Getting the most out of business collaboration software: Rules to live by

Companies that have made the leap and use collaboration software offer up some rules to live by in creating effective communities.

This is part two of a series on business collaboration software systems. Part one discusses companies' use of collaboration tools for customer support and production innovation.

Some companies are too hesitant about collaboration software to bother with it. The investment in time and human resources is too daunting. But even those who have made the leap agree that there are certain rules to live by.

Collaboration software tools enable people to work together even when they are located remotely from one another, often through community forums or through applications that mimic Facebook or other social-media-based apps, with commenting, the ability to attach documents and more.

Companies like Microsoft Dynamics in Fargo, N.D., and Schneider Electric in Fort Collins, Colo., have used collaboration software tools to cultivate community successfully, but they observe certain best practices:

1. Business-line executive sponsorship. For Todd Moran at Schneider Electric, a critical success factor was to require business units to own and be responsible for the success of the community rather than just pin success on a single community manager.

"We wanted to do this in a way ... that touched every team that had skin in the game," Moran said. "Business owners, product managers, support engineers, education services team, professional services team, all those folks have individual ownership and it has become part of their jobs," he emphasized.

2. Use technology to nurture the health of the community. Part of the importance of platforms like Zimbra, said Rob Howard, Zimbra Inc. CTO, is the ability to manage content and keep the community "clean," Howard said. The software's ability to reduce spam and eliminate misbehaving users are important behind-the-scenes capabilities, he said.

Todd MoranTodd Moran

3. Use the community to streamline process. At Schneider Electric, for example, the Jive platform enabled the company to centralize collateral for its partners on its product offerings. But in its eagerness to centralize, the company realized that it had neglected to outline the division of labor for editorial processes so that departments could work collaboratively and effectively -- without version-control problems for documents or skipping steps in the workflow chain.

"Steady yourself for business process retooling," Moran warned. "This new tool holds a mirror up to your organization, and it shines a glaring light on all those things that are broken or need refining in terms of what you're doing internally."

4. Create incentives for participation within the community. In order for the community to remain active and healthy with just a handful of internal employees, Microsoft Dynamics relies on its external members to provide information and engagement. These members have incentive to participate, as many are trying to become Microsoft MVPs and need to be active in such communities to do so.

Eric ParsonsEric Parsons

5. Institutionalize ideation. For the community model to generate ideas that bubble to the surface, companies need to institutionalize the process of idea generation. At Schneider Electric, the product advisory groups vet and institute ideas from the community and also test those ideas for future product iterations.

6. Be realistic. While these platforms are powerful, they may lack certain features. Eric Parsons of Microsoft Dynamics notes that Zimbra's user interface could use improvements "in terms of how customers can customize and deliver advanced user interface capabilities," he said. At Schneider Electric, Moran said that the Jive platform's calendaring features aren't up to snuff and there is an absence of live chat for external communities.

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