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Online collaboration helping to add business value

Online working and communications tools can offer huge advantages to businesses, by helping employees to work together more effectively.

Employees rarely operate most effectively in isolation, yet often appear reluctant to work on shared projects as part of a team. In some ways this is understandable – individuals may prefer to 'get their head down' and make progress at their own pace, while some may be concerned about having their own achievements diluted or even hi-jacked. In theory, working together should help to bring the best out of individuals and help them pursue organisational aims, but employers need to do more to get this message across. Employees need to see the benefits of effective collaboration and teamwork first-hand, and this may require at least some technology investment on the business' part. Collaboration is clearly a value-adding exercise, but staff must see this for themselves through their own experiences with IT. Otherwise, some employees will always approach team-focused working with a certain degree of caution and reluctance.

With the broadband helping to revolutionise business practices, particularly with regards to IT service models and the cloud, there has never been a better time to invest in collaboration tools. Software such as Microsoft Office 2010 enables employees to work on joint projects over the internet, with each individual able to make additions and amendments to shared documents in real time. Gone are the days of bulky group emails and the inevitable process of waiting days for individual responses, and also the misunderstandings and duplications which result. With online tools, employees are able to access shared programmes, documents and files irrespective of their location, simply by logging on to view their colleagues' latest contributions, offer a critique or make their own additions.

As businesses embrace online collaboration, it should also become easier for companies to maximise the value of people resources. International corporations can tap into the skills of employees based across different departments, business arms or even countries, pooling expertise and know-how on cross-border projects. With unified communications and the capacity to work online, there is no need for anyone to head to the airport – resulting in lower time and money expenses. If needs be, employees can work from home, while commuting in to work, or even on holiday – there is no requirement for team members to congregate in the office or board room. They can operate flexibly, in their own time and space, using the IT tools provided by their employer to their full advantage.

Yet this vision of a collaborative utopia remains something of a pipe dream in many organisations, where working practices remain routed in the 20th century. A recent study conducted by Cisco found that some firms are holding back on communication and collaboration tools – whether due to falling tech budgets, apathy or ignorance as to their benefits. Worryingly, just 16 per cent of medium-sized business employees said their current communication tools are very effective at enabling efficient working, rising only slightly to 26 per cent among large enterprises and 31 per cent within small companies. This was despite two-thirds of respondents recognising that office communications and collaboration can be improved simply through increased IT investment. At first glance, many companies seem to be missing a trick in this area.

According to Cisco, the comms solutions most desired by UK workers to make their jobs easier were telephone conferencing, instant messaging, video conferencing and web conferencing. In the majority of companies, email was found to prevail as the most common collaboration technology – suggesting that many firms are missing out on the benefits of modern communications. The firm said that email must be supplemented with other technologies if companies are to streamline working processes and reduce their overheads.

James Campanini, managing director for Cisco WebEx solutions in Europe, Middle East and Africa, noted that collaboration solutions such as web and video conferencing – particularly those which are video-enabled – help to establish trust within the workplace. He claimed that with such solutions, communications are "more interactive, engaging and personal", and this can help bring out the best in employees. "By being able to take in body language, eye contact and multi-way conversations, the business environment is automatically more collaborative, helping to speed up decision making," Mr Campanini added. "In addition, people should consider that one of the most powerful ways of communicating is by using a combination of tools."

His final point certainly rings true, particularly if various workers – potentially from different cultures and traditions – are to work together effectively on major projects. Some solutions are better suited than others to particular tasks, or to help establish particular types of relationships. For instance, a video conference may be more appropriate than a VoIP call when establishing initial contact, but a simple voice call is likely to be more suitable once a working relationship has been formed. Email may be suitable when communicating across different time zones, although instant messaging could be preferable if employees are on the same shift patterns. Forward-thinking businesses can trial a variety of solutions, and find out for themselves which are most effective in particular contexts.

Where both online working and communications are concerned, the quality and variety of collaborative tools continues to increase. Businesses should look to take advantage of this innovation by offering IT choice and variety to their staff. The right technology can encourage, empower and even inspire workers to greater heights, enabling them to share their insight more effectively and contribute to common goals.