Collaboration is a very human characteristic. Many groups have a natural preference for defining themselves by working together peer-to-peer, rather than acting solely on commands from a higher level in a hierarchy. It is hardly surprising that the tendency should be reflected in the commercial (or public good) enterprise, when a collaborative structure is feasible. In collaboration, it can be argued, the talents of each member of the group are more easily released to complement one another for the common good, rather than suppressed by their being treated as interchangeable drones in the hive, limited by their job description.
Nowadays, this shift has been facilitated by the ease of digital communication. The information in a document, or the current state of a project against the plan, is no longer available in a single copy that can be viewed and changed only by one or a few at a defined level in a hierarchy; it no longer has to “belong” to someone, but can be effectively shared.
The changes made by each member of the team can be accurately coordinated without different versions of the plan or document proliferating; there is one “truth”.
This is the essence of the wiki, a data repository that anyone in the group can edit. As ideas flow in and contend with one another, as steps in the project are completed and ticked off, everyone is, quite literally “on the same page”.
NZ Police builds wiki
The New Zealand Police, when considering a new Act of Parliament governing their operation in 2007 and 2008, put a wiki on their website to allow public ideas to flow into the process.
The exercise gave the Police some interesting insights. “We got some real outside-the-box thinking,” said the person in charge of the exercise Superintendent Hamish McCardle, at its conclusion. The New Zealand Police’s Act wiki attracted a good deal of favourable international comment.
Wikis have become a standard feature of groups within organisations wrestling with the definition of a set of standards, or other groupings of information requiring a common understanding. The State Services Commission, for example, instituted a wiki for web standards when these were a matter of energetic discussion. However, they found the process is not without snags.
The Web Standards wiki was retired and replaced with a website for two main reasons, says an SSC spokesperson: “To more easily include threaded comments, which are more appropriate than the directly editable text of a wiki, and to improve navigation and therefore usability.”
But this did not mean an end to interactive online collaboration; a forum is scheduled to be added to the Web Standards website on http://webstandards.govt.nz/.
SSC also runs a ParticipationNZ wiki - an exercise that uses this key online collaboration technique to facilitate discussion on collaboration itself, particularly on setting up online forums to involve the e-government user community.
Also in the SSC stable is the e-initiatives wiki, a library of projects across the New Zealand public sector, accessible and editable by public sector staff.
An internal SSC wiki is used primarily by the ICT branch, to share information and comment on projects that are being worked on, and to share general ideas.
The best-known wiki is Wikipedia, which has become more than just an encyclopaedia with information of variable accuracy. An organisation’s Wikipedia entry has become part of its identity, as the SSC says in a section of its e-government website on use of social media.
“Also, Wikipedia will be one of the largest referrers of traffic to your websites, and Wikipedia is increasingly being used to update other third party sites. This means [staff of each government agency] have a vested interest in ensuring the information is up to date and accurate.”
Into Web 2.0 territory
Other manifestations of what is widely known as Web 2.0 includes the blog — a way of an individual economically expressing his or her views and insights in short or lengthy comments and sharing them instantly with the whole team or department. In the process individuals reveal, perhaps, hidden talents and different perspectives on topical questions affecting the organisation.
An increasing number of organisations run private or even public blogs, where staff and managers alike air their views on topics pertinent to their work.
One thriving public example arises again from the SSC’s e-government initiative, at http://blog.e.govt.nz.
But company blogs, wikis and social networks need careful nurturing and can be fragile. They are dependent on continuing commitment by staff. In the early 2000s Te Puni Kokiri under CIO Graham Coe was one of the first government agencies to set up a blogging and social networking tool on its intranet, whereby staff could advertise their interests and knowledge on specialist topics to their colleagues.
But the venture into Web 2.0 territory did not last, says current CIO Gary Weston-Webb. “Over the years we’ve attempted wikis too and they’ve fallen into disuse,” he says. “They need someone interested in maintaining them. You usually have an enthusiast who pushes the idea and when they leave, it dies.”
Chris Sparshott, a collaboration specialist in the IBM software group, agrees that a champion is useful in ensuring the life of a wiki or social network, “preferably someone at senior level”, he says, demonstrating how the new collaborative style of working still needs to interrelate with the conventional organisational hierarchy.
IBM is both a user and a provider of collaborative technologies, many under the Lotus brand. “For the past 18 months or more there’s not been a CIO we’ve talked to who doesn’t want to know more [about such tools],” says Sparshott.
A recruitment tool
Many company decision makers are hesitant to move into the new environment, he says. Yet, as is often said, the best and brightest potential recruits to any organisation will have grown up with Web 2.0 tools. “It’s the way they relate to the world,” says Sparshott. “Show them a company that makes no use of such applications and they are unlikely to come on board.”
But in seeking an on-ramp for collaboration, the question must always be: does it add value to the company?
Guy Cranswick of Australian analyst IBRS recommends exploring (and, from the vendor’s point of view, pitching) a well-defined subset of tasks in the areas of firstly workflow and secondly management processes, such as decision making and determining priorities.
Cranswick uses a CRM demonstration recently put on by Oracle as an example of how a company might focus on the specifics of collaboration; for instance, with a salesperson on the road reading appointments for the day, the current CRM data and useful background information through a portal, then liaising with a staff member back at head office in order to collaboratively close a sale.
One way of convincing top executives is to focus on the core business processes and their cost, then ask: “Are there things you can bolt on the side that will help those processes?”
One clear example is enhancement of email by “presence awareness”. If your system can tell you who is at their desk to read your mails immediately — or to answer a phone call — tasks involving those people can be handled first; phone-tag or mail-tag problems are minimised, collaboration will be enhanced and this should show through quickly in increased productivity and job satisfaction.
For one local public-sector customer, IBM focused on a group of managers who were often involved in formulating documents collaboratively. The procedure used to be: Work on a document, mail it out to the rest of the team; they make their changes and mail back the amended document and once a day a personal assistant would collate all the changes.
Putting a simple “team-room” system in place lets every member of the team view the current version of the document at the same time, work on it together and discuss changes.
IBM has instituted a number of major collaborative projects overseas.
US-based telecommunications giant Sprint uses IBM’s WebSphere Portal and the Lotus Connections social network in an application called the Innovation Factory, to accelerate the evaluation of new services using communities of employees, customers and partners.
The “profiles” component of Lotus Connections is used to identify, define and find members in those communities, says IBM. They then use the blogging side of the project to suggest and evaluate new services and business models.
Staff of many organisations will already be used to working with Web 2.0 tools from home, Sparshott says. This creates both impetus and some degree of experience. IBM stands ready with an Enterprise 2.0 suite, providing much of this interaction with enterprise standards of security and traceability.
Sparshott suggests experimentation is often the only way of finding out whether something will work; a company might introduce collaborative innovations one at a time and see what people take to and use productively.
What IBM and others in the market call “Enterprise 2.0” is about exploiting the collaboration potential of Web 2.0 tools, while compensating for the informality of the public tools that can be a risk. This means providing security and retrospective traceability of messages and other interactions.
The collaboration group can, of course include customers and partners. “Using social media is about finding out about users needs and wants, not developing new services,” says a delegate to the recent Govis09 government information services conference.
Advice on the e-government website to would-be networkers and bloggers is to listen first — to take some RSS feeds. RSS (Real Simple Syndication) is a technology for collating feeds of information on subjects in which a user has expressed interest and feeding through any updates to the material as they happen.
Inland Revenue stands as an example of the productive use of the comparatively mature technology of videoconferencing. IRD has installed 100 webcams and 10 video phones in its offices nationwide.
New video-conferencing suites allow staff to meet face-to-face without leaving their local base, or even to work from home, says an IRD spokesperson.
Deployment started in February 2008. By June 2008, 27 suites had been installed and one late instalment was completed in January 2009.
Each suite offers audio/video capability and audio alone. Participants without access to a video conferencing suite can join the meeting by phone.
IRD is finding that video conferences work best with up to six participants. Any more, and the images are too small. But if the meeting is conducted over the phone, up to 72 people can take part.
The new tools mean staff can video and audio-conference with multiple parties both nationally and internationally. Staff who work from home no longer need to miss a meeting.
Take-up of the new tools has been strong and more staff are able to engage in meetings.
Telco supplier TelstraClear provided the technical support. The technology consisted of Sony PSC-G50 video conferencing equipment, Sony 40-inch V Series Bravia LCD televisions and Cisco telephones and webcams.
Pressure from some in the workforce to adopt collaborative tools are exacerbated by tightening economic conditions, which generate a demand for increased productivity and trimming of physical travel budgets. This is good news for the vendors of tools designed to facilitate collaboration, particularly between colleagues at a distance.
Growth in the market for collaboration tools is expected to defy the recession.
A study by international analyst Springboard Research predicts a compound annual growth rate of 17 per cent to 2012 in the Asia-Pacific region, taking total revenues to an expected US$1.242 billion. This growth will be led by the emerging economic powerhouses of China and India, says Springboard, but with Australia another powerful component.
Among all the collaboration tools and technologies, web conferencing and VoIP will see the most deployments in Asia Pacific region in the near future, says Springboard.
Analyst Forrester also predicts healthy growth in tools to manage collaboration at a distance, as the screws come on travel budgets. This, again, is set against a flat market for software generally.
Generation Y (ages 18 to 28) now in or entering the job market “came of age using online collaboration tools like instant messaging and social networks and view them as ways of doing their jobs more efficiently”, says Forrester. At the same time, the retirement of the “baby boomers” creates a need to capture in some permanent form accumulated knowledge that might otherwise leave the organisation.
The venerable email is expected to provide the biggest growth in the collaborative market. More than 40 per cent in a sample of European and US decision makers signal an intention to upgrade their email servers to deal with higher volume and more sophisticated data types.
Increasing planned use of advanced mobile devices is showing up too, according to Forrester, as companies look for ways of supporting a mobile workforce with the ability to interact with the enterprise’s main systems.
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