Working Collaboratively, Virtually

Man working on laptop sitting on edge of rocky outcropThe march to virtual collaboration arguably started in the late 1980s when Lotus (now IBM) released its Lotus Notes platform. Then in 1994 the Wiki was born eventually spawning the now globally synonymous Wiki knowledge platform, Wikipedia. In 2001, Microsoft wowed the corporate sector with the launch of SharePoint, initially focused on enterprise and team content management and sharing.

Today, there are hundreds of tools that could be used for online collaboration, from unified communication platforms like Microsoft Teams and Google Hangouts to online file-sharing systems such as DropBox and Google Docs and many others.

The need for online collaboration has existed well before COVID-19 consumed the world’s focus.

Drivers of collaboration include:

Collaboration diagram: source:


When we think about virtual collaboration we often default to video-conferencing, online chat sessions, file sharing, and discussion boards. However, each organization has different needs when it comes to collaborating virtually. It really does depend on the nature of your work and how structured your workflows are.

Large organisations are complex and utilize a multitude of IT systems to get their tasks done. Our amazing human brains are well-evolved to deal with this complexity, most of the time! This has been helped by thousands of years of face-to-face human interaction, where our body language and other environmental factors contribute significantly to the effectiveness or otherwise of how we communicate. It’s no wonder that we struggle to move to online communication and collaboration tools when we have been conditioned by thousands of years of workplace physicality and human contact.

Because there are so many tools available to staff, organisations must give guidance to staff on what tools to use for what purpose.

A starting point is to think about differentiating interaction types. For example:

  • Whole of enterprise communication – from the CEO and executive leaders
  • Divisional communication
  • Structural Team communication
  • Virtual (Project/Initiative) Team Communication and Task Management
  • Document sharing including real-time document collaboration
  • Knowledge sharing

Perhaps the most difficult of these is the issue of knowledge sharing. In my experience, organisations generally approach knowledge management very poorly and this has been the case long before the current pandemic. Knowledge management starts with a strong understanding of the knowledge assets that the organisation deals with and the lifecycle of those assets. Knowledge management is a discipline that requires structure and process. Poor knowledge management and the often-consequential poor information sharing are highly inefficient in organisations.

In this current abnormal world of remote working and virtualised teams, organisations need to focus on building and implementing knowledge management frameworks to ensure that virtual teams are efficient in how they create, manage and share information and knowledge assets. This framework should provide guidance on how information is managed, stored and accessed with clear accountabilities.

Several standards can assist organisations to build content and knowledge management frameworks including industry-specific standards for knowledge management and records management. As with any policy framework, it is important to establish the principles that will guide your approach. These principles should include information accuracy, security, retention, accountability, and accessibility – to name a few.

Most organisations have a reasonable approach to how content is created, reviewed and authorised. However few organisations have nailed how to make content discoverable and accessible! It is this issue of discoverability that is so incredibly important for virtual teams and working remotely.

Your investment in knowledge/content management frameworks, tools and training will pay extraordinary dividends – so what are you waiting for?


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Professor Malcolm Thatcher was a Professor of Digital Practice in the QUT Graduate School of Business. Professor Thatcher is a career technologist and has held senior executive leadership positions in both the public-sector and the private-sector. Professor Thatcher has over 35 years’ experience in leading and delivering business value through technology-led innovation and transformation. In 2018, Professor Thatcher published a book on Digital Risk and Governance titled The Digital Governance Handbook for CEOs and Governing Boards, which regularly features in Amazon’s best seller list under Corporate Governance.

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