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Resistance is futile: mobile working is on its way

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It is happening now, but is it happening under your guidance or under your nose?

It can be scary tooling up your employees for online collaboration. Paranoid business managers and IT directors have their reasons to avoid it. Take your pick: security, control over employees and complexity are all valid excuses to keep staff at the office.

The problem is that while you may have your reservations about mobile cloud-based collaboration, your employees are dying to use it – and probably are using it, right under your nose.

Last year, Sharp Europe surveyed 1,500 people working in small and medium-sized businesses. Almost half of them said that remote working was essential to their jobs.

Four in every 10 respondents reported that their companies actively banned cloud-based collaboration platforms. So one in 10 just went ahead and used them anyway.

I'll tell you what I want

IT departments need to keep themselves relevant in a world where employees can often simply bypass them if they don’t get what they want.

Except that users don’t always know what they want. Left to their own devices, they may end up with a scattered bunch of online tools, each designed to do one thing and probably fragmenting information across multiple systems.

Without a strategy, solutions tend to be grabbed on an ad hoc basis, resulting in a lack of cohesion.

The key for IT departments struggling with users’ desire for online collaboration is to think about it not as a process of capitulation but as one of active participation.

Give your users what they want, but give them guidance on how to build and use it properly. Done right, this can bring significant benefits.

Release your creativity

A 2012 global study by Filigree Consulting identified several outcomes from effective online collaboration.

Businesses said they were able to make informed decisions more quickly. Individual employees were able to improve their productivity and reduce travel costs.

Perhaps the best result was a more creative business. Companies that were further advanced than others in their use of online collaboration tools increased innovation rates more than threefold.

Maturity is the key. The economy is littered with businesses, small and large, that tried to implement collaboration tools themselves only to see staff completely ignore them.

What makes the difference between software that brings staff together and software that sits lonely on a server, waiting for someone to come? A little forward planning can increase a company's chances of doing online collaboration properly.

A good fit

Simply buying a copy of SharePoint for use on a local server or shelling out for a SaaS collaboration solution won’t get you very far without planning. Measure twice and cut once, as the old adage goes.

The software not only has to do what the users want but also has to fit the way they work. Does the sales team want the same collaborative tools as the support team?

People who are already wearing several hats are less likely to make the effort

If you try to impose a working structure that differs wildly from what people are used to their learning curve will be steeper. People who are already busy wearing several hats in a small-business environment are less likely to make the effort.

At the same time, you should not assume that current methods of working can’t be improved. Watching for gaps in current practices can yield surprising insights – although sometimes you may have to spot these gaps even when staff don’t recognise them.

You may find the right opportunities in the consumer SaaS services that drive adoption of cloud computing in the first place. Social networking is a good example.

Collaboration is ultimately about relationships between the participants. People are more likely to collaborate if they know each other, building trust and creating a team spirit.

Trust can also reveal natural mentors in the organisation who can pass their expertise and experience on to others. Unlocking what knowledge management experts call “tacit” information, stored in the heads of business veterans, can be a valuable company asset.

Everyone likes a carrot

Another development that can help to cement online collaboration in a company is a reward structure.

Eighteen months ago a report from analyst firm Gartner proposed “extreme collaboration”, which it described as a virtual war room where people can come together to work on a shared goal.

The idea is to make it so seductive that people cross geographic, organisational and management boundaries to use the system and achieve their desired outcome.

Gartner highlighted social media and crowd sourcing as ways to help make this happen. Another was to encourage collaboration by changing reward systems.

Typically, employees are rewarded for individual efforts, whereas team collaboration requires people to be rewarded for helping others. Performance evaluations should be structured that way, which requires a level of strategic buy-in from managers who are prepared to make that change.

The IT department can listen to users and create a cohesive collaborative platform that serves as many of their needs as possible – and it can do it all relatively quickly and cheaply using SaaS-based tools.

That kind of service can put IT firmly at the centre of the debate and drive out the shadows. Isn’t that worth having a conversation about? ®

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