Driving innovation with joined up thinking

The hint of a better economic outlook may generate more business cases for collaboration to harness global business intellect and spur innovation.

Collaboration has been described as the next phase of the internet. The need to respond quickly to market changes and the proliferation of a geographically dispersed workforce are driving organisations to prioritise workforce collaboration.

The adoption of Web 2.0 software tools, coupled with a continued need to improve workforce productivity and the growing criticality to capture institutional knowledge before it leaves the organisation, is forcing organisations to make workforce collaboration a priority and broaden its application across the organisation.

The problem has been that in challenging economic times, making the business case for collaboration at a time when the business watchword has been efficiency and cost-cutting has been a challenge.

Need for collaboration

The past few months have necessarily seen a scaling down of business plans for collaboration, as budgets have tightened. They are still tight, but in challenging times, the need to collaborate with people inside and outside the organisation is more important than ever, both to maximise efficiency and to drive innovation.

The argument for not focusing on collaboration went, "There is no time for collaboration now; doing more with less means we have to hunker down. The return on investment of collaborative initiatives is not always apparent, so collaboration is risky and may lead to wasted resources."

Now, as we start - hesitantly - to consider the possibility of a business recovery, the counter-argument says, "Collaboration will help us do more with less and lead to new growth opportunities to help companies differentiate themselves in difficult times, where the mindset is 'work smarter, not harder', and where work is something you do, not where you go. Collaborative tools can give that business advantage, unlock organisation-wide and global intellect, and use that to foster the joined up thinking that will drive innovation."

Driving innovation

Recent research undertaken by Computer Weekly as part of a project with BT found that over 67% of respondents expect collaboration to become an important driver of innovation over the next 12 months. And they expect to have the budget for it: 83% have sufficient budget to facilitate collaboration within the organisation, and 80% say the collaborative technologies being used have not been impacted by any budgetary changes affecting the wider IT infrastructure.

In terms of the benefits collaboration brings to the organisation, 93% of respondents said better communication, 83% more effective staff, and 73% improved productivity. Faster innovation was cited by 70%, and lower costs by a similar number. In terms of how collaborative tools and techniques positively benefit innovation, 23% said saving time, 20% said collaboration enables the sharing of ideas, 17% said saving money or reducing costs, and 17% said sharing information over a wider area.

The ongoing interest in collaboration was evident at a recent CIO roundtable event on collaboration organised as part of the Computer Weekly/BT project. Over 30 people turned up for a discussion on the collaborative journey, as detailed in the box below.

Take a reality check

Most organisations interested in collaboration initiatives have been doing their own collaboration reality check, asking these questions:

  • How far is collaboration really being exploited beyond some pilot implementations?
  • Who is taking the lead with this and in what areas?
  • What big collaboration successes are there, and by whom and what benefits were realised?
  • Are companies really pushing this or "staying in touch" to see how it fares?
  • In the current market conditions, is there a justifiable return for a big investment?

One of the key elements on the collaborative journey is the importance of creating a collaborative culture. Collaboration is a recursive process where two or more people or organisations work together towards an intersection of common goals by sharing knowledge, learning and building consensus. What collaboration does not necessarily require is leadership, so it can sometimes bring better results through decentralisation and egalitarianism. Teams that work collaboratively can obtain greater resources, recognition and reward when facing competition for finite resources.

What do we mean by collaborative tools? Typically, Web 2.0-inspired networking tools, such as wikis, Instant Messenger (IM), Facebook or Facebook-like in-house portals, and developments such as Twitter and Jabber. The use of such tools is accelerating within companies - much of it under the radar of and against the will of management - but preventing its use is likely to be counter-productive. As workforces get younger, they expect such tools to be available, and if they are not, they will either bring them in, or go to work somewhere that is "connected" enough to use them.

Knowledge management

Around 10 years ago, managing information flows within and between organisations was considered to be a strategic necessity. The movement was labelled "knowledge management", but never really took off.

Now knowledge management is a real driver for collaboration. Take the example of Arup, the international construction and design company involved with the development of London's "wobbly" Millennium Bridge.

Virtual teams at Arup can collaborate across a global reach. But that was not always the case. In fact, the lack of access to knowledge within the organisation - while it was there - actually led to the delays in solving the engineering problems that had closed the bridge. Because the corporate memory could not be shared, months of analysis and negative publicity followed, and the bridge was closed until £5m of repairs could be completed.

Having learned the hard way about the need for knowledge sharing, Arup now has a sophisticated knowledge discovery engine in place to prevent such an occurrence again.

The collaborative journey 

Business need

Collaboration is a necessity in today's business environment. No company can go it alone and collaboration and co-opetition extend the range of ideas and input going into organisations' product development. Drivers for collaboration - at various levels, and both internal and external - can include a need to capture and retain knowledge within the organisation, reduce the number of meetings (or make them more effective), share input across countries through wikis (making the most of time differences), or improving communications through use of "presence", such as click to call.

Where am I?

The most basic form of collaboration is e-mail, which all organisations are using but suffer the frustrations of. More advanced organisations will already be using wikis, Instant Messaging and blogs. Some may be using Twitter or some form of corporate-branded Facebook-like application, such as MyBT, working within the organisation (as an alternative to staff using Facebook itself). Computer Weekly's research on collaboration found that the most commonly used collaborative tools are Blackberries or other smart phones, followed by videoconferencing, Instant Messaging, presence and messaging software, Facebook and Twitter.

How do you make a winning pitch?

Assuming you want to step up collaboration, how can you sell collaboration to your chief financial officer (CFO)? What return on investment are you looking to achieve? Making a pitch for spending on collaboration may not be an easy sell in today's challenging business environment. It has been difficult to sell soft benefits to a CFO who is in cost-cutting and business efficiency mode. But rationalising voice contracts will help, and collaboration can now be offered as a service, offering the benefit of known per-period costs to the organisation.

"Business cases in the current climate must be tactical, in tune with the defined community of interest, and offer a shorter pay-back period," says Neil Sutton, vice-president of global propositions and product marketing at BT.

Managing the legacy

Assuming you have the financial support of the CFO to start exploring collaborative measures and implement a project, you will need to start thinking about how to achieve it in your current environment. How can you integrate collaboration within your current environment? Or is collaboration as a service a possibility? One of the problems cited with using collaboration tools is integrating them with legacy systems. Although Web 2.0 tools are typically easy to use, legacy collaborative applications can prove to be an integration challenge.

"When you look at collaboration tools, integration is complex, they are expensive, and the journey and roadmap is a long timeline for most customers. That is why there is a strong case for offering collaboration-as-a-service to help open up the organisation knowledge silos," says Steve Masters, BT head of global unified communications.

The chicken - or the egg?

The final part of a journey towards effective collaboration demands establishing and nurturing a collaborative culture within the organisation. Do you have one? If you build it, will they use it? E-mail has its drawbacks, but it is an accepted business tool of industrial strength. People have good intentions in using new tools such as wikis, but they will not - officially - take off within the organisation without impetus. That may be peer-to-peer driven, or it could come through an edict from the top. There may be some resistance, so how do you go about creating a collaborative culture?

The value of Web 2.0

What does this focus on collaboration really mean for IT organisations, and how can they use it to harness global business intellect and get value for the business using Web 2.0 tools?

The challenge is in deploying the very social tools heard about and used at home within the cloistered, legacy world of the enterprise: to get to market faster, drive cost out of the business, and do it with agility, security and sustainability, while remaining compliant. The good news is that everyone is still on the starting line: there are few, if any exemplars.

Businesses are still hunting for answers and guidance, looking to share ideas and best practice on how to meld business and consumer collaborative tools together.

"It is clear that the momentum is gathering for collaboration. With user and supplier organisations working together, and piloting taking place, we are hopefully coming into one or two clear applications on the business side similar to those in the consumer side," says Ian Campbell, chairman of the Corporate IT Forum.

The difference between the move towards collaboration and other step changes within IT is that the development of collaborative technologies represents a social change phenomenon rather than a technology change and, as one delegate at the roundtable pointed out, "We are in for a long journey until we have reached a point where business process and social cohesion come together on this."

Case study: delivering 'presence' at Tayside Fire and Rescue

One of the key applications of collaboration delivered by Instant Messaging is the concept of "presence" - the ability to know when someone you want to contact is available and able to connect in real time, using text, voice or video. It is not a term known by all, however. In the Computer Weekly/BT Collaboration survey, only 30% were able to explain presence as an enabler of availability, while 40% were unfamiliar with the term.

A key user of presence within its operations is Tayside Fire and Rescue in Scotland, whose area of responsibility covers 7,500 square miles, 24 locations and the safety of nearly 400,000 people.

Tayside, which is based in Dundee and Perth, relies on its ability to know the up-to-date presence of its 800 staff, and to be able to communicate with them instantly across the organisation, providing voice calls, instant messaging, e-mail and streaming video.

The fire service's needs for such a presence-driven application are not limited to emergency requirements, but apply equally to daily administrative tasks, such as contacting colleagues to discuss operational or budgetary matters and for officers on operational duty or in the community conducting training sessions on preventive fire measures.

Tayside's adoption of a system based on Microsoft Office Communications Server offers simple click-to-call, where the identification of presence and preferred method of contact takes the guesswork and trial and error out of communications.

Gary Bellfield, Tayside's manager of information and communications technology, says effectiveness and efficiency are key drivers of Tayside Fire and Rescue's adoption of unified communications technology.

"Presence means I can see who is available, and click-to-call just gets rid of all that latency involved with searching for a number and hoping it is the right one. This system saves time. Equally, if I am involved in a call and I have five or six people waiting to contact me, I can receive an instant message, which I can instantly respond to.

"The fire service is now tied into presence and availability. I can see immediately if a colleague is on holiday, in a meeting, or available to take a call, perhaps about business processes, line of business applications or operational issues, and the means by which they want to be contacted. This makes us much more efficient than we have been in the past. If I am working in another location, I would have previously had to use an alternative telephone extension. With click-to-call, my number remains the same in whichever of our 24 locations I might be working."

In addition to the collaborative benefits that have improved the competency, effectiveness and mobility of its fire-fighters, and the effectiveness of Tayside's communications, Bellfield has also realised significant efficiency savings from Tayside's operating budget of £27m.

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