The ability to cooperate is one of the primary factors that allowed human beings to climb right to the top of the evolutionary tree. There were others of course - big brains and opposable thumbs certainly helped - but the ability to work together, to collaborate, allowed us to achieve things that never would have been possible for solitary hunter-gatherers.
The advent of the Internet has changed the way most of us work and communicate. It has also opened up a host of new ways to collaborate.
Need for Online Collaboration Tools
Putting aside the somewhat grander sweep of human evolution, collaboration is also vital to business success. It's not enough to simply assemble a great team; you must also encourage and enable them to work together. Online collaboration tools can be perfect for this.
We're living in an increasingly interconnected world and that allows for new working patterns. According to figures from Global Workplace Analytics, 50% of the US workforce has a job that is compatible with at least part-time telecommuting and between 20%-25% of the workforce teleworks at some point. Fortune 1000 companies around the world are designing their spaces around the fact that workers are already mobile, with studies showing workers are no longer deskbound. Collaborative software not only enables remote working for individuals, it also allows cooperation between teams located in different parts of the same site, in different sites in the same country or international partners.
Collaborative tools are not just about distance however. They can also be about time, providing 24/7 working options that can allow for different schedules. These may be influenced by location and time zones but they could also be influenced by other factors such as working patterns, shifts and availability.
With the right security systems in place, collaborative software can enable you to bring in talented freelancers, crowd-sourced workers and other outsider parties. This can be especially important for projects requiring very specific skillsets that might not always be available internally. You can also use collaborative tools to bring together talent from different departments.
Collaborative software can also provide a way for everyone in a team to be able to contribute to their fullest. Not everyone is comfortable speaking up in meetings or advancing their ideas to colleagues in a face-to-face situation whereas some of these tools can encourage contributions from talented wallflowers. Some tools can even allow for anonymous exchanges or contributions.
Types of online collaboration
There are many different types of online collaboration tools. Some can be delivered in the form of web or mobile apps and many are increasingly cloud-centered. Broadly, they can be grouped into three main categories: communication, conferencing and coordination, although many modern collaborative tools are multi-functional and blur these boundaries.
Communication tools allow the exchange of messages and information between parties and could incorporate internal and external email and instant messaging, voice mails, Voice over IP (VoIP) and video messaging. These are the sorts of tools that can help to enable distance working by allowing different parties to communicate quickly and easily. Conferencing tools are similar but they allow real-time communication between multiple parties. These can include platforms such as video conferencing, IM teleconferencing, shared whiteboards and application sharing. Some companies like to set up internal messaging systems that can be used to send individual or group messages, virtual message boards and even corporate social media sites. Coordination tools facilitate group activities and can include features such as calendars, time trackers, spreadsheets and client portals.
Many online collaborative tools are quite specialized while others combine a number of elements and features. Project management software, for example, will often combine communication and organizational tools while enterprise portal software can allow directors and executives to securely create, distribute, and collaborate on board meeting materials. Useful features could include the ability to view votes, distribute documents and questionnaires, access calendars and contacts or carry out a remote purge in the event of a device being lost or stolen.
The best tools for you
There are literally hundreds of collaborative tools available and there's no such thing as a one-size-fits-all solution. Every business will have its own unique requirements and, while a collaborative 3D CAD (computer aided design) package might well be essential for an engineering company, it might not see much use at an accountancy firm.
That said, here are a few particularly useful, universal or standout tools:
This is great for sharing documents and files via shared folders and can be accessed from multiple locations. It has native apps for Windows, Mac, Ubuntu, Android, iOS and Blackberry, or you can access it directly from your browser.
There are more specialized document-sharing apps out there but this is a handy go-to for content creation, allowing you to work on and share documents, spreadsheets and presentations online. Different people can edit together in live mode and documents can also be saved and printed offline. Google Docs is now part of the wider Google Drive service.
This is a good example of an organizational tool, allowing you to streamline schedules and categorize and order text, photos, drawings and mock-ups via a 'card' system that is essentially a more sophisticated online version of a series of post-it notes.
A social network specifically for business use, Yammer provides a user-friendly platform for workers to communicate and collaborate.
Co-op is a very simple but very useful app. It looks a bit like Twitter and allows your team to share links, provide updates, ask and answer questions and share your daily agenda.
This is one of the most well-established project management tools and with good reason. The web-based tool lets you organize your projects, share calendars and contacts, track progress and more.
There are, of course, many more collaborative tools available. Collaboration and cooperation is essential for any type of business. Online tools can help to encourage and enable this active form of teamwork but choosing the best ones will always come down to personal circumstances and the requirements of each organization, department and project.