Corporate collaboration comes of age

From enterprise-wide information-sharing systems to rudimentary blogs set up outside company firewalls, information workers are collaborating more than they ever have before, thanks to an influx of technologies that are fostering the dramatic rise in communication.

For University of Waterloo professor Peter Carr, much of the collaboration we are seeing today in the West is an indication that we’re finally starting to realize something that companies in the East have known for decades.

“One of the big things with [Japan] is how they collaborate with their manufacturers and suppliers,” says Carr. “And one of the things we’ve learned…is the idea that we have a smaller number of suppliers and we work more closely with them and we form longer-term relationships. What that’s based on is sharing more information together to improve how the whole supply chain works.”

While there has been a wide variety of technologies that have made this collaboration possible, Carr divides them into two groups: those that make it possible to share data among organizations on a data basis, such as ERP systems, and those where humans are able to interact with them.

“We’re seeing things like Microsoft Groove, which was rolled into Office 2007 in its more premium editions, as well as SharePoint,” observes Carr. “So in the standard Microsoft technologies we’re seeing [ones] which enables human interaction, and SharePoint, which allows for the sharing of information and the organization of workflow.”

It is the interaction-oriented technologies that Carr says are the most exciting of the collaborative offerings.

“People are able to communicate much more directly and effectively, and they’ve also got more access to information, so it enables a much improved level of decision making.”

One of the biggest hurdles corporations face in deploying such collaborative technologies effectively, Carr says, is that there is still considerable uncertainty around how to use the capabilities they offer.

“But I think if we look down the road, say 10 years from now, and hopefully before that, the use of these technologies is going to be commonplace. The advantage they have is so obvious and so large that they are bound to proliferate.”

The starting point to understanding how to use them, he adds, is that the decision to deploy should be based on a clear drive from the business that these offerings are going to have a benefit when used.

“I worked with one organization whose human resources department decided they were going to use a collaborative space to enable all the employees to communicate with the HR department, and they only had one space and 30,000 employees,” he says. “That makes no sense…but it’s that kind of mistake that organizations are making.”

Carr recommends that business leaders sit down and say, realistically, what can we do with these things that will allow us to have more knowledge of what’s going on? In his own arena, that of academia, Carr sees great potential for collaborative technologies, even though educational institutions have just been scratching the surface of their capabilities.

“I think it’s got the power to revolutionize what happens with education,” he says.

“Most universities have the ability for professors to use online collaboration tools with their students. Right now it’s mostly used as a supplementary tool to what happens in the classroom. I think we’re going to see it play a bigger and bigger role, especially as the universities are under pressure to have more and more students.”

And, Carr adds, with today’s younger generation largely immersed in collaborative technologies, use of them will be second nature to many in the years to come.

“Kids, through their use of Facebook and MySpace, I think are a long way further ahead of us in many ways, and I think that will influence how that world is used in the future.”

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