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Collaboration: What Does It Really Mean, Anyway?

You may have heard of this radical new idea doing the rounds in business. Apparently – and it might be worth keeping this under your hat, just in case your competitors get wind of it – if people in your organisation work together, they can achieve better outcomes for the business.

They call this amazing new insight ‘collaboration’.

OK, so we are being facetious. But the way the word ‘collaboration’ is bandied about these days, you’d be forgiven for thinking people were talking about some groundbreaking new innovation that no one had heard about a decade ago.

Much of this stems from tech company marketing hype. Collaboration has quickly become shorthand for collaboration software or applications. This encompasses a range of digital tools, such as file sharing, instant messaging, group document authoring, voice and video conferencing and more which, when packaged together, are said to make it easier than ever for colleagues to work together effectively.

With platforms such as Slack, Microsoft Teams, Zoho Projects and LiquidPlanner leading the way, there is certainly plenty of buzz about what collaboration software can do. But is it all justified, and has collaboration tech become the latest must-have for the future-thinking business?

Teamwork writ large

Let’s start at the beginning by considering what collaboration itself actually means. According to this helpful student-focused definition, “Collaboration in the workplace is when two or more people (often groups) work together through idea sharing and thinking to accomplish a common goal. It is simply teamwork taken to a higher level.” It goes on to define some of the characteristics of ‘higher level teamwork’, including there being increased opportunities for idea sharing and communication, perhaps involving people who would not otherwise get an opportunity to bang their heads together around an idea.

In the context of collaboration software, this is an important notion. This article paints a picture of typical pre-digital collaboration where a group of people would gather around a whiteboard and start to throw ideas around, jotting them down as they went. The difference with digital collaboration is a) that everyone has their own whiteboard and can see what everyone else adds simultaneously and b) all of the ideas jotted down can be saved for later use.

According to PC Mag’s review of the best collaboration apps of 2018PC Mag’s review of the best collaboration apps of 2018, collaboration marks the intersection between productivity and teamwork. So instead of everyone working in Word or Powerpoint or Excel or whatever programme they use on their own device, saving documents to their own folders with their own private access permissions and authorship rights, collaboration tools open everything up. Work becomes about shared spaces, shared access, shared documentation, shared authorship.

If you think about this from a workflow perspective, it makes everything much more efficient. There’s no more bouncing files around via email, tracking changes, considering whether person X or person Y should have editing rights. Collaborative work on a document becomes instant – everyone can see changes as they happen, and you can even have more than one person editing at once.

This is just one example of what collaboration apps can do. The PC Mag article is instructive in the way it lists the comparative strengths of different platforms – some are best for ‘team chat’ and communication, some for project management, others for workflow and scheduling.

There is also one other very important feature of collaboration software. As the majority of the leading platforms are now cloud-based, they are accessible from anywhere. A big factor in their growing popularity is that they have coincided with trends such as mobile and remote working, and companies making use of increasingly distributed workforces. When your staff no longer all work in the same offices, you certainly need a means of maintaining effective lines of communication and cooperation.

What collaboration platforms are not, however, is a guarantee that your people will work more effectively together. Beyond the technology, there is growing interest in how you can optimise resources in business. One key idea is to work towards more open, democratic, collaborative forms of operational organisation, where information and ideas don’t get stuck or lost in silos and work can flow with a minimum of friction. That, ultimately, is the vision behind collaboration. But you don’t achieve that simply by introducing Slack or Teams. That requires a much more fundamental process of organisational change.