The globalization of the enterprise has shifted the nature of collaboration, making unified communications tools a necessity and giving multinational enterprises and their teams the ability to function seamlessly across time zones. Being able to connect a diverse, global workforce is a huge operational asset.

"Understanding how business is done and how collaboration tools can support that is key to making the right decision"

When used correctly, collaboration tools allow organizations to focus on their core competencies by enabling workers to be more productive through contextual, real-time communications. But it’s easy—to get caught up in the novelty of having advanced communications tools at your fingertips, overlooking the practical reality of team collaboration—it’s really only as good as the tools that support it. After all, if setting up the meeting takes longer than the meeting itself, or if your employees get away from spending all their time answering email only to end up spending all their time answering IMs, then collaboration tools are getting in the way of productivity and becoming more of a burden than an asset.

That’s why it’s important to ensure you aren’t just choosing a collaboration tool to support certain features and functions, but that you’re choosing a collaboration tool to support the way your business actually works.

Have an Honest Conversation

Understanding how business is done and how collaboration tools can support that is key to making the right decision. It’s important, therefore, to start by having an honest conversation with employees about their needs. Don’t just scan the network for application usage data; engage employees in a conversation about their preferred collaboration and working styles. Be clear about how their input will be used and they’ll feel more comfortable giving feedback. If you’re not sure where to start, here’s a list of questions you can ask employees to guide the discussion:

1. How do you currently manage your work, and what communications tools are you using?

2. Are there any capabilities you would like to use that you don’t have access to today?

3. What is your process for forming and maintaining teams for new and existing projects?

4. Are teams generally permanent or do people often join for a one-off task and leave when they’re finished?

5. Does your current workspace capture a history of project notes or actions in a virtual meeting space, allowing you to search and consult later if necessary?

6. Is it important for you to have the ability to join meetings from any location or device of choice?

7. Do most or all of your current team members work from a remote location to your own?

8. Which communications tools do you find best for communicating with team members working from a remote location to yours (e.g., audio conferencing, video conferencing, screen sharing, or a combination)?

9. Do you often need to start meetings on an ad hoc basis, adding team members as they become available even while the meeting is in progress?

10. How often do you find it necessary to escalate meetings from one tool to another, e.g., moving from e-mail/chat to an audio conference or a multi-party video meeting?

11. How important to you is it to be able to share, annotate and edit documents and media in real-time during a virtual meeting? Would it be helpful to be able to add voice annotations to the context for your virtual meeting space?

Once you understand how and why employees use collaboration tools, you’ll have an easier time making decisions about which tools to keep and which to cut. It’s crucial to be certain which features matter the most to your employees (and why) or you risk cutting critical applications in favor of those that have insufficient capabilities.

Make Decisions

Based on the understanding gained through these conversations, it will be easier to make decisions about new tools that enter the market as well as the tools already on the network. Understanding the preferences expressed by employees and how those preferences translate into features will guide these decisions. For example, if employees travel often, a mobile-first solution that allows them to easily work and collaborate on the go might be important. Perhaps that’s only true for your sales department whereas the legal and regulatory teams are mainly editing and sharing documents, placing a higher importance on finding a tool that makes editing and version control easier.

Be sure to research other possibilities beyond the tools already in the network. In cases where there are competing priorities, look into platform-agnostic tools that allow mixing and matching of collaboration tool features, customizing the collaboration experience to not only an individual department but also to the individual employee.

Communicate and Enforce

Collaboration tools are only effective in the hands of an employee, who knows how to use them and it will be important to prevent tools that may have been nixed from being brought back by rogue employees. Once the approved collaboration tools have been decided on—set up training sessions for employees to learn how to use them effectively. These sessions should cover basics such as collaboration meeting etiquette, along with an explanation of how to use the actual tools, including tips and tricks that tie directly back to what employees need to accomplish day-to-day. After the initial roll out, there should be follow up sessions discussing how to more effectively use the tools. Designated power users within the organization, who are available and have the necessary internal context to provide help and support to others, should also be established.

Be sure to use part of each training session to create an open, honest environment to ensure employees feel comfortable giving feedback about the tools and how they may (or may not) be meeting employee needs. This will help ensure employees stick with the chosen tools.

Starting with a candid conversation and ending with training ensures that the enterprise collaboration tools you chose are not only able to meet employee needs, but employees understand how to use them in a way that maximizes their effectiveness. By putting time and effort into carefully choosing a unified communications solution, you’re returning collaboration tools into an operational asset that is sure to have a positive impact on your company’s overall success