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What is Collaboration Software? How can you Use it?

Collaboration-Cutouts

Online collaboration software used to mean email, instant messaging and video conferencing. Nowadays there is a whole suite of project management tools and even entire platforms to choose from…

In short, collaboration software allows multiple users and distributed teams to work together on projects from any location and from different devices. There are many varieties with different features, some of them are flexible, so that you can tune almost every option, some of them are tight in settings, but are so narrow-targeted, that include all the options their users might ever need.

The majority of modern collaboration solutions are web-based and work directly in the browser without needing any additional standalone applications. Well, a standalone email client might help – but that’s a rare exception to the rule.

Collaboration Software is not New

Collaboration software running over the Internet is not a new concept: e-mail, instant messaging, voice and video conferencing, discussion forums and groupware: this is an incomplete list of various collaboration tools that people has been using for years, and for different purposes, including business-related communications.

Only now, however, has it reached the point where you have to use professional professional online collaboration tools to have the best chance of success. Email is no longer enough.

What is a Collaboration Platform?

A collaboration platform is a software that includes every possible tool that is needed for a team to work together on a project. These tools enable communication and information management, helping push information to people and allowing discussion of projects to assist with making important decisions. Through communication we seek and acquire information from each other and it needs to be as near to synchronous as possible – real-time or close-time.

Collaboration by Instant Messenger

One of the most effective real-time, online communication tools involves an instant messenger; the user receives the message as soon as it is sent and this applies to text and voice modes. Of all the modern instant messengers Skype is currently the best known and most used. The video chat mode allows people to see each other as well as chat and speak. Instant messengers are real-time, but they don’t have to be interruptive. You can finish typing a sentence, then look at your Skype alert and decide whether to answer now or after you have finished writing your message. Many applications have chat history, whereby for example a URL or telephone number messaged some time ago can be accessed; it is also possible to record voice and video calls and conferences.

Email – Just another Collaboration Tool

E-mail is more “permanent” than instant messaging as both sender and recipient retain and often file a copy of all the correspondence. Although e-mail is here to stay, and will be a central hub for communications for the foreseeable future, it is often criticised as “the wrong” tool to use for collaborating on projects. This is mainly due to restrictions in access sharing, collaborative editing and categorisation of e-mail messages. With a little effort, it’s possible to manage tasks and information with e-mail using filters, labels and other settings, but dedicated collaboration software will have the team working more efficiently.

The Nature of Communication

As a general rule, communications are:

  • Personal
  • Real-time
  • Throw away

When a conversation happens, it usually takes place among a limited number of people; a conference would be an extreme and rare exception. Such a conversation would happen in real time, and the artifacts of it are rarely shared or used. It might produce some results or decisions, but this is not the same as the conversation itself, and those results could be summarised and stored using another system, separate from the one used for the communication.

At this point we require collaboration software that helps to communicate the important information to those who need to be aware of it. Sharing knowledge for a particular task, or permanently (as in a wiki), requires software with different functions not available within our communication tools.

Collaboration Software Functions

Three basic functions are required from good collaboration software:

  • Shared access to information: we need to determine who has the right to view information and be able to change those rights easily; in many collaboration settings access is defined on a per-project basis, or for each work space;
  • Information storage;
  • Knowledge management: this can be done through a website with linked documents (wikis are a good example), or just as documents (PDF, MS Word or other formats). It is necessary to be able to share files (spreadsheets, reports etc) in their native formats.

All this information needs to be easy to find, and for this purpose bits of information have properties we can use to refine and simplify our search. Some of those properties are obvious, such as author, which is already pre-defined. Other properties need to be defined to our users. For instance, it is common to store files in folders but, with this method, we need to make users aware about naming conventions and hierarchy. An alternative to the folder hierarchy is tagging. Google Docs uses a combination of both.

Document Collaboration and Project Collaboration: Differences

Project-related assets and operations-related assets are categorised differently; the latter are more permanent. Consequently, document collaboration software is different to project collaboration software. It is more typical for documents to have per-person access permissions. Functions like full text search play a bigger role when you work with documents, due to their number and variety.

Project collaboration involves tracking tasks, holding discussions, and storing digital assets related to the project. Many of them are short-lived: for example, if you are producing a company’s website, there will be many interim files which will likely not be required in the future.

Collaborative Document Editing

Real time collaborative editing of documents is one of the most interesting examples of collaboration software: most of us know Google Docs, which allows a user to see what another user is working on in the same document – all in real time. Another “must have” feature for a good document-based collaboration platform is the ability for users to post comments.

Challenges of Project-Based Collaboration

With project-based collaboration, it is necessary to decide how  the team is going to be informed about changes to project assets and who is in charge of the decision to update – an author or subscriber? We have a typical “e-mail type problem” here: if there are too many updates, especially if they are apparently unrelated or irrelevant, they start to be ignored.

How do we ensure that we know what everybody else is doing? The answer is by monitoring and displaying their actions in the system, i.e. “John has created a task”. Another option is introducing personal “status updates” akin to those in social networks: tweets, or wall posts on Facebook. Once tasks are created, we then need to effectively manage them.

How to Choose Effective Task Management Software

Before confirming your task management software you should answer the following questions about those you are considering:

  • How do you ensure the tasks are the right size?
  • How do you estimate the size of a task?
  • Can you easily access every task any time you want, in any order?
  • Can you easily assign/reassign tasks to people using the software?
  • How easy is it to manage the task workflow?
  • Can you set relationships between tasks?

There are other considerations you might want to include, such as task aggregation, management of child tasks and to-do lists. This depends on the complexity of your business and management processes. It’s important not to make a decision without preliminary analysis and careful consideration – otherwise you can end up wasting time and money.

Different tools support different methodologies of managing tasks. Kanban is one of such methods that is simple yet efficient. If you want to implement it’s principles to your work process, we advise you to try using Kanbanchi – online kanban-based app for managing tasks.

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Ajay Bhide
August 1, 2018 11:34 am

Nice explanation…Thank you!

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