There was a time when many government managers, like their private sector counterparts, were skeptical about the value of collaboration tools.
In theory, one could see the potential benefits of enabling employees to interact online in new ways, rather than relying on e-mail, phone calls and face-to-face meetings. Some technologies have always been seen as promising, such as video-conferencing, because it enables people to meet “face-to-face” without the need for travel, and web conferencing, which allows people to make presentations, share and collaborate on documents and interact securely.
But what about social media, wikis, forums and other tools? In the past, many managers questioned whether collaboration tools would really improve productivity or simply distract workers from the work at hand.
That perception clearly is changing. A recent survey conducted by the 1105 Government Information Group found that federal, state and local government officials have a clear sense of why collaboration tools are a good investment.
Asked to rate the importance of potential benefits to their agencies, more than half of respondents rated eight different benefits as “very important.” Leading the way is the ease with which people can share information across an organization (rated “very important” by 73 percent of respondents), followed closely by “quicker dissemination of information” (68 percent).
The survey results also show that collaboration is not just convenient but in some cases also actionable. Fifty-nine percent of respondents highlighted the value of using collaboration tools for real-time communications, whether during emergencies or in other situations when time is of essence. And 57 percent also appreciate how such tools can help a team reach decisions or complete their work in a timely fashion.
Popular types of collaboration tools
At this point, there is probably an online tool for nearly every type of collaboration that goes on within organizations. But most tools in use at agencies generally fall in these categories.
- Online brainstorming
- Third-party social networking
- Agency-specific social networking
Even social networking tools, which once were seen primarily as marketing tools, are being recognized as legitimate business applications, experts say.
"In these few short years, social technology has evolved from simply another 'new media' platform to an increasingly important business tool, with wide-ranging capabilities," according to analysts with the McKinsey Global Institute, writing in a recent report titled “The Social Economy: Unlocking Value and Productivity.”
Much of the value of those technologies comes from improving communications and collaborations “within and across enterprises,” they write. “By adopting these organizational technologies, we estimate that companies could raise the productivity of knowledge workers by 20 to 25 percent.”
Asked to identify the relative importance of different objectives, respondents gave the edge to “Ability to cut down on in-person meetings,” followed by “Enabling e-learning and remote training opportunities” (see Figure 2). But the impetus for buying collaboration tools varies somewhat among federal, state and local agencies.
For example, state and local agencies are most interested in supporting online learning, while many federal civilian agencies are looking to support interaction with teleworkers. For defense agencies, two objectives are especially important: Cutting down on in-person meetings and the ability to support cooperation with other organizations.
Agencies increasingly are learning how to align their use of collaboration tools with the particular nature of their work. The Department of Veterans Affairs is a case in point.
The department has two major challenges: Supporting employees who work in facilities scattered across the country and exchanging information with the public, specifically service-members and veterans and their families. Web-based collaboration and social media tools address both challenges, according to a June 2011 directive, which established policy on the use of these tools.
The directive identified six primary benefits for the VA: Quick dissemination of information. Broad reach to vast networks and super-networks of users. Targeted reach to veterans/service-members, employees, volunteers, etc. Better collaboration between the VA and the public. Better dialogue between VA and IT developers. Expansion of real-time communications, particularly during a crisis.
To an extent such uses of collaboration tools are likely to reduce e-mail traffic, as communications is shifted to more effective media, be it instant messaging, web conferencing or online forums. But don’t expect a big decrease.
The new generation of tools is more likely to “augment traditional collaboration,” rather than supplant it, said Vanessa Thompson, an analyst focused on enterprise social networks and collaborative technology at IDC Government.
Many organizations are especially interested in tools that provide real-time collaboration, such as web conferencing, said Philipp Karcher, an analyst with Forrester Research. “People recognize its value for quick exchanges, as opposed to e-mail,” he said.
In many cases, agencies that start experimenting with collaboration tools will discover even more uses than they originally envision.