VoIP and Unified Communications are confusing techno-speak, but Collaboration is a common word found in common dictionaries. To collaborate simply means one or more working toward a goal. It isn’t even one or more people; bees collaborate on honey making. Collaboration is about as non-technical as it gets. People were collaborating before electricity, computers and telephones were ever imagined.
Collaboration becomes an exercise in technology when the collaborators are not in the same time or place. It wasn’t long ago that such a concept was nonsense. How could a gold digger in California collaborate with a geologist in London? Not easily.
Today, it’s child's play – and as Groucho Marx suggested, “run out and get me a child.”
Remember those group projects in high school? They were awful, we had to meet at the library which was difficult enough as we couldn’t drive. Invariably someone forgot something, and collating the content into a final document was always a nightmare. Today, I watch my kid do group projects in Google Docs and Skype. Five kids simultaneously entering information into a single document. That’s child's play today.
Here is a quick list of the key tools of virtual collaboration. No one tool is sufficient - collaborators should use the right tool for the job.
Old School: Telephone and Email. Of course other forms of similar communications are suitable.
IM: Instant messaging is a powerful tool. Ideally used for quick thoughts and interactions. Of course, some live through entire long-term relationships with IM. Another form of IM is SMS.
Video: Video communications is a no-brainer. Shocking really, as video has mostly (for decades) fallen into the “not this year, maybe next year” category. Broadband networks, cheap endpoints, camera’s galore, ubiquitous software – all make video technologies accessible. There’s consumer stuff and enterprise class - and it seems the two are beginning to meet.
Mobile: Don’t assume that collaboration only takes place when at a desk. Smart mobile devices support all of this stuff - voice, IM, video, and more.
Conferencing: Years ago, when my little kid asked me what I did, I said I went to meetings. I remember my whole day defined by Outlook appointments. Work was something you did after the work day. Today, that’s still largely true, but instead of going to meetings, they come to me wherever I happen to be. Meetings are in some ways more effective when everyone is remote because each has their own volume control and a front row seat (video or shared content). HD audio on audio calls also makes a huge difference.
Document Collaboration: It’s one thing and a good thing to see a screen, but entirely better to be able to impact it. I’m a big fan of Google Docs and believe that model of multi-editing content will soon be the norm.
Social Collaboration: Blogs, wikis, micro blogging, and so on. Enterprise networks are a great way of sharing and discovering content. Public social sites bring together like-minded people that may be natural collaborators on given topics.
Those are the top tools that come to mind, but just two closing thoughts. First, cloud. The cloud conjures many emotions and definitions. What’s important about public clouds is all users are equal. Remote users had it pretty tough - they were exceptions to the rules and technologies everyone else accepted. Cloud leveled the playing field. I remember connecting my first smartphone to Gmail all by myself with every prior connection to Exchange requiring three IT engineers. Remote workers, mobile workers, corridor warriors, and desk jockeys are all equal in the eyes of the cloud.
The second and final point is collaboration is not an internal activity. I am not talking out indoors versus outdoors, I’m talking about enterprise walls. Most projects should involve outside experts – be them customers, consultants, partners, or other contributors. Invite a guest and get some perspective.
The modern workplace isn’t a workplace at all. It’s a way of connecting - a way of collaborating with people you may never actually meet. Today, a geologist in London could very easily help a miner in California. It’s time to get out there virtually and get something done.