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Collaboration: The Future Is Contextual, Process-Centric, and Community-Driven

Collaboration strategies are shifting from a focus on tools to an eye on improving process performance. Improving work practices within business processes requires collaboration "in context" while tapping into communities of practice as sources of best practices and innovation.
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Written by Mike Gotta on

Collaboration strategies are shifting from a focus on tools to an eye on improving process performance. Improving work practices within business processes requires collaboration "in context" while tapping into communities of practice as sources of best practices and innovation.

META Trend: Through 2004, organizations will rein in tactical collaboration products (instant messaging, teamware, and Web conferencing) for companywide deployments, driven by architecture needs, product standardization benefits, and shared infrastructure flexibility. By 2008, "contextual collaboration" - enabling organizations to embed collaboration into production applications - will span customers, employees, and partners, creating time-to-market, problem resolution, and travel displacement efficiencies as part of an overall service-oriented architecture-based knowledge worker infrastructure strategy.

Since the 1990s, collaboration strategies have revolved around tools. E-mail, group calendars, and discussion forums exemplified first-generation solutions for individual and workgroup productivity. Instant messaging, Web conferencing, and teamware represent the next onslaught of collaboration tools being deployed (sometimes without enterprise approval). Times have changed, however, and simply giving users the perfect tool for each situation is not always the right strategy. Not only does the unchecked proliferation of tools result in higher levels of IT complexity (and costs), but individual productivity gains without impact on process outcomes are unlikely to improve competitive positioning or delivery of products and services. Our research indicates overwhelming preference by senior management that collaboration strategies evolve from a focus on personal productivity to address process performance and innovation.

However, the challenge for organizations is turning wishful thinking into an actionable strategy that includes a self-assessment of their collaboration maturity. During 2004, we expect only 5% of our clients to formally revisit the state of collaboration within their organization, rationalize their existing portfolio of vendors, and successfully align collaboration strategies with strategic business initiatives (e.g., business process management [BPM], CRM, human capital management objectives). We expect 40% of our clients to maintain (or adopt) an enterprise technology view (e.g., governance, procurement, management) and effectively align collaboration technology decisions with related domains (e.g., enterprise portal and content management). The remaining 55% of our clients will continue at status quo (collaboration decisions made at a business-unit level or below with few, if any, enterprise standards). By 2007, these numbers will increase slightly (15% process- and workplace-centric, 75% enterprise-based, and 10% business-unit or workgroup-centric). However, companies that align collaboration with other strategic endeavors will gain a significant competitive advantage over those that do not.

Getting Started. To improve business collaboration, sponsors need to start at the beginning by packaging a strategic plan that includes several key components:

  • A situational analysis of the external and internal environment that examines collaboration in terms of market, economic, and competitive conditions (e.g., benchmarking, sourcing, partners, supply chains). The influence of collaboration on employee innovation and intellectual property should also be examined.
  • Business decision makers and project sponsors require a solid business case that has more explicit process impact with metrics to assess ROI. Specific processes need to be identified (e.g., lead management, product design, clinical trials), along with their collaboration gaps (expressed in terms of costs, lost opportunities, or product or service defects).
  • IT strategists and infrastructure planners require greater levels of architectural rigor to ensure alignment (e.g., security, development, database). Technology aspects of a strategic plan should ensure that collaboration software does not unnecessarily add to overall infrastructure complexity (e.g., redundancy, integration) and increased costs. Increasingly, organizations must view their collaboration investment as a cohesive and reusable portfolio, identifying which software is more application-oriented (appropriate for specific business situations) and which is more infrastructure-oriented (positioned as a shared service across the enterprise).
Focusing on Process and Contextual Collaboration. Strategists that champion collaboration need to make business processes the centerpiece of their strategy. Rather than view collaboration as a personal productivity endeavor (e.g., “saving time,” making individual tasks more efficient), the goal here is to enable the process to perform at a higher level. This means that the design point is not all users in the process but the right users and teams within the process that need to work together more effectively (e.g., improving decision making, reducing coordination costs, leveraging external relationships, enabling quicker exception handling, sharing expertise). Collaboration is viewed as successful based on the process outcome, not the output of individuals within various tasks. Although current collaboration and business process management efforts are disjointed, that gap will close as BPM tools move beyond transaction-oriented models. By 2005, we expect a sales automation application to be connected to a process orchestration engine that has a rule set that defines semantics around creation of a “virtual sales war room” when a sales process reaches a certain point. For instance, upon receipt of an RFP, a team workspace would be automatically instantiated and populated with a task template, documents, RFP response templates, buddy lists, discussion forum, and a common project calendar. Embedded collaboration services such as “presence” (knowing if someone is online) will increasingly become a core piece of metadata associated with application and content objects. Users will be able to right-click on an object within an application to obtain contextual information, such as an account name to obtain a pop-up list of contacts (e.g., salesperson, account team, service representative), and would be able to escalate from that profile information into a screen-sharing or document-sharing session (e.g., to clarify a question or response related to the RFP). This design model is different from earlier collaboration efforts that focused on people and not how people work within processes.

Valuing the Collective Insight of Communities. Strategists must also overcome organizational issues (e.g., persuading people to work differently, establishing incentives and performance measures that foster greater information sharing and cooperation). Community-building efforts are valuable to create synergies across processes and functional groups. Collaboration services might embed a “my networks” pane within the application that lists personal resources (e.g., friends, mentors, learning modules), communities of practice (e.g., subject-matter experts) within the organization to which the user belongs (or might be interested in joining), and other sales teams working on similar proposals in the same or similar industry sector. This approach provides users with peripheral vision of what else is going on that might influence their own work practices. In this respect, collaboration also becomes a cornerstone of knowledge management and enterprise learning strategies.

Leveraging a Common Knowledge Worker Infrastructure. From a technology perspective, organizations should put collaboration on par with other application and infrastructure initiatives. Architects and infrastructure planners need to avoid treating collaboration strategies as an offshoot of office productivity and desktop strategies, defining it as its own domain. Best practices (e.g., governance, standards, integration, security, operations) that apply to other domains should be applied to collaboration as well. Indeed, we believe synergies across portal, content, collaboration, and learning technologies are driving organizations to adopt a more service-oriented model to increase the flexibility and reduce the complexity of their knowledge worker infrastructure. Portal frameworks remain the best method for unifying delivery of collaboration “in context” with other content, applications, and workflow needs (e.g., role, rules). This movement toward contextual collaboration (defined by META Group in 1999) continues to be adopted by major technology vendors (e.g., IBM, Microsoft) and Global 2000 clients to improve productivity, reduce coordination costs, and better connect people to peers and teams.

Bottom Line: Effective collaboration strategies will enable workers and teams to be more productive within processes, with success measured via improvement in process outcomes and more sustained levels of innovation resulting from community insight.

Business Impact: Collaboration is a business strategy, not a tool strategy.

META Group originally published this article on 30 April 2004.

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