There is a famous quotation from the classic movie Cool Hand Luke that applies to many business situations; "What we've got here, is failure to communicate." In many post-mortem evaluations of project results, inadequate communications are cited as a primary reason for team turmoil.
Companies have responded by making it easier to communicate. Many managers carry portable e-mail devices like the RIM Blackberry that enable them to receive and reply to e-mail messages anytime, anywhere…even on vacation. There's also instant messaging that allows informal conversations with anyone regardless of location.
Now that we've solved the communication problem, many people would argue that over-communication has become a major burden. Managers are overwhelmed by the non-stop blizzard of e-mail messages that rages 24 hours a day, seven days a week. There simply isn't enough time to think through and understand every message.
The real problem is no longer failure to communicate. It's failure to collaborate.
Teams need more than the ability to send and receive messages. Exchanging e-mail and instant messages certainly qualifies as communicating but it's not exactly collaborative. High-performance teams must be able to share knowledge while using it to generate new ideas.
Collaboration tools are useful whenever a solution requires active participation from more than a few workers. Here are some situations where collaboration tools add value:
Generating sales proposals
Solving complex customer problems
Designing new products
Researching new ideas
Training employees and partners
There is an abundance of software tools available that enable collaboration. They fall under the three broad categories of document, content and knowledge management tools. The terms are often used interchangeably however there are differences among the three.
Document management is a structured means of storing, locating, and tracking business files. The documents can be word processing files, spreadsheets, images, audio or video recordings, or any other file types. Multiple revisions of the files can be saved showing how the information evolved. In addition, defining who can read or modify them can control access to the documents.
For example, human resources departments have a variety of documents such as policies and procedures, forms, employee contact lists, handbooks, video presentations, etc. All these documents can be filed in a document management system. Some of the information can be made available to every employee while other information can only be accessed by authorized individuals.
Content management is focused on creating documents and controlling changes to their contents. This solution is employed when two or more people are creating or modifying a single file such as a word processing document. Additions and changes are controlled by the software to avoid conflicts.
A company preparing a lengthy client proposal may have several people developing content to be included. Initially everyone works on a separate section but as the sections are merged and revisions begin, conflicting changes frequently arise. A content management system can identify conflicts and highlight them so that a lead contributor can review and approve them.
Knowledge management is about capturing worker experiences and making the information available to others. Most companies do this by creating word processing files or spreadsheets. While effective in capturing information, this approach leaves much to be desired in sharing it. A knowledge management system stores information in a database making it much easier and faster to search and retrieve.
Customer support organizations are frequent users of knowledge management systems. As customer problems are identified and solved, the problem descriptions and associated solutions are entered into the system. When new calls come in, support personnel can search the database for similar situations.
Collaboration tools solve two large and growing problems. The first problem is information overload. Most of us are nearly drowning in a vast sea of computer data. If it's not managed, it's useless.
The second problem is information sharing. It's great if one of your employees seems to have all the answers but what about everyone else? What happens if that gifted employee leaves the company?
There are literally hundreds of collaboration tools available. An exhaustive list would fill this entire publication. Vendors also tend to claim that their tools do it all so before you begin evaluating tools, define your needs. Focus on the capabilities that are most important within your firm.
For example, if your primary concern is managing changes to your website, focus on tools that specialize in content management using web interfaces and don't get distracted by all the other "nice to haves".
Among vendors offering general purpose collaboration tools, the following stand out: EMC (Documentum), FileNet, Hummingbird, Interwoven, Open Text, Stellent and Vignette.
There are also many mature open-source collaboration tools particularly in the web content management space. Start with the following open-source projects: Bricolage, Drupal, Joomla!, Mambo, OpenCMS and PostNuke. For a more complete list, go to opensourceCMS.com.
Communicating has gotten much easier making failure to communicate less of an issue. Of course, progress brings new problems. Now we have to deal with failure to collaborate.
Don't let it happen in your company!
Vin D'Amico is Founder and President of DAMICON, your ADJUNCT CIO. He is an expert in IT Business Continuity Planning, Network Security Policies, and Freelance Writing focused on white papers, case studies, and handbooks. DAMICON services firms worldwide.
This article appeared in Vin's monthly Virtual Business column for the IndUS Business Journal in January 2006.
To learn more about how DAMICON can help your business, please take a look at our service programs.
This column appears monthly in the IndUS Business Journal.