration in terms of benefits. Web collaboration, by nature, is real-time communication, featuring live interaction between attendees and requiring the use of eyes, ears and voice. In contrast, email and groupware allow interaction with a server, not other people. Communication is rarely instant and response times far more lenient, and as such they cannot offer the true collaborative benefits of a web conference, for example, where attendees are in direct, real-time contact. The increasing use of IM clients has connected remote users with real-time communication by text, but the collaborative power of these systems doesn’t always stand up to scrutiny. You can’t share documents or run presentations through an IM client, so the ability to really work together on a project is limited. Collaboration through an online meeting, on the other hand, can help increase productivity by allowing users to work together and share any document from any location worldwide, which simply can’t be achieved by sending updated documents back and forth via email.

Companies that have achieved the highest ROI from collaboration have made their employees aware of the benefits the technology can bring and have lifted internal barriers that might discourage employees from using it. As well as a reluctance to make the shift to a new technology, in some cases employees are often unaware of the personal benefits that they can achieve with increased work flexibility and time savings. To combat this reluctance, an awareness campaign of the new technology available should ideally start before the implementation begins, and continue after roll-out, to be certain that every individual within the organisation is clear as to the potential benefits. Once they are clear that they can personally gain, through higher productivity and simply having more time, they are much more likely to adopt.

Training, performance and support
Although easy to use, some employees might feel that extensive training is necessary and may be put off the idea of trying web collaboration. Features such as screen and application sharing can seem daunting to the inexperienced user, and similarly the pressure of having to present live can mean the more advanced functions go unused. Full benefits can’t be achieved without making full use of the service, and it only requires one meeting attendee with operational difficulties to create non-productive time for all the others. Consequently, initial training (ideally hosted in an online meeting) and ongoing support is important.

Once they are used to the idea and trained, the challenge is to keep employees using the technology. Here, the end-user experience is key, and the choice between an on-demand service delivered over the web and a software-based system becomes an important factor. Both types of solution should have the scope and flexibility to handle meetings with any number of attendees from anywhere in the world, but they differ in terms of internal installation, maintenance, and the threat of obsolescence.

An on-demand collaboration service, such as WebEx, is delivered over the internet, requiring no software installation on either end of the meeting. When improvements and upgrades are made to the service, whether it be enhanced video or improved meeting functionality, users have immediate access without the need to buy a completely new version. This isn’t necessarily the case with software-based solutions, which need to be installed internally across the business, and upgraded periodically to get the best service. The support structure, essential to the ongoing success of a collaborative meeting system, can also be an issue. With no software installed on the users’ machines, a hosted, on-demand service is maintained by the provider, who ensures the smooth running of any meetings taking place. In contrast, software-based solutions can require internal maintenance to get the best performance, especially when meeting with people using different operating systems and behind several firewalls. In these cases, significant tweaking of different options can be needed to avoid performance delays and drop-offs. This level of dedication required by businesses could be enough to put some off using the service, especially if they have been relying on email and phones for years with little problem. The possibility of obsolescence can also be a concern, leaving business with an outdated service without support or upgrades.

Another advantage held by on-demand services is the reduced burden on a business’ internal IT infrastructure. By nature they provide the mission critical applications when they are needed, without devoting unnecessary storage space or bandwidth to defunct or unused programmes.

Another point worth noting is that there are no added benefits from implementing the technology in areas where it is really unnecessary. The technology should fit the use, rather than vice versa. Web collaboration has its uses in many fields – sales, training and support to name only a few – but that is not to say it should replace every point of interaction between employees or customers. There will always be times when it is better to meet face-to-face, and times when the added functionality of web collaboration just isn’t needed. For example, when meeting a new client for the first time, perhaps even a web collaboration can’t provide the high touch interaction and all-important first impressions of a face-to-face visit. At the same time, it is not worth two employees within the organisation meeting online to discuss a trivial matter when a phone call would suffice.  Implementing web meetings at times like these is inefficient, and costs more than the benefit it brings.

Businesses are already adopting technology for productivity gains, and web collaboration is the next step in this trend. However, if it is to be of real business benefit, the points above all need to be considered. Research from Gartner has suggested that by 2010, 70 percent of people in developed countries will spend 10 times longer per day interacting with people in the electronic world than in the physical one. Electronic communication is in a constant state of evolution, and to fully realise the potential of employees, new collaboration strategies need to be adopted as they change over time. Imagine how much a company would have lost if it had never adopted email. Collaborative technology is the same in that it provides a valuable competitive advantage, but only if used for the right reasons.

The future of web collaboration seems only to be held back by imagination.  Collaborative applications are already becoming more specialised to suit specific business scenarios and processes. For instance, collaboration for a sales team requires a drastically different environment to that of a Formula One design team, making engine and tire adjustments minutes before a race.  It is developments in the offering of contextual collaboration applications that will further define the web collaboration. The benefits are there to be achieved, but companies and their employees must be ready and willing to change.

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