Increasingly emphasis is being put on informal learning and knowledge exchange between staff. However, how do you encourage employees to make use of the tools available and enable collaboration across departments and borders?

In today’s global economy, collaboration among knowledge workers is vital, with distributed employees needing to work with coworkers, partners and customers across time zones and differing technical environments.

For enterprise IT managers, the challenge is finding the right mix of tools that spur collaboration as employees strive to meet constantly changing business requirements and customer expectations, explains David Gingell, Senior Director Adobe Systems Incorporated.

When organisations look at solutions to optimise collaboration, the best idea may be to take the approach of mixing something proven and familiar with something new. In two recent Forrester Consulting studies commissioned by Adobe, Forrester reached out to knowledge workers in Europe and the US to learn how they collaborate to get their jobs done.

The study results uncovered many interesting challenges and opportunities, including that successful approaches to collaboration have to embrace people’s current work habits, while also supporting a transition over time to additional strategies that further refine collaboration.

The Forrester research found that 73 per cent of US knowledge workers in large enterprises collaborate with people in different time zones and regions at least once a month - and nearly a quarter of them do so daily.

Interestingly, despite all the technology advances, telephone and face-to-face meetings remain the predominant means of communication. And when it comes to working across boundaries of time and location, approximately 77 per cent of knowledge workers in the US and Europe rely on sending emails and exchanging attachments.

These tried and tested strategies aid collaboration, but are not without their detractors or shortcomings. In fact, nearly seven in 10 knowledge workers in the US and Europe believe that improvements in collaboration are needed, with approximately two-thirds of respondents in each region seeking to enhance collaboration speed and efficiency and reduce paperwork.

For enterprise IT organisations looking to take collaboration to new levels, rapid integration of newer methods and tools such as wikis, blogs or social networks might be tempting. Unfortunately, knowledge worker adoption of these technologies currently is low in the US and Europe, with use at or less than 2 per cent (wikis), 3 per cent (blog) and 5 per cent (social networks).

The good news is that many organisations are finding ways to give knowledge workers the tools they want to use for collaboration today, while providing the means to incorporate additional strategies for addressing future collaboration requirements.

Working effectively across distributed teams

Managing large-scale construction projects can be challenging under even the most favourable conditions. With offices throughout Europe, the Middle East and Africa, Consolidated Contractors Company (CCC) is the largest engineering and construction company in the region, with more than 150,000 employees and contractors worldwide.

The innovative company makes it a priority to automate many of its core business processes - and understandably so: CCC managers work in 18 offices worldwide and frequently oversee tens of thousands of staff in remote locations. For CCC, it is not unusual to be managing several large-scale construction projects simultaneously, ranging from building bridges, airports and universities to constructing oil refineries.

As demand for CCC services has skyrocketed, so has the need to adopt dynamic forms processes integrated with automated workflow systems. ‘Our projects are extremely complex, involving thousands of employees, contractors, vast amounts of equipment and other variables,’ says Aref Boualwan, Manager Development (ECM/BPM) Applications at CCC. ‘To help improve our business processes, we now complete and share a lot of project information on interactive PDF forms.’

For CCC, one strategy it used to help drive the successful adoption of automated forms processes was to use technology that mimicked paper processes long familiar to employees. Of course, the critical exception was that information could be entered electronically and shared in minutes, instead of the weeks previously required to distribute and review information on paper.

Transforming the look and feel of collaboration

For many knowledge workers, the impact of their work depends not only on the quality of content, but also on its appearance. The results of the Forrester Consulting study highlighted this, finding that nearly 50 per cent of workers in the US and Europe have to create compelling communications at least once a month.

Traditional modes of collaboration often provide few options for sharing rich content. People might print and deliver designs or have the unlikely hope that coworkers, partners or customers will have the same specialised software applications to review the original design content.

For Designbrand, one of New Zealand’s leading industrial design firms, the goal was to bring greater interactivity and clarity to collaboration, making product ideas and designs easily accessible and engaging for anyone who needs to see them.

After an initial client meeting, Designbrand industrial designers sit down with a pencil in hand to sketch a series of drafts for clients. The hand-drawn images are scanned onto desktop computers and then converted to more versatile digital files for rapid sharing. Finalised design concepts are converted to PDF for electronic delivery to clients.

If modifications are needed, clients can simply add digital comments to the files to indicate desired changes. Once complete, Designbrand staff begins the detailed design phase to ready products for manufacturing, sharing designs as compact 3D files.

The simplified review process delivers big returns. In the past, review documents were distributed on paper, resulting in lengthy review timelines and increased costs.

Maximising returns, minimising threats to information

At the same time that organisations look to leverage the advantages of expanded digital collaboration, they are grappling with how to help prevent sensitive information from getting into the wrong hands.

More than half of the US and European knowledge workers in the Forrester survey indicated that they create and share sensitive information or documents every two to three weeks or more. This fact is not lost on IT security groups, which, not surprisingly, overwhelmingly ranked protecting sensitive corporate data and intellectual property as important or very important.

For leading real estate law firm Bell Alliance, the ability to automate everyday collaboration, while still addressing security requirements, has been a boon to its business. The Vancouver, British Columbia-based firm works closely with clients, other law firms and regional government and land title authorities to help ensure the efficient and secure execution of thousands of property transactions annually.

Bell Alliance set out from its inception to implement secure digital processes that would eliminate the need to build a business on costly paper sharing. ‘Given the time-sensitive nature of real estate transactions, lawyers can incur high out-of-pocket costs to hand deliver project documents to clients and outside agencies,’ says Ron Usher, Senior Counsel with Bell Alliance.

‘By integrating automated data capture with secure, authenticated document delivery, we save at least one to two hours on every transaction. With more than 200 transactions completed each month, this is a major boost to productivity and saves us hundreds of thousands of dollars annually.’

Documents required for transactions can be digitally signed, with each signature authenticated as part of the more secure, automated workflow.

Changing the status quo, one step at a time

As the examples highlight, improving current approaches to collaboration does not require companies to overhaul their processes. As Designbrand’s Principal Brand says, ‘It would be great if we could tell our partners and clients exactly which tools they should use to work with us. But that is not how the real world works. Instead, we have to find solutions that push the envelope of collaboration with subtle changes that map to how people already like to work.’