Collaboration tool

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A Teliris VirtualLife high resolution telepresence system in use (Courtesy of: Teliris)
A student using an Interactive Whiteboard.

A collaboration tool helps people to collaborate. The purpose of a collaboration tool is to support a group of two or more individuals to accomplish a common goal or objective they have set themselves.[1] Collaboration tools can be either of non-technological nature such as paper, flipchart, post-it notes or whiteboard,[2] purely based on computer systems such as Memex[3] or, which is more common these days, enabled through complex and often web-based collaborative software like Wiki or SharePoint that perfectly integrate in an agile work environment and make us more efficient.[4]

Collaboration tools before Web 2.0[edit]

The first idea to use computers in order to work with each other was formed in 1945 when Vannevar Bush shared his thoughts on a system he named "memex" in his famous article "As We May Think".[5] A system that stores books, records and communications of an individual and makes them available at any time. At this stage he called it "an enlarged supplement to his memory".[6] In 1968 computer systems were brought in connection with communication and the potential way of working together when not at the same place by Dr. J. C. R. Licklider, head of the U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA). In his article “The Computer as a Communication Device” he envisioned the idea that there should be a way of “facilitating communication among people without bringing them together in one place” [7], which eventually led to ARPANET, commercial time-sharing systems and finally the Internet.

When the manual typewriter was invented in 1970, everyone learned about office automation, which led to the first collaborative software called Electronic Information Exchange System (EIES) that allowed to do surveys, threaded replies and group-structured approaches. In 1980 educator C. A. Ellis came up with the definition of the term "groupware" as “computer-based systems that support groups of people engaged in a common task (or goal) and that provide an interface to a shared environment” [8]. After six years Brian Wilson then shaped the term “Computer-Supported Cooperative Work (CSCW) in 1986. He described it as “a generic term which combines the understanding of the way people work in groups with the enabling technologies of computer networking, and associated hardware, software, services, and techniques”.[9]

This laid the foundation to develop further on the ideas of groupware and in the 1990s Lotus Notes, Microsoft Exchange Server and Outlook were invented – another great milestone. In 2002 at the Social Software Summit Clay Shirky introduced the phrase “social software” as a "software that supports group interaction"[10] and people were interested in the invention of new solutions to foster social technologies.

With the further development of Web 2.0 we use cloud-hosted Internet-based applications that give us even more ways to collaborate, form online communities and expand our interaction with each other. As the development of collaboration software has been going on for years now, they became very industry-specific and less flexible.[3]

Main types of collaboration tools[edit]

According to "The Kiel Approach to Collaborative Systems" there are three viewpoints of collaboration - communication, coordination and collaboration. These categories are often used to structure the variety of collaboration tools available.[11]


Communication collaboration tools allow to exchange information between individuals:[12]


Main article: E-Mail

The invention of email as a collaboration tool changed the way we used to communicate in the workplace. It is the easiest method to make contact within an organization and is well established. Especially for organizing daily correspondence, email can reach various people with just one click.[13]

Although email is still the most common used tool in communication collaboration it is not very efficient on a big scale and other forms of communication seem to take over. Besides its flexibility it is not very well for group conversations as they grow too fast. There is no way to be sure that you have the latest version of a document that has been sent to you and it is impossible to always track via your email what tasks need to be done and by which deadline.[14] As Cisco states in their Cisco Blog about the "Future of Email", emails "will improve productivity by organizing your data for you" [15] and try to bring more transparency in your work with email.


Main article: Voicemail

Voicemail as a collaboration tool is more and more integrated in services such as Google Voice. As pointed out in an IBM future scenario the role of voicemail could be that of what email is for us today.[16]

Instant messaging (IM)[edit]

Main article: Instant messaging

Through instant messaging as a collaboration tool we are able to reach people within an organisation in real-time. In the future instant messaging is not a stand-alone software anymore, but very well integrated in bigger solutions such as Unified Communication.[17]

VoIP / video call[edit]

Main article: Voice over IP

Voice over IP as a collaboration tool has quickly gained popularity among companies and is part of their communication portfolio. As a report from Eclipse Telecom is pointing out, the VoIP is moving towards the state to totally replace our telephones in our offices and also integrate in existing collaboration service environments.[18]


Coordination is defined as "the deliberate and orderly alignment or adjustment of partners’ actions to achieve jointly determined goals".[19] Collaboration tools supporting this are the ones who allow you to set up group activities, schedules and deliverables.

Online Calendars[edit]

Main article: Online calendar

You will not find an organisation that has no online calendar, they are part of our professional behaviour at work and fully integrated in other systems. As a research paper from University of Bath explains, online calendars could in the future be much closely linked to other data such as social media and have even a larger impact.[20]

Time trackers[edit]

Time trackers are especially used to measure the performance of employees. Its effect on productivity is discussed as being controversial.[21]


Spreadsheets are like emails very popular within the corporate environment and as a collaboration tool essential for financial analysis or modelling. Although very popular, several studies found out that many spreadsheets contain inaccurate data and are therefore inefficient.[22]

Main article: Spreadsheet


Collaboration tools allow groups to have real-time discussions and to shape an idea or thought together. Trends in terms of collaboration target on helping to maintain the "main idea" within big organisations and make connections visible. Also the idea of bringing people who are not working in a company on a regular basis into the organisation and make use of their knowledge.[23]

Video conferencing[edit]

Main article: Video conferencing

In most cases video conferencing is part of the overall communication and collaboration strategy of organisations. Especially now when all services are cloud-based and therefore implementation costs became more affordable. The longterm vision for video conferencing lies in the correct usage of computer processing power, data storage or mobile bandwith speeds to further decrease the obstacles of collaboration.[24]

IM teleconferencing[edit]

Main article: Teleconference

Bringing teams, meetings or events as close as possible is what telefoncerencing solutions want to do. Apart from business environments Teleconferencing is currently used in a variety of fields, such as telemedicine, where they contribute enormously to the efficiency and productivity as distance and time are limited factors.[25]

Classification of collaboration tools based on dimensions[edit]

Asynchronous collaboration tools[edit]

A collaboration tool is asynchronous when its users are collaborating together at a different time:[26][27]

E-Mail, mailinglists and newsgroups[edit]

Main article: Email

E-Mail is the best known asynchronous collaboration tool and the most common used[28] - it offers intuitive features for forwarding messages, creating mailing groups and attaching documents. Furthermore, information can be automatically chronologically sorted and assigned to tasks or calendar events.

Group calendar[edit]

Main article: Online calendar

Through group calendars meetings can be scheduled, projects managed and people coordinated. It is a great tool to help you overlook your deliverables and deadlines. A group calendar includes functions such as the detection of conflicting schedules with other people in your team or organization or coordination of meeting times that suit everybody in your team. Besides the positive effects of group calendar there is also controversy about privacy and control that might influence your productivity.[29]

Workflow systems[edit]

Main article: Workflow management

With workflow systems files or documents can be communicated to the organization by following a strict and organised process. They provide services for routing, development of forms and support for roles. As current worflow systems are controlled from one point, individuals within an organization normally do not have the permission to manage their own processes so far - this should be changed by implementing collaborative planning tools to current workflow systems.[30]


Main article: Hypertext

Hypertext technology connects our files to each other and makes sure that always the latest version is available to us. When people work on different documents the system automatically updates the information of other people.[31]

Synchronous collaboration tools[edit]

A collaboration tool is synchronous, when its users are collaborating together at the same time:[26][27]

Shared whiteboards[edit]

Main article: Whiteboarding

Shared whiteboards give its users the capability to work efficiently on a task through a web-based platform. They can be used for informal discussions and also for communications that need structure, involve drawing or are in general more sophisticated. This might also be very useful in to realise virtual classrooms.[32]

Video communication systems[edit]

Main article: Voice over IP

Video communication systems offer two-way or multi-way calling with a live videostream. It can be best compared to a telephone system with an additional visual element.[33]

Chat systems[edit]

Main article: Chat

Chat systems allow people to write and send meesages in real-time. They are usually structured in chat rooms which show usernames, number of people, location, discussion topic and more.

Decision support systems[edit]

Decision support systems support groups to manage the decision making process. They give you the ability to exchange your brainstorming, analyzing your ideas and even are used for voting.[34]

Multiplayer games[edit]

Main article: Multiplayer game

Computer games are a good example of how a multi-user situation could look like in the future. They are constantly developed and expanded with features such as chat and video systems.[35]

Online collaboration tools[edit]

Online collaboration tools are web-based applications that offer basic services such as instant messaging for groups, mechanisms for file sharing and collaborative search engines (CSE) to find information distributed within the system of the organization, community or team. Additionally, the functionality is sometimes further expanded by providing for example integrated online calendars, shared online-whiteboards to organize tasks and ideas or internet teleconferencing integrations. The variety of available online collaboration tools is overwhelming (see List of collaborative software). Their focus ranges from simple to complex, inexpensive to expensive, locally-installed to remotely hosted and from commercial to open source.[36]

Does technology solve our collaboration problems?[edit]

Technology provides opportunities, but it’s important to view technology and social systems as partners. The promise of tomorrow’s collaboration requires actively considering, designing, and fine tuning both.[37]

New gadgets and devices are invented every day with the goal in mind to make our daily work easier. Online collaboration tools currently try to tackle problems like these:

  • '38% of employee time is lost duplicating work and 58% of people waste an hour a day looking for information'.[38]
  • '28 hours a week is spent on writing e-mails, searching for information and collaborating internally'.[39]
  • '59% of managers miss vital information because they can't find it or never see it'.[40]
  • 'Six weeks per year are wasted by executives searching for lost documents'.[41]

These aspects point out that the problem we are facing is not a technological proplem - it is about people and their interactions. Although technology really helps us in this way, the key to solve these problems can be found in the way how we use these tools. Although video conferencing tools such as Skype or FaceTime connect us with everyone, they do not always give us all the contextual information. What we see might not be the reality, as there might be other people in the room that one does not know about while skyping with your colleagues at work. More connectivity also allows more interruption: You work from home but are always interrputed by your neighbours or the lawnmower.[37]

The evolvement of online collaboration tools[edit]

[The Web] is an information space through which people can communicate, but communicate in a special way: communicate by       sharing their knowledge in a pool. The idea was not just that it should be a big browsing medium. The idea was that everybody would be putting their ideas in, as well as taking them out.[42]

From simple communication solutions to Unified Communications (UC)[edit]

The way we communicate with each other is constantly changing and disrupts our workplace environment. In 1971 programmer Ray Tomlinson sent the first message between two computers. Eight years later Usenet, a multi-network online forum, changed the way how we exchange information. With IRC in 1986, instant-messaging and group chatting became accessible for non-technical users for the first time and after the launch of AOL/AIM in 1992 we already faced the first global community. The invention of Wikipedia in 2001 and various social networks (MySpace, Linkedin and Facebook) forms a community that is connected to the digital world, globally oriented and willing to use collaboration tools not only for social interaction, but to enhance the efficiency at the workplace.[43]

From local to global - the needs of a global workforce[edit]

Apart from enhancing our efficiency, online collaboration tools face the change that organizations operate globally and the application of flexible working becomes even more important. Collaborative working environments are one of the drivers of the corporate globalization as they offer new business opportunities through innovation and help to and allow to collect knowledge from all over the world. Especially SME’s and large organizations are capable to do business on a global scale by using them. Since 1950 the intensity of collaboration has extremely risen, the flow of information has become faster and the needed skills to carry out work has dramatically increased. Online collaboration tools therefore enable companies to survive in their globally oriented industries.[44]

IBM conducted a study with CIO’s of organizations to find out which trends will have the most business impact in 2010, coming up with six main points:[45]

  1. The participatory internet
  2. Changing workforce demographics
  3. The rise of software as a service
  4. The virtualization of data and devices
  5. Increasing of simplicity of technology’s design and use

All of these points are stressing the importance of collaboration and define certain requirements for the future of online collaboration tools in order to consistently enable a wide business collaboration. Online collaboration tools such as social networking websites and web conferencing are demonstrating how fast the environment is changing – “by 2010, the average salaried worker will actively participate in at least five different ad hoc teams simultaneously”.[46]

When asking participants of “The New Global Study”, a report done by the European Commission in 2009, about the benefits of online collaboration, the following three points were mentioned most:[47]

  1. Supports coordination within a team (73% of respondents)
  2. Supports knowledge and learning (69%)
  3. Allows dispersed team-members to be a better part within the team

The future of collaboration tools[edit]

Top-notch collaboration tools nowadays already help us to handle large-scale projects, reduce a company's expenses on office space and travel, enhance our productivity by offering simple web-based processes and after all delivers us with all the information about anyone in the organization, team or clients. There are three areas that will encounter much growth in the next five years:

  • User Experience - more choices how we interact
  • Personal collaboration - more social and personal
  • Mobility - more flexibility

User experience - more choices how we interact[edit]

Collaboration tools are adjusting themselves more and more to the various preferences of its consumers and also leave options for personal preferences. In the future it does not matter if someone prefers to launch videos, engage in micro-blogging or communicate with message boards. All can be found at one place with no specific technical knowledge required. Or as Cisco, a global leader in developing corporate collaboration solution states that the integration of next generation solutions "is about more than the latest software, social network, or smartphone. It requires a fully integrated, yet open, architectural approach. One that includes an underlying collaboration infrastructure to provide a natural and integrated user experience. One that can scale and evolve. And one that reduces IT complexities while delivering the superior reliability, scalability, and strength of a true business solution."[48][49]

Old New
- Basic e-mail

- Audio teleconference with time delays

- Intranet-based forums with limited scope

- IM or chat

- Real time video conference

- Micro-blogging

- Shared boards

- Web forums

- Intuitive e-mail

- Cloud-hosted applications

Personal collaboration - more social and personal[edit]

A study done by Cisco on human behaviour and the barriers to effective collaboration showed that "collaboration is grounded in human interaction and relationships".[50] Also in the Technology Vision Report 2013 of Accenture it is stressed that social networks are becoming more and more a part of our life and have an impact on businesses. In the future social networking goes beyond staying in contact with friends or colleagues - it will be seamlessly integrated in our private and professional life. Social networks become crucial for businesses to get new clients and also to keep up in terms of relationship management - they allow you to create groups, events, share your knowledge and get a presence on the internet in a simple way. The application of social technologies in a business and its processes will encourage employees to foster cooperation and reflect about productivity.[51][52]

Old New
- Consumer collaboration is logistics-heavy via focus groups

- Consumers can be stiff and formal

- Collaboration is vertical with a leader managing flow of ideas

- Collaboration with consumers is fast and easy via their social networks

- Consumers are more open and candid

- Collaboration is horizontal, that is more conductive to sharing ideas

Mobility - more flexibility[edit]

The focus on mobility is another trend in terms of the future of collaboration tools. Technologies such as Unified Communications will soon be the norm for every business and fluently integrated in our current smartphone environment as "no segment is growing faster than mobile communications, and virtually every smart phone will be equipped with video chat, IM, directory, and other UC features within a few years".[53] Future features could include telestration, onscreen drawing, multi-party conferencing or mobile telepresence. An even further future scenario is drawed by Cisco by saying that "ultimately we’re going to progress even further — from inter-company collaboration to the boundaryless organization. At that point, ANYONE that is relevant can be included in your business processes via a trusted inter-company network".[54]

Old New
- Group members have to be phisically located in one place

- Or members have to be in places with access to company's internet

- Collaboration is within business hours

- Group members can be in different parts of the world

- They can also be on the go using smartphone or tablet

- Collaboration can be 24/7


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