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Melanie Turek
Melanie Turek
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Collaboration, Where Have You Been all My Life?

One of the biggest buzz words at VoiceCon and Interop this year was “Collaboration.” Indeed, it seems like every vendor out there is slapping the term onto their products and marketing collateral—not just for software, but for the hardware gear that makes the software run. (As in, “This router supports collaboration!”)

Presumably, this will come as no surprise to the readers of Collaboration Loop. But it actually comes as a bit of a surprise to me.

After all, why is collaboration any more important now than it’s ever been? One argument is that now more than ever, businesses are all about their people. (Yeah, OK, that’s an inelegant twist on Microsoft’s “People-Ready Business” slogan.) But that’s not true—successful businesses have always leveraged the skills of their employees, and the so-called knowledge economy has been around seemingly forever, or at least several decades. So what’s new here?

What’s new is that because of the virtual workplace, it’s no longer automatic for people to collaborate. When employees work in the same building, it’s easy for them to collaborate. Often, such collaboration is entirely ad-hoc, and happens in the halls and cafeterias and bathrooms, as people bump into each other, strike up a conversation about this or that, and find themselves exchanging ideas about current projects or other work-related issues. Other times, the collaboration is intentional, as when one person walks down the hall to another person’s desk and asks for input and advice. Either way, the people involved probably don’t think about what they’re doing as “collaboration”; it’s just business as usual.

In the virtual workplace, ad-hoc collaboration sessions are far less common, and even intentional ones are harder for employees to initiate and conduct. That leaves it to management to enable collaboration within the enterprise, and usually that means delivering technologies that make it easy for employees to meet and interact online and over the phone. Web and video conferencing sessions can be pre-scheduled or launched on the fly, and allow participants to share ideas and information, as well as mark up documents and files; presence-based communications tools let people see who’s available for a quick chat or brainstorming session. It’s not quite as easy as the old bumping-into-you-in-the-lunchroom paradigm, but for now, at least, it’s as good as it gets in the virtual world. And so-called Web 2.0 technologies promise even more, shaping the Enterprise 2.0 to come.

The need for collaboration is not new. The need for collaboration to be proactively supported and technology-enabled is.

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