Selecting and Implementing the Best Collaboration Tools for your Practice
A recent survey indicated that what lawyers are most interested in when it comes to technology is developing competence with all the new collaboration tools available. From a management perspective, the selection and implementation of the most useful technology is a critical part of collaborating with co-counsel and opposing.
The aim of this column is to examine the various stages and steps organizations go through when they adopt collaborative technologies and deploy them throughout an enterprise. The column will also help you determine where your organization stands with regard to collaboration and how to apply a best practices process to dramatically improve your chances of success.
Stage 1: Traditional Collaboration
As most organizations grow, they don’t have a well thought out communications strategy or plan in place. They grow organically and use traditional technologies or processes, such as the telephone with voice mail, audio conferencing, face-to-face meetings, email, fax, and services like FedEx. Phone, fax and e-mail as communications tools all have limitations, especially when you’re dealing with groups of people.
Stage 2: Specific Application
As people realize the collaborative tools on their desk do not support the level of information and contextual interaction they really need, it can become “every man for himself.” Individual business units and departments seek out and find collaborative solutions that address their specific business processes or problems. However, since they only have control over a specific team or group, the solution is often isolated within that group, forming silos of collaboration within the organization.
Stage 3: Collaborative Proliferation
As awareness of collaboration solutions expands to other parts of the organization, additional solutions and services may be implemented, adding to the proliferation. Unfortunately, IT, which may have had little or no say in selecting these solutions, often finds itself facing potential security risks and having to support many different and competing collaboration technologies across the enterprise - at a very high cost. For example, Oracle was using 11 different Web conferencing solutions before they developed their own commercial application and implemented it internally across the enterprise.
Stage 4: Consolidation
At some point, IT takes control of the proliferation issue and starts an initiative to consolidate the collaboration technologies into as few solutions as possible. The different collaboration tools being used by the various business units and departments are often very similar in functionality. A consolidation program is initiated that involves developing a common set of collaboration requirements among the various business units. These requirements are used to evaluate and select a vendor solution that best meets the overall needs of the enterprise. Pilot projects are used to implement the chosen solution in selected groups and ensure that it meets requirements before being rolled out to the rest of the enterprise In this stage, the issue is more about people and process than about technology During the rollout process, the focus is on metrics, productivity, and iteration Usage of the collaborative solution is measured including the number of users, number of meetings, number of minutes, etc. This provides insights on adoption of the technology.
Stage 5: Virtual Work Environment
After the rollout process, the focus shifts to expanding the reach and optimizing the collaborative value network, both internally and externally with customers, suppliers, partners, etc. The flow and value of information being passed between people when they interact is analyzed and used to eliminate bottlenecks and increase content value. Collaborative solutions are more tightly integrated with critical business processes and applications leading to more efficient processes and productivity that can be applied across the enterprise.
Road Map for Collaboration
This diagram shows a 10-step process to help organizations get through Stage 5. It is based on a best practices methodology to achieve success in enterprise collaboration.
Step 1: Assess Collaborative Environment
The first step in the process is to complete an assessment of the existing collaborative environment (AS IS) in the organization. The assessment should look at the infrastructure and collaborative technologies being used, as well as the culture supporting teaming and collaborative behaviors, and the economic and political impact the application of these technologies is having on the organization. Many organizations go directly to implementing collaboration solutions prior to being ready to adopt and embrace the technology. They don’t understand how, where, and when collaboration is actually taking place among the users. IT can often tell you which tools are being used by departments or groups, but they typically cannot tell you the attitudes around collaboration in the organization, or how the organization fosters collaborative and team-oriented behaviors.
The results are predictable. Therefore, it is critical that management and key stakeholders understand the value proposition that improved communication and collaboration can bring to their organization, and where best to apply it before embarking on a project to implement the technology.
The assessment process should identify areas of current or potential collaboration and knowledge sharing across the organization. This information can be obtained from key stakeholders and users of collaborative technologies in the organization, as well as IT, to understand the who, what, where, and why questions that provide a comprehensive picture of the AS IS collaborative environment. This information provides a foundation for developing a corporate-wide strategy for the successful deployment of collaboration technologies going forward.
Step 2: Identify Collaborative Business Processes
Collaboration is a behavior, not a technology and there are various communication and coordination technologies that enable collaboration behaviors. When those behaviors occur within critical business processes and are applied appropriately, they can result in significant productivity gains. It is the application of collaborative technology to these processes we call “collaborative leverage.” The first step is to identify business processes that are highly collaborative.
Step 3: Build a Collaborative Vision
Prior to implementing collaborative technologies, it is essential to get buy-in and backing from management and key stakeholders in the organization. Without it, collaboration projects stand little chance of succeeding. Education and vision building are effective ways to accomplish this, which can be done through management workshops specifically geared to key business issues you are trying to address.
Step 4: Build a Business Case for Collaboration
The next step required for gaining management and stakeholder buy-in is to build a business case to justify implementing the collaborative vision at the management level. This includes estimating the costs, benefits and risks associated with implementing the vision. It must answer critical business questions such as, “What business problems are we trying to solve?” “What is the business value of a collaboration platform?” and who will fund this initiative?” The business case should outline the who, what, when, why, and how of launching a collaborative initiative, as well as the financial costs and benefits.
Total cost of ownership (TCO) should be used for estimating the costs associated with implementing and supporting an enterprise collaboration platform. These include both direct and indirect costs. Besides TCO, it is important to look at the benefits that would result from using collaboration technologies. These include:
- Decreased cycle times
- Increased productivity
- Increased revenue, profitability, and market share
- Reduced errors and increase quality
- Making better decisions
- Reduced support costs
Step 5: Identify Sponsor
It is common knowledge that a sponsor or champion is behind every successful project. Collaboration projects are no exception. There are always unforeseen challenges that occur and must be resolved to move the project forward. The sponsor should believe in the project fully and the benefits it will bring to the organization. The role of the sponsor is to establish collaboration as a priority and sell the idea and benefits of collaboration to others in the organization. They should also be able to sign off on project budgets and hold teams to specific timelines and milestones.
Step 6: Develop a Collaboration Strategy
A strategy for implementing an enterprise collaboration platform should be developed, which supports the vision and the business case. This involves identifying existing collaboration technologies to be consolidated to improve management and control, and reduce risks that may exist from operating in a multi-solution environment. Another activity is developing process maps for the business processes identified in Step 2 that show where collaboration can be leveraged. A trend in the industry is moving toward contextual collaboration, where user access to collaboration features is integrated within the business process or application being used. This can improve rates of adoption, since the use of the collaboration technologies becomes seamlessly melded into the way people work.
The strategy should recommend a prioritized list of collaboration programs (initiatives) that deliver value to the organization. Note it may be prudent to only launch one or two programs at a time due to the resources required to properly manage and implement the program.
Project managers should be assigned to head-up each program from this point forward. They are responsible for the coordination of tasks and resources to execute the collaborative strategy. The project manager also keeps management informed of progress and seeks help from management when difficult challenges arise that require senior level decisions and support.
Step 7: Select Collaboration Technology
This is a tactical step that involves selecting the vendor that best meets the overall requirements for the proposed collaboration program. Because the collaborative technology market has a large number of players and is very competitive, there are potentially a number of qualified vendors that provide solutions for the proposed program. A short list of vendors should be created based on a preliminary investigation of possible candidates. A formal RFP process may be used to obtain proposals from the short list of vendors or a more direct approach involving detailed briefings and demonstrations can be employed to evaluate each vendor solution.
The evaluation process should address product requirements based on specific application features, which vary by solution type, as well as generic requirements such as:
- Ability to customize
- Ease of use
- Integration with other applications
- User operating environments
- Product roadmap
- Total Cost of Ownership
Step 8: Pilot Project
After selecting the collaborative solution, a pilot project should be initiated to validate the capabilities of the recommended solution before rolling it out to the rest of the organization. The business unit selected for the pilot should meet a set of predefined criteria that make it a good candidate for testing the capabilities of the solution against the requirements. Prior to launching the pilot project, planning should covering issues such as user training, user support, metrics for measuring the program, program monitoring, and management reporting. The pilot should be monitored closely. If problems arise, they should be resolved quickly.
Step 9: Enterprise Rollout
The pilot project serves as a precursor to rolling out the collaborative solution to the rest of the organization. What is learned in the pilot can be applied to the general rollout. Careful planning and execution is a must to insure success.
- Prioritize the business units for implementation.
- Identify the required resources to support the rollout.
- Define the process for delivering education and training to management and users.
- Define the process for resolving issues that arise.
- Define the metrics for measuring adoption rates among the users.
10: Measure and Report
Measuring and reporting on the adoption and usage of collaborative technologies during and after the enterprise rollout is completed is critical to the on-going success of the program and reaching Stage 5 - Virtual Work Environment. Being vigilant in monitoring and assessing how the collaborative technologies are being used leads to increased usage productivity, as well as meeting the goals outlined in the business case.
Recommendations for Success
Based on experiences of collaboration in the enterprise, I have the following recommendations, applicable to the integration of any new program or process to facilitate the use of collaboration technologies:
Apply the new tool initially where there is a clear opportunity to achieve ROI quickly. Leverage the momentum of the initial success to extend the application to more and more difficult challenges.
Integrate the tool into critical business processes. Busy professionals do not want to take the time to learn a new software tool if it is not going to specifically address their needs, be readily adopted by others and not too difficult or time-consuming to learn.
Assure smooth integration with existing dependent process applications and work flow. A new application must be able to integrate into the current work setting. Therefore, it must work with or not inhibit the use of other applications currently in use. Additionally, it must mirror (as best as possible) the current workflow and be flexible to adjust to changes.
Develop best practices to demonstrate the value of collaboration technologies across the enterprise.
Find a “champion” who will promote the use of collaboration technologies throughout the enterprise and has the authority to recognize and reward individuals for their contribution to collaborative work.
Plan for and address change management issues that may arise during the deployment of collaboration technologies throughout the enterprise.
Develop and implement appropriate security models that protect internal intellectual property while still allowing for and promoting communication openness. These models may need to be adjusted as team needs change.
Assuming your organization, like many others in the U.S., is at stage 2 or 3, and is looking for other collaboration tools to help with the changing business environment we see in today’s Web 2.0 world. The following list of questions can help determine whether a team requires a VTS tool and what functionality and features to look for when making the choice:
- Do you regularly work with people outside your organization across time and space? Other centers, external partners (industry, academia, etc.)?
- How large is the group you work?
- Do your team members utilize various computer platforms, operating systems and browsers?
- Are you finding it hard to manage your team's information and productivity?
- Are email and other communication tools used by your team creating information silos, resulting in lost knowledge, security issues, and duplication of effort?
- Does your team create frequent deliverables/ documents that must be reviewed, edited and version-controlled?
- Do you have projects with meeting notes, schedules and tasks/subtasks that must be tracked, reported and summarized?
- Does your team have business processes that require approvals, threaded discussions, team calendars?
- Do you have a current collaboration tool initiative in place? If so, what are you currently using and how well does it serve your needs?
- Are you facing issues with end-user adoption, user interface, features, or performance?
- Would you/your team benefit from a system that allows you to centrally store and track documents, provide version control and search, conduct and archive electronic communication (synchronously and asynchronously) all in an accessible, secure location?
- Are there other teams in your organization that are facing similar challenges? If so, what have they done?
- What approaches are you taking to build trust among distributed team members?
- How do you drive consensus in a virtual team space?
- How do you establish and communicate priorities in a virtual team space?
- What is the ratio of people working together and independently in a virtual team space?
- How critical is security; how critical is access?
In reviewing your answers to these questions, consider what the top priorities for your team are, and use these to filter all the various application options available to you. You do not want to get into the trap of selecting an application based on a litany of feature bells and whistles that your team is not likely to use. Rather, concentrate on significant aspects of your team’s workflow, current trust level, technical savvy and the top four or five features or functions that your team will be using. This will help narrow the field when you go searching for the right application for your team.
About the Author
Stewart Levine, Esq., is a consultant, trainer, mediator and facilitator. He is the author of the award winning “Getting to Resolution: Turning Conflict Into Collaboration” and the recently released “Book of Agreement” that has been called “more practical than Getting to Yes.” www.ResolutionWorks.org.