In the days of bottomless budgets and top-dollar consultants, many companies used to display an appetite for collaboration that seemed almost insatiable. Consultants, developers, and software programmers worked overtime to analyze and develop the evolving collaborative solutions their clients demanded.

Collaboration solutions that reduce costs, improve productivity, allow for faster decision-making, and increase communication still rank high on most organizations’ lists of must-have technology projects, despite smaller budgets. This represents a tremendous opportunity for those IT professionals capable of delivering the integrated collaborative technologies that yield the results companies are looking for.

Evolution of collaborative business environment
The first phase of collaborative technologies consisted primarily of enterprise e-mail. With the advent of programs such as Lotus Notes and Microsoft Exchange, IT pros were introduced to features such as group calendaring and document sharing. This phase is referred to as asynchronous collaboration; the flow of information typically goes in one direction at any given time.

The drawbacks and limitations of an asynchronous solution led to the need for real-time communication. Synchronous collaboration, the second phase, has been around for the last two to four years. Synchronous solutions include software tools and products including online chat, instant messaging, voice over IP, whiteboards, videoconferencing, and distance learning.

Most organizations are now using some form of asynchronous and synchronous collaboration solutions. For example, ABC Corporation may use Microsoft Exchange for its asynchronous sharing of e-mails while using the synchronous benefits of videoconferencing from Polycom.

Organizations are just now looking more closely at the third phase of collaboration, the integrated collaboration environment. In this phase, synchronous and asynchronous environments are meshed to create a persistent, virtual location where people can exchange ideas and information on the largest scale. With an integrated collaborative environment, an ABC Corp. manager can use his or her mail client to schedule and launch a desktop videoconference session to perform an after action review with key personnel.

What collaboration means to businesses
True collaboration is more than just knowledge management. Collaboration allows people to capture and filter either recorded or real-time knowledge to create new thoughts, ideas, solutions, and more knowledge. An effective integrated collaborative environment is one that allows for sharing of business-critical content across key business processes throughout an organization, any time and virtually anywhere. This concept goes far beyond basic e-mail or document sharing. Organizations look to collaboration solutions to meet four main requirements:

  • Reduce costs
  • Facilitate faster and more informed decisions
  • Increase productivity from human resources
  • Extend and enable communication across boundaries

Providing collaboration services
IT professionals can pursue several areas to take advantage of the evolving collaboration market. Knowledgeable professionals can assist organizations through the process of determining their readiness for collaboration practices, the appropriate business processes to apply solutions to, and the best tools to use in each case.

You can offer expertise on strategic planning and process analysis for integrating collaboration technologies to determine success factors for collaborative projects. Infrastructure considerations for an integrated and dynamic collaborative architecture mean opportunities for networking consultants. Advising a client on how to best analyze collaborative security requirements to improve an organization’s security strategies and tactics can be a great opportunity for a security professional.

Note that a single out-of-the-box solution can’t replace the systematic and customizable services required to implement the effective collaborative solutions that will meet most organizations’ needs. In fact, a thorough understanding of the evaluation of business needs, processes, and objectives, in addition to relevant technical know-how, is required to develop an overall collaboration solution. If your strength is in one or the other, try partnering with another consultant or firm that has the expertise you lack. Also, keep in mind the four objectives most organizations are seeking from their collaborative environment.