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By Michael Astle

Small and midsize businesses that have learned to work collaboratively have seen startling results. They have greater agility, make better decisions, and are more competitive.

Collaboration should be second nature in small and medium businesses (SMBs). With a small number of employees in just one or a handful of geographic locations, communicating and working together to reach a common goal would seem easy. But collaborating is often not second nature.

SMBs face the same imperative to collaborate as large, global corporations--to improve competitive advantage, drive operational efficiencies, and enhance margins--and they also face the same challenges. According to a recent study by The Economist Intelligence Unit of 394 executives, companies that have embraced a culture of collaboration, trust, and a desire to collaborate still lack the processes, metrics, and incentives to collaborate effectively. When these critical components are in place, SMBs can measure their success and collaborate more effectively.

Take the advertising agency, Unit 7, for example, which participated in the study. Before it adopted a collaborative approach that addressed problems between account managers and creative staff, the firm found its ability to win new business--and hold onto existing customers--stifled. Tensions between the two teams led to increasingly poor and infrequent communication, growing resentment, poor morale, and worst of all, woefully slow response times for clients.

"The creative side was invisible here," Joe Gupani, the firm's creative director, said. Realizing that things had to change in order to boost its image--and revenue--Unit 7 brought in a business anthropologist to analyze the situation and recommend changes.

What Marsha Shenk, the anthropologist, recommended was nothing short of a complete overhaul of the way the people within the company communicated and collaborated. She identified two keys to success: Creative staff needed to have more input in account work and strategic decisions and the firm's old hierarchical decision-making process, where lower-level employees had very little input, had to go.

To support its new emphasis on collaboration, the firm made physical changes as well: a new name and hipper, more open office space that encouraged employees to talk often--not just in formal meetings. Plus, the firm created the new position of '"chief collaboration officer," tasked with bringing teams from different areas together and monitoring their progress.

The results have been startling. Now, the creative staff participates actively in account management and has a better understanding of every client's needs and wants. Not only has this teamwork enabled Unit 7 to produce higher quality work faster, but it has also enhanced the firm's reputation--leading to new business and increased revenues. For example, a credit card company that was considering an agency change re-signed with Unit 7 after the Unit 7's account and creative personnel impressed the client with their teamwork and wide array of ideas. In another instance, a major healthcare provider selected Unit 7 because the agency was able to generate and present several strong marketing ideas quickly.

The agency also brought employees and groups that previously would have had nothing to do with the idea-generating process into the mix. Junior-level account managers began attending strategy meetings with senior executives. Even the agency's CFO made suggestions for a client's ad campaign that the agency incorporated, with great results.

Because of its clear commitment to collaboration from the top, including defined processes and metrics to measure results, the positive effects of a more collaborative approach to business have rippled through all levels of the company. Most often mentioned: the firm's ability to make decisions more quickly, improving its agility in a competitive market environment.

For SMBs, such as Unit 7, using collaborative technologies is essential in their quest to increase agility and improve decision-making. Why? Because they need every advantage they can get in today's ultra-competitive business environment. Collaborative technologies not only bridge distances between various company offices, improving internal collaboration, they also make collaborating with partners, suppliers, and customers easier and faster.

The key is finding the right tools to fit the type of collaboration. Take the case of Unit 7, for example. One of management's goals for collaboration was to include employees that were previously not included in the idea-generating process, thereby flattening the organization. Collaborative technologies that allow ideas to be shared and communicated among a group, such as wikis and document collaboration tools, support this goal. Junior employees can easily make their ideas visible and senior managers can take advantage of these ideas and incorporate them into business decisions more quickly.

For a company that strives to collaborate with other organizations, such as partners or customers, Web conferencing and TelePresence technologies can be beneficial in supporting the company's goals. These technologies enable people to collaborate more frequently and with better results, while saving the company money on travel and telecommunications costs.

At the end of the day, a balanced combination of a culture, process, and metrics--enabled by technology--is the key to successful collaboration. Companies that embrace collaboration, implement the appropriate processes and metrics from executive management down to entry-level employees, and select the right tools for the type of collaboration that is important to them see immediate and far-reaching results in improved competitive advantage, greater efficiency, and enhanced margin and revenue.

*Article courtesy of Bmighty.com

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