Big Ideas: Many companies still don’t understand the benefits of online collaboration.
Collaboration is not just about productivity, major creativity and innovation gains can also be found.
Despite the wide spread use of social media and collaboration tools like Google Docs, I still see many people working with email processes. Email works, but for most work, online collaboration is much more effective. Here is a very simple comparison of two ways to work together on the creation of a single document.
The Old Way of Collaborating
In the past, when multiple people were working on a single document like a marketing proposal, website copy or business plan, the only option was to email edits, comments and suggestions back and forth. The problem, of course, is that each person saves a different copy and several different versions start getting passed around.
For example, a manager asks an employee for a blog article. The manager will give a brief overview of the article with some guidelines and then emails an employee to write it. The employee writes the article and then emails it back to the manager. The manager opens the email, reads the article and makes some comments and edits. This new version is then emailed back or printed out for a face to face discussion of changes. This can often go back an forth several times, with a new version saved each time.
Imagine what it would be like if 10 or 20 or 100 people were working together on a project. You would almost need a full time team to coordinate every individual’s contribution. The more people involved, the more essential it is to collaborate.
This is exactly the problem that was encountered by the free online encyclopedia then called Nupedia. “Despite its mailing-list of interested editors, and the presence of a full-time editor-in-chief, the writing of content was extremely slow with only 12 articles written during the first year.“ (History of WikiPedia.com) When the collaborative wikipedia.com format was introduced in January 2001, more than a 1000 articles were created in the first month. The rest is history.
A Real, Online Collaborative Process
With an online application like Google Docs, there is only one document shared by all that is updated in real time so that everyone always sees the same content. It is always possible to go back to an older revision if you don’t like recent changes, but with some basic protocols on how edits and suggestions should be handled then there shouldn’t be too much conflict with different contributors.
Let’s look at the previous example with a more collaborative mindset. This time the manager creates a new Google document and writes the same overview and guidelines right on the document and within Google Docs an email is sent instructing the employee what to do. The employee writes the article on the same Google document and sends another notification email within Google Docs to the manager and everyone else interested. If there are any problems, the manager can directly make the edits and/or make some suggestions on the exact same document. After that, the employee can be emailed again to make a final proofread. When this is completed, a final notification can be sent to the manager and to the webmaster to upload it to the website.
I have heard many people say that when there are only a few people involved in the process, email is still more effective but it really isn’t. It is like having a meeting by leaving voice mail messages. Bear in mind, that this is an very simple example. There are huge productivity games possible when more people are involved, when dealing with off site workers and when clients need to be included in the work process.
In a large scale application like Wikipedia, the shear number of people involved will tend to keep the quality high. In smaller teams, real magic can come when a synergistic team can feed off of each other’s work. I think we can all think back to incredibly productive and invigorating teams we have been on. That energy can be even more focused online.
Online collaboration is not only for the creation of documents and spreadsheets. It is even more vital to collaborate when sharing contacts, calendars and files and in the managing projects and the sales process. This might seem obvious for many younger people who have lived their teenage lives on social media but for the older of us, online collaboration can still be a foreign concept.
Collaboration for Creativity
Collaboration is not only for productivity gains. Sure work processes can become more efficient, but the real value is that bigger and better things can be accomplished. Real collaborative efforts unleash creativity that is difficult to realize with linear processes like emailing back and forth. Companies waste so much time on administrative procedures that add zero value to clients. Online collaborative efforts can greatly reduce the bureaucracy to shift the focus to servicing clients and getting work done.
Check out Edward Boches 10 Rules for Modern Collaboration for some inspiration.
You Won’t Know Until You Try
Try it for yourself, no one understands the real value of collaboration until they do it. Set up a simple Google Document for your next project. You could also try the popular PBworks.com. I personally use Norada’s Solve 360 because it combines customer relation management (CRM) with project management (PM). It is integrated, yet simple to use.
All companies have business processes for everything from ordering business cards to manufacturing products. The problem is that the assumptions and available technologies when the process was started might no longer be valid. Always question everything. “Why are we doing it this way?” “Can’t this be better with a collaborative process?” “Do we even need to do this anymore?”
What is your favorite collaboration tool?