Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Tools for Enabling Collaborative Environments

What comes to mind when you hear the term collaboration or collaborate? My definition is enablement of an environment that minimizes disconnects and misunderstandings between individuals on a team. A collaboration strategy should also foster sharing of ideas, concepts and visions of the individual contributors while keeping the team current of the status of the project. Attaining a truly successful collaborative environment will always eliminate any team execution issues related to geographic boundaries.

The word collaborate or collaboration is overused, in fact it is safe to say that it's meaning has been minimized to the point where any team is in fact identified as a collaborating machine. Here's the dictionary definition of collaborate: To work together, especially in a joint intellectual effort. "Working together" - that means more than just working on the same project. It means synchronization, communicating, shared visions, gaining consensus, sharing ideas, informed decisions, understanding contribution and always knowing status. The sharing of files as a collaborative mechanism for projects is archaic and has no place in a high tech industry! Technology has brought us much, much better ways, if we choose to explore them.

There are an abundance of tool solutions available today that foster collaboration and I wanted to share three specific types with you; planning, group chat and brainstorming. I heavily favor hosted SaaS (Software as a Services) solutions due to their cross platform availability and the collaborative enabling aspect of centralized data for all to see. Hosted "cloud" solutions are all web-based interfaces and require nothing to be installed on your computer.

Scheduling & Managing the Process
First off, in an environment that talks of collaboration, it certainly does not make sense that a single person has a view of the status, tasks due, next steps, overall project flow and so on for any project. The days of a singe person maintaining a schedule file should long ago gone the way of the horse and buggy. There should be no secrets and certainly each individual should be responsible for keeping their tasks current... did I hear a gasp?

There are many hosted (web interface) solutions that cover the needs of centralized, multiple platform (even Linux), multiple-site and user-friendly project planning/management tools. Find them via a search string like "SaaS project management tool". My favorite is PIEmatrix due to its slice concept, allowing the establishment of predefined best practices for each NPD role.

If you are concerned about your planning data residing outside the corporate firewall, many of these companies provide internally hosted solutions also. Personally I don't agree with such concern; look at how many large companies have embraced and allowed their sensitive customer relationship data outside the firewall.

When you think of chat the last area that you may see benefit of this social technology is managing teams and projects. The latest chat technology standards known as XMPP (Extensible Messaging and Presence Protocol) provide much more flexibility in terms of group level chatting (Persistent Group Chat), opening an interesting door for project collaboration.

Consider that specific project group chats could be setup for various chip modules, EDA, verification, requirements, integration, timing analysis, synthesis, test, system verification and so on. Team members can subscribe to only groups of interest to them. This then becomes a real time discussion and communication area for items of importance to that particular chat group. There is even a history capability for documenting the discussion. Via this technology worldwide real time collaboration can become a simple task for projects spanning multiple continents.

Individual chat servers could be setup inside the corporate firewall for each project and then configured to provide specific chat groups of interest for that project. There are also several hosted chat solutions that provide similar features. The technology exists, is supported on multiple platforms, including smart phones, and costs range from free to low. Why not give it a try? Search for "persistent group chat" to find hosted solutions. Check out for client/server possibilities.

There is no better way of collaborative brainstorming than the use of mind maps. Many are hosted and allow real time map sharing for multi-site brainstorm sessions. Review last month's posting for more information on mind mapping.

Collaboration or Extinction
The largest issue I see with project execution is due to a lack in the most fundamental of capabilities, a deficiency in individual communication. If people are not communicating well they are certainly not successfully collaborating. Tools that enable better communication will also facilitate the much-needed collaboration that will bring about change. A cure for "Terminal Sameness" is an incremental choice, one antidote at a time.

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