Modern collaboration apps for resources professionals

  • By Mark Franklin AAusIMM, Managing Director, First Principles Consulting

There are a number of collaboration apps that can make managing and working on large and remote projects – such as those found in the resources sector – much easier. What are some of the features to look out for, and the common pitfalls to avoid?

What are modern collaboration apps?

Modern collaboration applications (apps) are various types of software intended to bring a team onto the same page and make it easy to tell whether they are on schedule or not.

History provides us with plenty of examples of how technology can eliminate certain aspects of work and bring us processes never thought possible. The invention of railways, cars, air travel and other transportation technology shrunk the world by orders of magnitude. Telegraphs, telephony and emails reduced the time required for communicating over distance to zero. GPS technology has made paper maps redundant and made it virtually impossible to get lost. Platforms such as Uber, Airbnb and eBay have disrupted the traditional taxi, hotel and retail sectors respectively.

What do these new tools provide?

In summary, we have found that these apps can improve the quality and speed of communication during all phases of project and operations management and help prevent the divergence of team members from stated objectives. The benefits of collaboration apps are especially important in the resources sector, where wasted or lost time can have large impacts on the bottom line and teams may be working on the same project from vastly different locations. These benefits are explained in more detail below.

They can reduce email traffic

Most collaboration apps have communication features built in and aim to cut down on the amount of emails sent by project teams, which can be hugely distracting. But these built-in communication features can be a double-edged sword, as I will explain later.

They are location independent

By using collaboration apps, almost all tasks that were previously only possible by the team being in the same location at the same time are now possible from anywhere, anytime. The only aspects that can still impede on this are time zones and internet bandwidth.

They are organisation agnostic (if so desired)

While organisations of old were traditionally inwardly focused, our brave new world now demands much closer collaboration with external partners. This was impossible in the closed networks of the past. If an organisation so chooses, their integration with the outside world can be managed through collaboration apps at every level.

They are instant and fully synchronous

Most of these apps work well with ADSL broadband speeds, and most mine sites in Australia provide comparable speeds these days.

File version problems can be addressed

Dealing with multiple file versions can now be a thing of the past, as there is only a single version at any time and all team members have controlled access to the file simultaneously.

They help provide complete information for all team members

The risks of missing a vital part of the puzzle (eg an email or a file) are drastically reduced when using a well-designed and implemented app.

They are ultra-productive

It might seem counterintuitive, but creating a deliverable (slide deck, word processor document, spreadsheet, project plan, etc) in real-time with multiple team members contributing simultaneously from any location can be incredibly productive. This is something that must be experienced to understand.

Who should use collaboration apps and why?

Collaboration apps are used by teams in all industries. However, it is fair to say that certain sectors are a bit quicker on the uptake. It is hardly surprising that the technology sector has embraced these tools more readily than some of the older, more established disciplines. It could be argued that new problems demand and generate new solutions. The need for agile software development and remote teams in the technology sector posed such problems, and required a solution.

Fortunately, these solutions can also be beneficial to more established organisations. In fact, we are fast approaching a time where organisations that are not shifting towards modern collaboration apps and processes will soon be facing increased competition and potentially lost business as a result.

Who provides these apps?

By definition, using these apps almost certainly involves cloud computing. Just like enterprise resource planning (eg SAP, Oracle, Pronto, etc) solutions in the past, this specialised group of collaboration apps may be split into two groups:

  • single-vendor, integrated solutions
  • ‘best-of-breed’ solutions.

Single-vendor solutions

Single-vendor solutions are available from large software houses, such as Microsoft (365 suite), Citrix (Podio), IBM, Oracle and SAP.

Key advantages

The main advantage to these solutions is convenience; due to their integrated nature, these apps tend to work well with others from the same vendor, provide single sign on (SSO) and simplified billing. Furthermore, these vendors are generally well-trusted and the IT department may argue that administration and governance for such options are simpler and require less of their time.

Disadvantages

Often, single-vendor apps are not the best solution available; the vendors aim at providing integration with your other tools and if they already have you as a customer, you might be seen as an ‘easy sell’. In our experience, these solutions are generally not as feature-rich as their best-of-breed alternatives, whose developers must work hard to gain your business with a top performing solution.

Best-of-breed solutions

The best-of-breed solutions tend to be published by smaller firms that specialise in providing a single solution aimed at solving a single problem. Examples include Asana, Trello, Commit.Works, Fewzion and many more.

Key advantage

The key advantage to best-of-breed solutions is quality: there are usually a number of solutions available, many of which outperform the single-vendor solutions because the development team is focused solely on one product.

Disadvantage

The key disadvantage to these solutions is that they are sometimes seen as not being as convenient as single-vendor solutions because they are missing some of the benefits discussed above.

However, it is fair to say that many of the perceived advantages of the single-vendor solutions are starting to be matched by the best-of-breed solutions. Features such as SSO, inter-application integrations and to some degree even IT administration and support are steadily becoming available from more and more of the best-of-breed vendors.

How much benefit do these collaboration apps provide?

As Jill Duffy from PCMag correctly states, ‘culture is the key’ (Duffy, 2017). Collaboration and communication tools must be aligned to the organisation’s culture, and all the key players on the team need to buy into it. When it all comes together, you can expect much greater teamwork. Like all work, the best results happen when people are enjoying the process, so don’t be too hard on the team when the emojis fly or chats move off-topic – to a certain extent, this sort of relatively informal communication is part of using a collaborative app.

Evidence of benefits

Sustainable changes

It’s important to remember that the team’s goals, and the processes required for the team to achieve them, are the best place to start from when considering a shift to modern collaboration apps. Once the project goals are clear, technology can help to enable the processes and desired behaviours. Speaking from practical experience, we have found that use of collaboration apps has helped cement process changes into place in a better way than other approaches we have used in the past.

Moving from spreadsheets, whiteboards and paper to a leading collaboration app such as Fewzion has shown to lift production volumes safely, sometimes up to as much as 39 per cent (Moynagh, 2015). As noted on the Fewzion website, the degree of transparency and agility that such integration can provide also significantly improves safety performance and risk management because planned work is safer than unplanned work (Fewzion, 2017).

Considerations

Privacy, security and backups

As mentioned earlier, most collaborative apps are hosted in the cloud. Some of them will allow you to host them on your own or corporate server, but the security issues remain the same, unless you only want to allow access to these apps from behind your own firewall.

It is often surprising that companies, whose core competency is extracting products from the ground, believe they can do IT and security better than businesses whose core competencies are IT and security.

Look at what has become standard military-grade security (HTTPS). If you do your banking online then you already trust this type of security.

As with any major purchasing decision, do your research and go with reputable brands where possible. Look into their backup options, as there often is an option to export backups to external storage on a regular basis.

What solutions are available off the shelf?

While custom apps are always an option, make sure you don’t reinvent the wheel. Be prepared to adapt your envisaged solutions as you learn what is possible throughout your investigation.

What processes and protocols will the team use?

Document your approach and be prepared to be flexible for a while as your team is learning new skills. Regularly review what’s working and what’s not, but beware of making too many changes too soon.

Don’t go it alone

Don’t be afraid to get external help, especially from someone who has made a similar transition to a collaborative app work style. The journey will be a lot smoother, faster and cheaper if you don’t have to make every single, preventable mistake.

Pitfalls

Things can become more complex when transitioning from email-based communication to collaboration app-based communication. In the email-based world, many of us use our email clients as a single channel, go-to hub for all sorts of project management tasks and communications. You may have already set your inbox up with nifty rules that categorise and file your incoming mail in various places that make sense to you.

However, when introducing modern collaboration apps, you and your team members could potentially find yourselves with a torrent of messages, updates and requests coming from multiple sources, such as Kanban boards (discussed below), spreadsheets, word processors, chat apps, etc. The reason for this is that many of these apps are being developed in isolation and therefore have their own communication channels. The reality is that using multiple platforms can give your team members information overload.

To help address this issue, it is important to be prepared for this to happen. It is important that your team commits to the new platform(s) and that means weaning themselves off email. A common category for collaboration apps are Kanban boards. These tools resemble physical whiteboards with sticky notes or cards arranged in lists, which usually move from left to right, visually reflecting the progress of the work (eg planned, in progress, complete). Best practice use of a Kanban board is to make full use of all of its functions, which means the card becomes the nucleus for the deliverable.

In this case, the files associated with the deliverable may be stored in a central, team-accessible location and linked to in the card.

Subtasks or milestones need to be part of this very same card, and all comments to do with this deliverable should be made right in the card itself, so they become automatically date-stamped and linked back to the originator.

Therefore, it would make little sense to start a new email thread on this deliverable, thereby breaking the communications chain contained within the Kanban board itself and worse still, risk the email conversation becoming fragmented, as members reply to individuals instead of the relevant collaborators.

At some point it may become imperative for the team to develop and commit to a communications protocol that states which forum/tool/channel is to be used for which kind of collaboration/communication.

Conclusion

Don’t be left behind or let your company become obsolete. You might already feel comfortable with this new breed of technology or perhaps you are not quite there yet. One thing is certain: the younger generations, especially the ‘digital natives’, are using such tools to their advantage right now, and by the time they move into more senior roles running projects via collaboration apps will be thought of as run-of-the-mill.

As with most things in life, start with the end in mind. What is the problem your team is trying to solve?

Define what is not working for your team currently, and what you would like to achieve. Often a facilitated workshop is the best forum for such initiatives. Beware, however, that not all your team members may know how good collaborative work solutions can be, and therefore will struggle to outline the solutions they need. Remember what Henry Ford said: ‘if I ask my customers what they want, they say “a faster horse”’.

References

Duffy J, 2014. 55 Apps That Can Make You More Productive [online], PCMag Australia. Available from: http://au.pcmag.com/feature/8662/55-apps-that-can-make-you-more-productive [Accessed 14 Sep 2017].

Fewzion, 2017. Benefits of Fewzion – Management System [online], Fewzion website. Available from: www.fewzion.com.au/benefits-fewzion-management-system/

Moynagh P, 2015. How to improve productivity by more than 30% easily? [online], Fewzion website. Available from: www.fewzion.com.au/how-to-improve-productivity-by-more-than-30-easily.

Feature image: theromb/Shutterstock.com.

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