Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Technology improves workforce collaboration and productivity

A simple internal chat client revolutionized the way people operated in my company, a part of the knowledge industry. The desk to desk traffic dropped, people were more at their desks, working, and discussing online, sharing files & screens. Quick solutions were hammered out for tasks which hitherto required a short meeting or required you to walk across the floor to ‘visit’ your colleague. The overall time saved due to the use this tool was put to was impressive.
What knowledge workers do day-in day-out requires a lot of collaboration, interaction, and brainstorming—basically, working very closely together. Their work starts as abstraction during the initiation phase and the ideas start to flesh out as the plans evolve. During execution and monitoring, their engagement with each other and the clients is more streamlined that before, although more frequent. This interaction is towards resolving problems & developing solutions for clients, innovating, and discussing work with colleagues. A meeting of appropriate technology with the processes and workflows proves beneficial for boosting productivity. In this less understood domain, technology can improve the quality and output of knowledge workers.
In such a collaborative environment, technology is used differently. It multiplies interactions and extends the reach of each knowledge worker. There is potential for sizeable gains from even tiny improvements. Who actually is doing the collaborating, how it is currently done, and what they want to now do differently, is the key to decide what technological support these interactions need. At times, interactions are sources of waste—poorly planned meetings, misuse/disuse of existing technology, redundant e-mail communications and unproductive travel.
And what about those intangible interactions though, which no industry outsider would comprehend, but which forms the source of some great quality ideas? These cannot be measured like per minute transactions or like operational efficiency cannot be put into numbers.
Improving employee collaboration also depends on selecting the technologies that best support the type of interactions they typically have, those that set them apart from other industries. What is working, what is not, what can be improved, what should be thrown out of the window….answers to these questions influence the choice of technology. A study of workflows across the company can help benchmarks the most effective way of performing a task. With that knowledge we can identify inefficient practices and select technologies with which to improve them. Finding and making this match is very important, else new initiative rise like a wave and then sink without a trace. People are quick to distance themselves from a bad marriage of the two.
The most basic manifestation of technology helping better collaboration is the MS Outlook Calendar’s Meeting Scheduler feature. It plans for everyone’s time and gives focus to how it is spent. You come, meet, discuss, conclude and disperse. It is all arranged in real time, response options available so that everyone knows what is happening. The avenues open up far and wide beyond this. There are scores of such free and paid tool available, particularly Web 2.0 tools such as social/professional networks, wikis, and video sharing, micro/blog, surveys, video conferencing, chats, fax— a lot of them great sources of Just-in-time information.
Imagine the need to search for appropriate talent within the company to allocate to your project. Wouldn’t an online, updated skill matrix be on the top of your wish list? Look at how EPM tools map the web of relationships between people weaving in their skills with assigned tasks. Corporate wikis are treasure troves of information—internal and external, official and well, official. I have personally done a lot of trouble shooting based on information I searched for and read at topical forums.
Think of all those times when you searched high and low for a work document template and not finding one proceeded to create it on your own. What could have rescued you from reinventing the wheel at such a time are online repositories of documents and data. In addition, collaboration technologies such as Google Docs or Microsoft’s OfficeLive allow for coauthoring and co-editing content documents. Since many individuals are working on the same project at the same time, rework, time for confirmation and interpretation is drastically reduced.
Many companies we know are just getting there or showing signs of waking up to these possibilities. Furthering collaboration through technology demands mind-sets and capabilities that are prepared tread on unfamiliar terrain. It requires trusting your collaboration teams to arrive at solutions that work rather than enforcing top-down policies. Managers should also allow time and provide forums for collaborators to brainstorm solutions to productivity problems. The technology providers will need to supply tools that are flexible enough to enable experimentation, so that the choice-making decision is well informed, tool usage and its adoption is widespread. Blocking access to such technologies means blocking pathways to the cutting edge of excellence.
Individual collaborative tools and the people who drive those have been around for long now, it is time companies caught up to partake of the benefits.

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