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Using collaboration platforms to work with external partners is better than the alternative of dealing with a deluge of emails with countless attachments. To make external collaboration work, it's best to take a structured approach and consider some best practices.
Evaluate levels of collaboration access
Many platforms and methods can be used for external collaboration. Assuming your company gives you a choice, pick the platform most appropriate for the work you need to do with the partner. Collaboration can have different levels of complexity for capabilities and support requirements.
A typical starting point for collaboration is basic file sharing. A cloud offering, such as Dropbox or Microsoft OneDrive, could be all that you need to enable file sharing. For paid services, be sure to find out whether your collaboration partners already have accounts or would be willing to buy them.
In my personal experience, for example, more external partners request to use Google Drive as the preferred file sharing platform. A significant benefit is that Google Drive provides a free tier that is more than sufficient for basic collaboration.
One possible drawback, however, is that most users that I've worked with have their Google Drive associated with their personal email rather than their company email. Using their personal storage for confidential company data might be an inadvertent violation of company policy. So, if you are looking at a service like Google Drive for company collaboration, certainly consider asking users to set up a separate Google Drive account using their company email address.
For more extensive collaboration, most organizations likely use Microsoft Teams. Given the dominance of the Microsoft 365 suite, Teams is a natural direction for many companies. Not only does it provide the audio and video conferencing capabilities we are accustomed to with products like Zoom, but it also offers shared file storage and collaboration features. Because Teams is integrated with Microsoft 365 licenses, it's a no-brainer for many organizations.
Collaboration that needs to be more integrated may require giving a partner access to your internal network. In this case, you would have to provide VPN access into your network, which includes a VPN gateway on your site and tunnel software on your VPN client to allow for outside access to the private network.
Managing security and privacy regulations with external partners
When working with external partners in certain geographies, like China, you might find additional complexities with respect to collaboration systems and exchanging documents. Collaboration tool capabilities may be restricted based on government regulations or may not even be globally available.
For example, for some of my company's Chinese partners, we use a Chinese application called Zhumu for video conferencing instead of Zoom. There are times that we use Dropbox file request links to receive large files from our partners. That function, we learned, does not work for those based in China. Thus, we needed to use a Chinese equivalent. In this case, Baidu Pan was used to upload required files. Note that the Baidu website is in Chinese only, but it is a simple matter to bring up the site in Google Chrome and use Chrome's built-in translation feature.
Supporting collaboration with external partners
No matter which option you choose, you must provide support for your external collaboration partner. Support won't be a concern if your collaboration consists of Dropbox file sharing. But, for systems like Teams, SharePoint or VPN access, support is necessary.
Those systems require user logins that need to be defined by your system administrators. Your collaboration partners need documentation on how to use a platform like SharePoint. Similarly, VPN access requires credentials and client software. You need to provide these to your collaboration partner.
If your partner has setup problems, it needs to connect to your IT support team. Check beforehand to be sure your IT team can provide support for nonemployees. Many collaborative projects can take place across many time zones, so it's important to establish global support hours.
Managing access when external projects end
External collaboration initiatives tend to fall short in the cleanup phase. When the project is over and the team breaks up, what happens to the files in a shared Dropbox folder? What happens to all the postings on Teams or SharePoint? What happens to the credentials you provided to your partners to access your systems? What happens to the files left sitting on someone's personal Google Drive account?
All too often, the answer is nothing, and everything is left as is. Leaving everything in place is a bad idea. Leftover shared folders are weak links in the security chain. When folders from finished projects aren't dealt with, organizations run the risk of new documents accidentally ending up in defunct folders, which leaves potentially sensitive information vulnerable.
Cleanup should be an integral part of the process of finishing projects with external partners. When the project is over, archive documents, delete them from the shared environment and shut down external user access.
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