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Are You Ready for Virtual Collaboration?

To keep the floor open for your team's innovative ideas at any time of the day or night, bring your brainstorming online.

This story appears in the September 2005 issue of Entrepreneur. Subscribe »

Collaboration has taken on new dimensions at Video on Location Inc., a full-service video production firm in Rockville, Maryland. The company's 16 employees use virtual collaboration software to create commercials, webcasts, instructional videos and other projects.

Company president Dino Veizis likes having projects synced online so employees can work from home and discuss new ideas around the clock. "When you have a thought, you throw it into that space, and it's there for everybody to see. It extends the meeting at the conference table," says Veizis, 46. Online collaboration "has increased our efficiency and productivity quite a bit."

As the pace of work increases and teams become ever more dispersed, companies are bringing employees online to discuss new ideas. Virtual environments offer "a forum for brainstorming [and] gathering the input of other people. And it's cost-effective," says Karen Leland, co-author of Online Customer Service for Dummies and co-founder of Sterling Consulting Group, a Sausalito, California, customer service consulting firm.

Even Bill Gates sees online collaboration as the next frontier. In April, Microsoft added software-maker Groove Networks to its growing cache of workplace collaboration tools--a signal that online brainstorming, which combines voice, video, file sharing, sketch pads and other features, could be ubiquitous by the end of the decade.

Collaborative software packages help drive ideas as product life cycles continue to shorten. "We're entering the innovation arms race," says Mark Turrell, CEO of Imaginatik, a Boston firm that makes a web browser-based program that lets companies collect and assess ideas from employees. "We have to find ways of listening to everybody and getting value out of them."

According to Imaginatik, some big companies already see value in online collaborative tools. Its customer, paper manufacturer Georgia-Pacific, saved more than $1 million annually by incorporating an idea one employee proposed online, while another client, chemical company W.R. Grace, has held 25 online brainstorming sessions and acted on 131 of its employees' ideas, resulting in new products and processes.

Online collaborative environments could be a headache for companies that fail to manage them adequately, however. For a dissertation on the impact of virtual environments on organizational effectiveness, Karen Sobel Lojeski recently interviewed 300 corporate employees and concluded that online collaboration can lead to something she calls "virtual distance," a psychological sense of distance from others. "Where virtual distance was high, people felt they couldn't trust each other and didn't feel comfortable in a virtual setting," she says. "This led to issues with lateness of projects, being over budget and [problems] with innovative behavior." Another problem is that after virtual sessions, managers are spending inordinate amounts of time making sure everyone's on the same page--"more time than they were in nonvirtual settings," Lojeski says.

Before taking collaboration online, make sure it fits your company's culture and goals. If employees aren't tech-savvy or used to sharing ideas, online brainstorming might require more time and training than you'd expect. Teams that have established a working relationship, communicate often and share the same goals tend to have higher productivity when collaborating online, Lojeski says.

Keep brainstorming teams small, and avoid highly emotional topics during the first few sessions. Start with a noncontroversial topic, like ideas for the company holiday party, instead of something that could leave everyone in a mood to kill, like how to redistribute accounts on the sales team. Veizis says his company used collaboration software occasionally at first, then things "just kind of snowballed" with subsequent versions of the software. "[At first], it was almost a toy, then it became a tool," he says.

Designating a facilitator and deciding which types of brainstorming sessions work best online can help things move along smoothly. Lojeski sees room in companies for full-time "virtual distance facilitators," whose job will be to minimize rifts that arise within teams collaborating extensively online.

How quickly small companies adopt collaborative online tools remains to be seen, but chances are they'll never replace traditional brainstorming around the conference table. Even Turrell doesn't see a day when more than one-third of company meetings are held online. "We're human beings," he says. "We like smelling and looking at each other." But the sweet smell of success could be in the air for small companies that learn to brainstorm effectively in cyberspace: Video on Location's average annual sales surpass $2.5 million.

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