Collaboration technology driven by culture, communication gaps

Industry experts explain how to match collaboration software such as chat, social media and conferencing with the needs of the organization.

The poet John Donne sagely wrote that “no man is an island.” He understood that humanity depends on teamwork to survive -- a lesson not lost on manufacturers, who know well the importance of efficient communication and knowledge sharing among employees. Collaboration technology promises to facilitate this sort of teamwork across the entire enterprise.

Before exploring manufacturing collaboration software options, businesses first need to understand what exactly collaboration technology means. Generally, the term refers to a cluster of technology types rather than a single software package, experts say. “It’s about technology that connects people to people,” explained Carlo Delumpa, founder and principal at Portland, Ore.-based Hive Consulting. “The average American worker spends 3-6 hours a day trying to find a piece of knowledge. Collaboration technology is a means for people to get to the info they need to do their jobs faster and more effectively.”

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Delumpa emphasized that this is about more than the simple transfer of data. At its core, collaboration technology is about an exchange of wisdom and ideas between employees who may not be in the same room, facility or even the same country. “You can move bits and bytes over networks, but you can’t move knowledge or wisdom over networks,” he said. “The most important thing is to facilitate a connection between people and to fill in knowledge gaps. Allowing employees to connect directly with the people who have the knowledge they need keeps the info from being filtered over and over.”

What qualifies as collaboration technology?

Industry analysts at Forrester Research and IDC Manufacturing Insights break collaboration technology down into distinct categories based on forms of communication:

Email applications: TJ Keitt, senior analyst serving content and collaboration professionals at Cambridge, Mass.-based Forrester, points to Microsoft Outlook and Exchange as the most popular business email apps, though Gmail is also growing in use.

Real-time, or instant, communications: Catherine White, research analyst for supply chain at IDC Manufacturing Insights, based in Framingham, Mass., points to the prolific use of instant messaging, chat, phone and video services such as AIM, Gchat and Skype between employees in the workplace and beyond. While resistance to these newer forms of communication may initially be a hurdle, older workers at manufacturing organizations are retiring and being replaced by a younger, less technology-resistant crowd. For them, tools like Gchat are already part of everyday life, according to White.

Collaboration platforms: The category includes teaming applications, product management tools and workflow tools, according to Keitt. Examples of collaboration platforms are Microsoft SharePoint, Lotus Quickr, Central Desktop and Huddle -- platforms that are largely cloud-based, said Keitt. As White observed, “Forward-thinking manufacturers have already moved to these cloud apps.”

Conferencing applications: Both Keitt and White say conferencing software, such as WebEx and GoToMeeting, is increasingly common, especially among companies with multiple facilities around the world. “Real-time communications like video conferencing allow for face-to-face interactions with employees in global manufacturing operations,” Keitt said.

Social computing: Enterprise social software is a catchall term for blogs, wikis, RSS, and intranet-based employee-driven networks. According to Keitt, “Social computing denotes a more democratized publishing information system that allows for a less hierarchical creation of information.”

Reaping the benefits of collaboration software

Whether a manufacturer decides to use all or just some of these tools, a "slow and steady wins the race" approach is the best way to get the organization at large on board, according to White. “For example, if a design team wants to be able to get products to market faster, I’d take that group and see if they can better collaborate online. Simple things like pushing POs [purchase orders] through or communicating with suppliers are easier with collaboration technology. Get that low-hanging fruit first,” she said.

White also suggested starting with a small group of power users -- employees who are eager to try the new technology right off the bat and are willing to help promote it to their colleagues. “Get those users that want to be a part of this on board, then move on to the rest of the team,” said White. “If [collaboration technology] is not going to be part of the company culture, it’s not going to work. You have to talk to employees during and after implementation. Show them the baseline metrics and how it would improve customer satisfaction.”

It’s essential to determine where inter-enterprise communication gaps lie -- and how technology can fill them -- before making any purchasing decisions, according to Keitt. “What is it that hinders individuals in the organization from working together? Once you have an understanding of what the issues are, then you can set objectives to remove hurdles, create strategies to meet objectives and choose technology to support these strategies,” he said.

“From the cultural standpoint, for businesses that haven’t historically had a lot of sharing internally, [collaboration technology] is a new process,” said Keitt. “It’s important to have middle management be engaged and invested. Processes have to be changed, but so do minds. Express to employees how the culture is going to change and what it will achieve.”

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