The word collaboration gets kicked around a lot these days and seems to mean different things to different people. In truth, it just means co-labouring — working together to achieve a common outcome.
If you stay focused on this idea, choosing tools to help you get the job done becomes a lot easier. Surprisingly, the tools are often not the ones we consider as real time at all (think Web meetings or phone conferences). Not all managers are comfortable with that idea.
Asynchronous vs. synchronous
What every team needs to work well is a mix of technology that allows both synchronous (together at the same time) and asynchronous (everyone working on their own thing at different times). But which tools do you use when?
Here is the important caveat for many managers. Just because everyone can meet at the same time and talk together doesn't mean they should.
Brainstorming is normally thought of as a real-time collaborative group activity. Anyone who has been part of one of these sessions, though, knows that it's tough to get everyone to participate. When they do, it frequently becomes an exercise in group-think where dissenters are often (quite unconsciously) discouraged from speaking up or are caught up in the energy of the moment. This is an even more common problem online, when poor facilitation skills can result in only the most extroverted or impassioned speaking up and the rest of the team at best sitting quietly (do you confuse silence with assent?. Or they just tune out and start answering their email.
Hint: Unless the clock is really ticking on an issue, use a mix of asynchronous (advance notice, solicit ideas through email or collaboration tools like SharePoint and Google Docs) and synchronous (robust, well-facilitated Web meetings or conference calls) and then give everyone a chance to cool down and calmly examine the options.
Use a whiteboard
When running a collaborative meeting online, use the whiteboard feature to capture ideas. Even though they often are slow (and you might just want the facilitator to actually write minutes down as a result), the visual stimulus of seeing the possibilities will help team members focus their thinking.
Hint: Leave the chat running. A common mistake facilitators make is turning off the chat feature to keep everyone on task and eliminate useless chit-chat. Participating in chat may help more shy members of the team contribute, while the more extroverted can blow off steam and make smart-aleck comments that have value: many a true word was spoken in jest.
Point the team to the goal posts
Use asynchronous features to your advantage — post the team goals and metrics where everyone can see them and keep a running total of milestones reached, project status and issues to be resolved. This allows you to use your online time to truly engage your team and focus on issues that require multiple brains. Less broadcasting of information they can get elsewhere will ensure your time together is well spent. Time well spent means more participation and engagement in the meetings when you have them. It s a virtuous circle.
Hint: A few minutes spent creating an accurate agenda for your meetings and directing people to information they can find elsewhere (minutes and action items from the last meeting, the latest version of documents) will reduce wasted time on meetings and help you create a sense of mission for the sessions you do run.
The right tools for the job
There are many tools available. Some, like Viack or Kzoinnovations, combine both web meeting and recording with shared files, chat, instant updates and the ability to archive the conversations for those who maybe can t make the meetings or want to go back and remember exactly what the heck Jane was talking about during the call. You can also combine tools, as long as everyone knows what’s available to them and how are they expected to use them.
Using asynchronous tools strategically can make your synchronous meetings more effective and make your job as manager that much easier. The key is to figure out how best to co-labour to get the best results, take the time to plan for those interactions and then step up and lead your team to the best results.