For many of us in the technology community, part of the fun lies in discovering new technologies and finding creative ways to connect tools and people. The point of technology, however, isn’t adoption for the sake of adoption: Technology is a tool to help people get things done.
Likewise, the purpose of team collaboration is not just to work together, it’s to achieve results. As a mission-driven nonprofit, your group aims for the kind of collaboration that can drive change and build a better world. The process isn’t simple – it requires close interaction and integration between disparate groups and actors, often across time and distance. When you facilitate and enable these interactions, though, the results can be amazing. In a high-stakes project, the challenge is to select and configure a combination of technology and process that accelerates rather than impedes. So here are three questions to help you thread that needle.
1. What is the primary goal: socialization, project management, or both?
The word collaboration derives from the Latin roots com, which means together, and laborare, which means to work or labor. It sounds like “working together” should be simple. But collaboration actually spans a spectrum of activity, from the ad hoc to the very formal.
At the informal end of the spectrum, people want easy and impromptu communication, often something as simple as a forum to ask questions and share recommendations. Ready-made solutions like Facebook pages, LinkedIn groups or listservs are often sufficient. They require care and feeding, as all communities do, but offer limited support and lack unique identity. An array of informal chat products can also connect people on threads and topics and enable informal information sharing.
At the more complex end of the spectrum, you find groups that need to build persistent communities. This is the focus of a number of modern forum and communication solutions. A good example is the Higher Logic platform (used by NTEN), a sophisticated environment that promotes engagement and information sharing. Ease of use is important here, too, as users want to eliminate barriers to participation. These kinds of solutions foster cooperation and are usually accompanied by robust administrative tools.
At the most complex end of the spectrum, structured collaboration balances multiple stakeholders and input channels, with participants working toward the co-creation of knowledge. Outcomes are primary, and deliverables are a priority. These groups certainly need a community where they can share information, but may also need formalized voting, detailed document revision histories and project milestones. There are specialized sets of tools that support this kind of collaboration, too. Some organizations can afford to build and maintain SharePoint environments that aim to support this kind of work. Web-based solutions such as Kavi Workspace or Basecamp can provide some or all of those functions in an out-of-the-box solution.
2. How important are accountability and inclusion?
Is participation required, or simply encouraged? Many groups make decisions informally or empower a single person or department to manage tasks. They encourage other team members to join in discussions and contribute their talents as they can. Participants, constituents and outside organizations trust the process, so there’s usually little critical follow up. These kinds of situations can function on less formal tools and decentralized applications.
In large collaborative projects, though, teamwork is driven by more than tasks and deadlines — it requires transparency and inclusion. As collaborative projects scale up in importance and size, transparency and accountability become much more important. While a smaller project can function well based on task lists, action items and deadlines, mission critical projects often employ a rigorous level of oversight. Some standards-setting organizations, for example, require a quorum of members to participate in votes. In other cases, participation in committee or initiative might require a certain level of paid membership or employment in a sponsoring member company. In these cases, participation is meaningful and managed and institutional memory is important.
Accountability also requires participants to respect the objectives, processes and roles of the team. It allows for ownership of results and action items. These types of situations need distinct architectures and systems to define roles, enforce processes and authenticate participation.
3. How formal are your record-keeping requirements?
Are you comfortable with people using their personal Google Docs or Dropbox accounts for storing and organizing business information? Do you have chat sessions that are important enough to catalog in a permanent repository? Could the collaborating organization ever be audited or expected to respond to a legal discovery request or a subpoena?
Generally, less formal modes of collaboration require less stringent records retention. In these ad hoc collaboration modes, stitching together apps or allowing individuals to choose their preferred platforms can be fast and effective. However, without a clear system, team members may be unaware when, or even if, their collaborators see a newly shared comment, document or decision. Data can end up siloed in different systems, each of which has a different login and varying levels of security and retrievability. There is ample evidence to show that using more apps actually decreases efficiency and effectiveness. Where was that document? Was it in Dropbox or the in-house file server or in Joan’s email thread? All of the above? Which one has the most recent version?
A group like a standing committee or task force, on the other hand, may need to recover years-old conversations and decisions. Working together on a single platform can create an accurate system of record and increase the pace of collaboration. These solutions have strong permission models that control participation, and they use formal backup and archiving infrastructures to assure that important data can always be accessed. If a single platform does not support the range of functionality you need, you may want to integrate under a single sign-on, with key data shared between applications.
As much fun as it is to acquire the latest cool collaboration tool, it’s important to be aware of the diffusion and distraction factor of too many choices. Organizations benefit when members can share their knowledge with others and collaborate on results-driven teams, but those goals can easily go awry. Asking yourself and your team a few basic questions can help ensure that you find the best solution for your needs.