Productivity software

Social Collaboration and the Asynchronous Workplace

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Whether your company is a small shop of just a few intensely hard-working pros or a large venture with hundreds or thousands of workers, good communication is critical to your success. And by "good communication," I mean communication that works. With the right collaboration tools and a little operational discipline, you can overcome any communications challenge and get your teams in sync.

When I started my career back in the olden days of the 20th Century, the workplace was largely synchronous. For the most part, everyone showed up at more or less the same time, worked in the same office together, went to the same meetings, ate lunch at 12:30, and gathered around the same water cooler when they felt like taking a break. Communication wasn't always of the highest quality, but there was plenty of it and if you missed something, somebody was always right there to fill you in.

By contrast, today's workplace (mine and, probably, yours too) is fairly asynchronous. Many of us work remotely or from the road a good deal of the time. Everyone's juggling multiple complex projects, making it difficult to sync up schedules enough for live, real-time meetings. And when we do manage to line up a meeting, many of us have no choice but to attend by phone, introducing additional communications challenges that can reduce the clarity of the message. (I take a hefty portion of my meetings by phone, and far too many of them while driving a car, walking through an airport, or in an otherwise distracted state.) In this asynchronous workplace, where it's increasingly difficult to get all of our key players focused on the same task at the same time, social collaboration tools are essential to good communication.

"Social collaboration" can mean a lot of things, of course. In my organization, we're social omnivores and use an array of great tools, from Google Apps to Yammer to Basecamp, among others. What I'm talking about here are tools like Salesforce, Basecamp, and Socialtext, which give teams the ability to capture and share progress around critical projects without the time-sucking burden of clearing schedules for a synchronous meeting.

I can already hear some folks out there thinking, "But wait, some of those are productivity tools, not social tools." And if you'll grant me a little benefit of the doubt, I'll explain.

Social business doesn't just mean broadcasting to customers over social networking sites. Collaboration tools get at the heart of what it means to be a social business, taking group connectivity deep into the company culture and converting siloed, offline communication habits into broadly shared asynchronous collaborations that keep everyone informed, invested, and empowered to drive the organization forward.

Depending on the size and structure of your company, the ideal social collaboration solution could be as simple as Basecamp or as robust as a deeply customized Salesforce deployment decked out with specialized add-ons that span every departmental function in your organization.

Here are a few key features to look for in a collaboration tool:

1. Project management - Even the smallest of teams will have a large number of complex projects to track. Everything your company does, from updating and maintaining your website to fulfilling a large order of widgets for a key client, should be shareable and trackable. And if a project involves key sales contacts, you'll want to be able to attach those contacts to relevant projects in a way that keeps your sales team apprised of important milestones and project details.

2. Contact management - CRM is a massive topic in its own right, and the best tools in CRM are now deeply social, aggregating key details about your customers and contacts from the social web to help your team spot important opportunities. But even if you're not deploying an enterprise-grade social CRM solution, your collaboration system should include the ability to tag and maintain contact information as it relates to ongoing projects.

3. Synchronous chat - More often than not, it will be the asynchronous features -- notes and messages, shared files, and status updates -- that drive your projects forward. However, when you do need to use real-time chat, it's ideal to be able to include multiple participants in a shared and archived forum that leaves a record of these important communications. That way you won't have critical business conversations vanish into the void.

4. Video conferencing - Face time means a lot, especially for colleagues who seldom see each other in the flesh. While you can always cobble together some video chats with a variety of miscellaneous tools, there's real value in having this capability integrated into a single collaboration toolset on which everyone uniformly relies.

5. Sharable whiteboard - Collaborating in real time means capturing input from multiple participants at once. While whiteboards aren't always essential, they can be incredibly valuable for teams that need to express ideas visually in synchronous work sessions.

6. File versioning - As your team edits and re-edits important documents, maintaining a clear record of changes and versions will help to prevent essential information from vanishing in a stream of tweaks. A good collaboration tool will track multiple version of a file over time, and let you reclaim a past version in the event that something goes wrong later on.

Of course, deploying a top-notch collaboration solution is only part of the work that any company must do in an effort to become a social business. The harder work lies in changing your company's culture to embrace social tools and use them effectively. That's an ongoing, iterative process, and one that will likely engage your best minds as you bring your least digitally engaged thinkers up to speed and raise the baseline expectation of social productivity within your organization.

Is your company making the push to internalize social collaboration? Tell us how you're putting these tools to work (or not) in the comments.

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