I’ve covered collaboration technology for many years now and have also been focusing on the people aspect of collaboration as well. After all, collaboration is between people. One thing many enterprises lack is strong support for external collaborative interactions. The problem with this is that a lot of collaborative interactions happen with external people.

External collaboration with customers, partners or suppliers can yield tremendous competitive advantage and boost a company’s bottom line. However, companies have to use a systematic approach to develop a sound and successful strategy for building collaborative ecosystems and communities. Aragon Research details the steps in a recent report titled “Why Every Enterprise Should Build Collaborative Ecosystems.”

So, business users are collaborating and creating their own ecosystems and networks of collaborative interactions with partners and customers. However, much of it is ad hoc and done with tools that aren’t owned or managed by the enterprise. In many cases, consumer tools are used. The fact that this happens is not the problem though, at least not completely. People are essentially doing this for business purposes. The problem is a lack of strategy for supporting what is one of the most essential business practices: external collaboration. It requires building and supporting a complete collaborative ecosystem.

Many enterprise collaboration systems were designed only for internal collaboration, but external collaboration is also a natural part of doing business, and doing it successfully can improve your bottom line, as I mentioned previously. This is because partners, suppliers and customers outside the company hold crucial information that can affect your company’s finances positively or negatively, depending on how it is used—or misused.

Making external collaboration successful doesn’t just happen naturally—you’ll need a well-defined strategy and a cross-functional team of legal, information technology (IT) and business unit leaders, along with people from the organizations you want to collaborate with. The overall approach to building a collaborative ecosystem includes:
  • Deciding who to collaborate with
  • Assigning responsibility for assets, such as content ownership
  • Managing the duration of the collaborative relationship
  • Choosing technology tools to support external collaboration that are agreed upon by all parties
A collaborative ecosystem breaks down and goes beyond geographic, industry and organizational boundaries. It lets enterprises use multiple technology solutions and services to collaborate with partners, suppliers and customers. Many firms already have an informal collaborative ecosystem but lack the proper management to guarantee its success.

Most companies have some sort of what we traditionally refer to as business-to-business (B2B) or business-to-consumer (B2C) communities. While we talk in terms of B2B or B2C, the reality is that those distinctions blur, because collaboration is people to people and person to person. I suggest we start rethinking these networks as such, with people at the center. Also, these communities or networks can overlap, creating a mesh and a social graph of intersecting networks. Such a network of communities can have tremendous business value if it is effectively managed and developed.

Many enterprises use these “people networks” or communities as a reliable source of innovation. For example, Proctor & Gamble uses external networks to crowdsource new ideas. The power of the network lets businesses solve problems faster than they could on their own. Customer communities can help you enhance the customer experience. Social software vendors, such as Jive and Lithium, offer tools to create purpose-built communities for customers, partners or suppliers, with multiple levels of role-based access and security.

The bottom line is that companies have to be agile and have access to information in real time. They then need to be able to act on this information quickly. Often, partner communities in various geographies have valuable information on local market conditions and resources. Establishing and supporting collaborative ecosystems will give you access to a wealth of information in areas where you can’t physically be present.

Collaboration between people is the lifeblood of business. So, organizations have to focus and be holistic in creating strategies around collaborative interactions between customers, their extended workforce and partners, while employing the view that this is, essentially, one life cycle and collaborative ecosystem of people.

Dave Smith is the research director and lead analyst for collaboration atAragon Research. Previously, Mr. Smith was a research analyst at Gartner, where he covered collaboration and web conferencing. Follow him on Twitter @DaveMario.

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