Collaboration: At the Center of Effective Business

By Samuel Greengard  |  Posted 2014-01-24
business collaboration

It's no secret that digital technology has revolutionized the enterprise. Yet behind today's mind-bending array of technologies—from servers and massive databases in the data center to mobile devices and apps on the front lines of business—there's a basic truth: All these sophisticated systems are worthless without the human ability to connect the dots and transform bits and bytes of data into information and knowledge.

Collaboration is at the center of this digital universe. As devices and software have evolved, and mobility has gone mainstream, the ability to communicate point-to-point in real time has become critical.

"Collaboration has always been part of the picture, but on a much less formal basis," observes Seth Kahn, author of Getting Innovation Right: How to Turn Ideas into Outcomes. "It's only since the rise of the knowledge worker that it has emerged as a critical component for the enterprise."

Thanks to increasingly sophisticated networks and more sophisticated unified communications and collaboration software—including emerging cloud capabilities and social tools—collaboration is emerging at the center of effective business.

"The technology has finally caught up with the vision," says Frank Redey, managing director at Accenture's Unified Communications and Collaboration Global Practice. "It's now possible to use collaboration tools anywhere, anytime and achieve a seamless experience inside and outside an organization."

Although unified communications and collaboration tools extend back more than a decade, they've now becoming mission-critical capabilities. IP telephony, mobility, messaging, video conferencing, telepresence, social collaboration and real-time document sharing are creating new models for connecting people and work anywhere, anytime, and with any type of device in hand. As a result, it's critical to design a strategy—and implement technology—that interconnects collaboration tools and enterprise software in broader and deeper ways.

Collaboration Takes Flight

One organization that has fully embraced collaboration is the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) in the United Kingdom. The agency, which regulates and oversees aviation—including airports, aircraft, pilots and travel operators—began looking for more efficient ways to share information internally and to improve interaction with outside organizations.

Although the agency has about 1,000 workers, it routinely deals with upward of 100,000 individuals, says Matt Taylor, head of business solutions. "There are two sets of challenges," he explains. "We're a regulator, but we must also share a great deal of information internally."

The ability to share documents seamlessly is critical for CAA. In the past, the organization typically relied on email to shuttle files back and forth. Not surprisingly, files were sometimes lost, there were delays in processing documents, and questions frequently popped up about file ownership and administration.

The agency, which operates on a tight budget, usually set up collaboration sites with SharePoint, but the process was time-consuming and costly. In addition, only about half the sites wound up being used in any substantial way. "It wasn't the most efficient way to interact," Taylor says.

About 18 months ago, CAA migrated to Huddle, which provided real-time file sharing, social collaboration and task management capabilities. Previously, when CAA sent out a document with a proposed policy change or when someone required feedback on a proposal, recipients commented but there was no way for others to view everyone else's comments.

"We had a lot of separate point-to-point conversations going on, and it was a long and highly inefficient process to sort through all the emails and attachments," Taylor says.

Today, CAA is better equipped to handle numerous versions of complex documents. With a central data repository, executives have a clear audit trail of who has accessed specific content at what time. As a result, the organization is able to ensure that the right version is in use.


What's more, the CAA can assign specific rights and privileges, including who can access each workspace and who can download and edit documents. In addition to improving workflows and speeding review processes, the Huddle software provides an added level of protection and security, particularly as more workers turn to mobile devices.

Taylor says that the move to a digital organization points to an increased need for collaboration, including the use of social tools to share knowledge and expertise internally.

"We're putting more and more services and processes online and requiring that people have access to the information they need to do their job," he reports. "We're moving from checklists to embedded workflows. We're attempting to move away from being a compliance-based regulator and engage in more two-way dialogs with outside organizations. It's all about a cultural and practical transformation."

Getting the Message

As organizations such as CAA are discovering, collaboration is a key component in managing processes more efficiently, and serving customers and clients faster and better. Effective collaboration can help resolve organizational challenges in minutes rather than days or weeks. What's more, cloud-based collaboration tools and social collaboration systems further redraw the business landscape.

A May 2013 Forbes Insight survey found that 64 percent of more than 500 senior global executives reported gains from cloud-based collaboration. The figure rises to 82 percent among industry leaders. Meanwhile, McKinsey & Company reports that social collaboration technologies boost worker productivity between 20 and 25 percent.

Accenture's Redey points out that it's crucial to focus on business goals and building value rather than on the specific features of a software tool. Typically, the sum of unified communications tools, especially when they're connected into a collaboration platform, is far greater than the individual components.

Mike Holzman, a senior manager at Accenture, says that identifying upfront goals goes a long way toward achieving bottom-line results. At the same time, there's a need to build a governance structure that balances the potential gains resulting from employees using consumer software and mobile apps with overall organizational requirements, including security.

In the end, the best collaboration strategies extend horizontally across an organization and also reach out to consumers and business partners. They create real-time point-to-point functionality that leads to greater agility, flexibility and responsiveness.

"Today's collaboration tools allow people to interact in a natural and seamless way," Redey says. "As organizations adopt these tools, they find that it's possible to achieve better communication internally, tighter integration with other organizations and closer relationships with customers."