It's becoming a familiar scene in companies of all sizes: A team works closely together, jumping from instant messages to video conferences to over-the-phone meetings. They collaborate and accomplish goals side-by-side every day -- without ever actually meeting face-to-face.
Real-time collaboration tools not only connect teams more effectively, but also provide considerable cost savings to your organization. As a result, IT managers are increasingly recognizing the need for real-time collaboration among team members -- no matter their location. "The value of collaborating is about community. You have to be where people are to make it work," says Jon Arnold, an analyst and principal of J Arnold & Associates.
According to Ted Schadler of Forrester Research Inc., what's driving the need is the growing trend of distributed organizations, the rising number of remote workers, and the upsurge of business-to-business teams. Here's what experts say you need to know about real-time collaboration tools and best practices for implementation:
1. Know the real-time collaboration tool landscape.
When it comes to real-time collaboration tools, the theme is "synchronous." Tools need to allow teams to truly communicate in real time. Among the real-time technologies becoming mainstays in many organizations are:
IM has grown beyond chat. Now, employees can send each other files without size limits, switch into video chatting or create a live conference with multiple co-workers on the spot.
Employees can now stay seamlessly connected to their team via email, texting, document sharing and calls -- all on their smartphones.
These tools allow teams to actually see each other's desktops at the same time. Some services even let you take control of someone else's desktop, making it easy to work on projects at the same time, on the same screen
The entire group can share a common sketchpad, easy for sharing ideas and files on a blank canvas.
Telepresence or Web conferencing
Emerging telepresence tools create the illusion of teams interacting in the same room, even when they are miles apart. Webcams that enable one-on-one video conferencing also fall into this category. Many programs now offer recording features too, which are useful to play back later to note explicit directions and follow up with others.
2. Know how tools solve common problems.
All teams don't need all real-time communication tools. And each communication tool does not need to have all the above features. The key is to offer and support the right mix that increases productivity (and ideally lowers costs) without creating distractions. "Look at key processes that can be improved by real-time collaboration," says Smith. "Maybe it's customer service -- like you can speed up the time it takes to answer clients."
3. Know who is driving virtual collaboration.
Forrester recommends taking stock of so-called "alpha collaborators," or employees who are already using collaboration tools. "They are your greatest resource for identifying new tools, driving adoption and testing new scenarios," reports Forrester.
For employees, the expectations for real-time collaboration tools will only continue to expand. "People are living with these tools in their personal life," says Arnold. "And they are bringing those expectations to the workplace."
Courtney Macavinta is a business and technology writer, as well as the managing editor of Every Day Connected. She has written for CNET News online, Inc.com, RedHerring.com, Wired, Business 2.0 and The Washington Post.