Many businesses today can’t imagine a life without email, but that’s only half the story. There is a growing plethora of additional collaborative tools on offer to help your business flourish.
Small companies have just as much to gain as large enterprises, too: collaboration today means team working not just with colleagues, but also with customers and suppliers, to get the job done. Jacob Morgan, Principal and co-founder of Chess Media Group, and author of ‘The Collaborative Organisation’, says “With collaborative tools, you’re essentially connecting the most important assets you have in the company: your people and your information. When you can connect your people and your information anywhere, at any time, on any device, that’s a very powerful thing. Everyone in my company is aligned. I can be sitting in a cab and see what my team is working on. I can invite customers to join us in virtual workspaces and share documents. We’re always up to date, and that generates competitive advantage. In the past three months, in my own company, I have seen our email use drop to practically zero.”
What is wrong with email, though? For all its power, email is incidental. It connects people ‘in the moment’, but without binding them together around the common outcome of a project or a deliverable piece of work. In virtual workspaces, you can share contacts, task lists, calendars and documents. Business activity is logged around a timeline or milestones, and progress can be documented and measured. We all know that collaboration is helpful for bringing geographically dispersed teams together, or cutting travel time and cost; but the real source of competitive value for small businesses is that it forces a focus on results, and the workflow required to get there.
There is a perception, however, that opening the company’s door wide, to suppliers, freelance staff and even clients might represent a commercial risk. What about your intellectual property? Roger Bromley, Visiting Professor of Innovation and Collaboration at Huddersfield University, scotches the myth. “Intellectual property in its legal sense means a patent, a copyright, or a piece of property. What matters commercially, though, is intellectual capital. I mean the knowhow, the insight, and the capabilities of the people in the business. If I watch someone play the piano, that doesn’t mean I can do it myself. The intellectual capital is wrapped up in the pianist’s experience and effort. It’s an old-fashioned approach and a great waste of opportunity to believe that, by sharing, the crown jewels of my business are going to be stolen.”
Even the largest companies see sharing of information, resources and talent as central to profitability and delivering a result. However, Morgan cautions, “Value is different to return on investment. Before you buy a collaboration suite, you must decide what you want to achieve in the business – is it better communication with clients perhaps, more efficiency, or widening your pool of talent? Include the rest of your team in those decisions. Then, you need to be disciplined to make it work and jump any initial hurdles to adoption. It’s easy to fall back on old bad habits, like relying on email for everything.”
Luckily, the new generation of Cloud services mean that even the smallest business can install collaborative tools without complex upfront investment, and allowing time for new systems and processes to bed down. Cloud tools like Office 365 cost only a few pounds per user per month; you can pick and choose the elements which will add most value to your business, and then always switch more on (or off) later, as your needs change.