A plethora of project collaboration tools are available today, but to fully optimize them, managers must first determine the types collaboration tools that are best suited to further the success of their projects.
There are five common types of collaboration that are used in projects that managers and project members can choose from:
Virtually every employee is mobile now, so knowing whether an employee is available and able to communicate or video/audio-conference when a project need arises is essential. Standard VoIP (Voice over IP) systems deliver presence, as do access devices like mobiles and laptops. Presence collaboration is so named because it gives employees immediate one on one access to each other. It speeds time to answers, which also accelerates project progress. Employees also have the option to make themselves unavailable for access if they are in meetings or in other situations where they can't communicate on the spot.
Presence-style collaboration is best utilized in companies where employees are widely separated from each other. A good example is a field-based employee on a mining project in a remote area of Africa who encounters a snag on a project and must contact an engineer in the home office in London. Presence collaboration enables the immediate collaboration.
Project managers can also choose to use social media-style collaboration for their project teams that enables multiple project team members to collaborate in real time and post ideas and exchanges in an online message board format that can build a discussion or facilitate a resolution to a project issue. The use of social media-style collaboration in projects facilitates brainstorming and problem solving. It's great for brainstorming marketing campaigns, or for troubleshooting project issues, and it can be done securely through either a social media-style platform on the corporate network like Microsoft's SharePoint or through secure social media platforms in the cloud like Salesforce's Chatter.
In industries like technology, manufacturing, pharmaceuticals, etc., it is important for research and development and engineering functions to get online with each other and create and discuss new product concepts and designs. This also goes for more staid industries, like banking and insurance. Because intellectual capital is at stake, these collaborations must transpire in secure environments that, at minimum, require a user ID and password, but might also use multi-factor authentication if highly sensitive IP is at stake. Video conferencing with whiteboard capabilities, often provided through a secure cloud, work well for this.
In administrative areas of the business, or in industries like publishing or law, employees in different locations regularly need to collaborate on documents, whether it is working up a quotation for a customer, developing an internal corporate document, writing reports or updating spreadsheets with status. Cloud service providers like Google present solutions — Google Docs, in this case — in this area, although IT must ensure that security levels are satisfactory. In some cases, virtual desktop infrastructure has also worked nicely for remote offices that are in a position to rely on the cloud for both their collaboration and communications needs.
In the past, project managers employed a full-time project administrator to keep a master set of the project updated, but this gave very little real-time visibility of the project to team members. Collaborative project management software such as Microsoft SharePoint or LiquidPlanner now provide either network-based or cloud-based project management software that is highly collaborative and that any team member can update to keep task status current and to reduce project administration. Collaborative project management is especially useful in project-oriented disciplines like IT.
The takeaway for project managers is that it is as important to think through the types of collaboration that are used for projects as it is to decide the tools for doing the projects themselves. In many cases, project team members will have ideas of where to plug in collaborative tools. In other cases, the project manager will want to design collaborative tools directly into the fabric of the project before the project even starts. The key is finding tools that speed project time to answers and that also complement the workflows of the project that are being executed.
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Mary E. Shacklett is president of Transworld Data, a technology research and market development firm. Prior to founding the company, Mary was Senior Vice President of Marketing and Technology at TCCU, Inc., a financial services firm; Vice President of Product Research and Software Development for Summit Information Systems, a computer software company; and Vice President of Strategic Planning and Technology at FSI International, a multinational manufacturing company in the semiconductor industry. Mary is a keynote speaker and has more than 1,000 articles, research studies, and technology publications in print.