Colin D Ellis
Leadership | Culture | Success

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The future of project collaboration? Look to the past first

When I started as a project manager in 1997, we flew everywhere to meet our customers and teams as our sites were spread around the UK. Although we were equipped with mobile phones - which back then resembled small house bricks with pull up aerials - there was no real conference call functionality available to us, video conferencing was still a few years away and email was something of a novelty. So in order to meet with our stakeholders and issue instructions to our on-site project teams we jumped on planes, hailed taxis, wiped the sleep from our eyes, then put on our happy faces and built the best possible environments for success. It was exhausting, but ultimately successful because newspapers went to print on January 1st 2000, as they had done on December 31st 1999.

That was 17 years ago and a fair bit has changed since then, not least the newspaper industry.

The future of work

Thanks to the incredible advances in technology, the way we collaborate and exchange information has changed significantly and the world of work has tried to do its best to keep up. We're no longer working 9-5. We're working virtually and agile. We're job sharing, working on documents simultaneously, standing up at meetings and pulling down the walls that previously divided us. At a recent Global Leadership Summit in London, 34% of attendees said more than half their full-time workforce would be working remotely by 2020. We've not yet given pen, paper and 40-page powerpoint presentations the last rites, however more and more smartphones and tablets are used in meetings as we move to a working environment where the information is available to us wherever we want and we can exchange information real-time.

Social media

And what of the rise of social media in our societies? What role does it have to play in collaboration, particularly as 72% of people online today are active social media users? Social media applications FacebookTwitterLinkedIn and Google+ are driving a faster flow of information and knowledge within and across cities, making the world a much smaller place. Enterprise social tools such as Yammer apply social media principles to our workplaces making it easy for staff to share information and files swiftly regardless of location, hierarchy or geography. And yet, in some organisations, access to social media is still restricted or 'banned' altogether as a result of dated security policies or a lack of trust.

Project management applications

Project management information systems continue to evolve and the Google Play and Apple app stores are filled with project collaboration tools regardless of your project size. Tools such as AtTaskClarizenLiquidPlannerEvernoteTrello and many others provide those working on projects with a mechanism to collaborate, track progress and stay in touch. They range from the complex (displaying project timelines) to the simple (boards for 'ideas, to do, in progress, done') and from free to pricey (depending on the number of users). They pretty much all have a ‘try before you buy’ or money back offer, before you commit budget to your chosen tool.

Additionally, desktop applications such as instant messaging clients come bundled with some office applications and can be a great way of trading information or asking for clarification without the need for email.

Project management approaches

Typically, corporate projects have been managed using a waterfall model approach i.e. a+b+c+d=e. This traditional approach is quite rigid and is managed through a series of stages and processes, with collaboration points throughout the lifecycle. The agile manifesto, released in 2001 (what do you mean, you thought it was new?) was more prescriptive about the cultures a project should create and suddenly we had another - much more collaborative - approach to the delivery of projects. Rigidity is now being rejected as organisations look to remove barriers to success such as endless bureaucracy, so will we see a shift to less documentation and more conversation?

The future of project collaboration

My view is this. As an early adopter of technology, social media and new ways of working I've spent many hours trying out everything I've just mentioned. I've used instant messaging, Google+ communities, video conferencing, Twitter hashtags, apps and enterprise tools and they all have their place in the future of project collaboration. And yet, underpinning all of this is the culture and connections that are built and created by the people that lead projects. These connections will always be strongest when built face-to-face (in person or using video conferencing for disparate geographical locations).

That's where great collaboration starts, with the leader of the project creating relationships that build the trust and environments ultimately leading to the smooth running of the project. Once the relationships are built, the right mix of project delivery approach, project management apps and/or social media use can be selected to best fit the culture created by the team.

The future of project collaboration has to start with all of the face-to-face approaches we've used so effectively and successfully in the past. Coffee and biscuits, walks around the block, drinks in the pub or a 10 minute meeting. What happens next is up to you.

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