Different types of collaboration tools and software


Thanks to today's workplace collaboration tools, productivity is no longer tied to a physical desk. The office can be anywhere there's an internet connection, meetings can be held from the comfort of home, and tasks are completed in real time with team-wide software.

These tools help colleagues today be more communicative, collaborative and cooperative than ever. But what looks like a manageable set of software and hardware is actually a web of ever-evolving tech products for collaboration in dozens of forms, each offering its own unique platforms, capabilities and benefits.

What types of collaboration software and tools are essential for today's office?

Collaboration software are tools and systems designed to facilitate collaboration both in the office and in other locations. Also known as groupware, these technologies reduce the cost and time required for collaboration. While there are dozens of options for collaboration technologies on the market, most tools feature the following core functions:

  • A shared work platform that serves as a digital "home base" for employees
  • Customizable user groups
  • Customizable personal dashboards on this shared platform
  • File or document management
  • Chat or discussion forums
  • Workflow forwarding
  • Tagging capabilities for team members

What are collaborative methods and techniques in the workplace?

The predominant methods of collaboration in an office or workplace reflect the overall culture of the organization.

Depending on the team or department, the technical nature of the project, and the overall goal of the work, you may find that the following group collaboration methods are prevalent:

1. Teamwork

Organizational psychology research has shown that there are three basic elements to successful group work, regardless of the environment:

  • Closeness
  • Openness
  • Familiarity

Proximity refers to a team's ability to easily connect with each other to share important project-enhancing information. Openness refers to how smoothly a team shares ideas, asks questions, and seeks new insights and opinions. Finally, familiarity is the sense of familiarity and camaraderie that the group shares regarding their work. The better a team performs in terms of closeness, openness and familiarity, the more efficient its group work.

2. Two-way telecommunication

Telecommunications enable groups to work together via voice, video and data technology, even when they are not in close physical proximity. This means coordination and activity at times and places that would otherwise be difficult, if not impossible. Travel costs are reduced and the pool of subject matter experts is increased, strengthening the overall effort.

3. Proprietary or on-site software.

Collaboration software is purchased and installed on individual desktops on the corporate network. These tools extend the shared project management capabilities and capacities of teams, allowing members to track and organize project tasks, find important network files, update information, and send messages to anyone who has access to the on-premise software.

4. Software-as-a-service

Software-as-a-Service (SaaS) is the next generation of on-premise software. Rather than installing software on individual computers, an organization instead purchases a software subscription that allows anyone to use that software regardless of location, as long as they are authorized to do so through your virtual private server (VPN). SaaS combines the team-building communications of traditional two-way voice, video and data collaboration tools with the project management capabilities of proprietary software to enable true office collaboration.

What are the types of collaboration software tools?

There are three types of software that comprise today's collaboration software tools. While each software focuses on facilitating a specific aspect of group work - such as sharing calendars, meetings and updating documents - together these classifications of collaborative software technology open the door to limitless teamwork.

1. Communication software

As the name implies, communication software tools enable the transmission of messages, chat groups, and conversations between individuals and parties over the Internet, whether those parties are located in different parts of the office or in different parts of the world. Communication tools are also typically unstructured. They do not require prior scheduling or calendar sharing to be effective - in fact, they are not designed to be formally anticipated at all.

Examples of communication technologies include:

  • Email
  • Instant messaging applications
  • Team, departmental or organization-wide chat forums
  • Digital voicemail applications
  • Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) calls

2. Conferencing software

Conferencing tools are characterized by two main features:

  • Conferencing software allows two or more people to communicate with each other in real time, using Internet- or cloud-based platforms
  • Conferencing software allows the same group of people to view a common screen

This second component distinguishes conferencing software from pure communication software. Depending on the software used, conferencing software allows all participants to access, make changes to, and work on the shared screen simultaneously, or allows a single presenter to control the movements and functions of the screen, such as during a presentation.

Types of conferencing tools for the workplace include:

  • Video conferencing with screen sharing capabilities
  • Document sharing software
  • Shared digital whiteboards, where users can simultaneously develop ideas, review information or data, and edit them
  • Shared applications where users can simultaneously access specific applications in real time to review information

3. Coordination software

Coordination software completes the three main types of collaboration software. Coordination software is arguably the most holistic form of collaboration tools and is designed to integrate both teamwork and taskwork functions. In other words, they allow individuals and groups to network with each other and coordinate work tasks and activities, making the management of the entire workflow easier, less bureaucratic and more efficient.

Some examples of today's coordination tools include:

  • E-calendars
  • Employee time tracking or scheduling systems
  • Project management systems, on-premise or SaaS, web- or cloud-hosted
  • Enterprise resource planning software
  • Internal employee and customer portals

What are the two dimensions of collaborative software?

There are two key dimensions or uses for collaborative software - synchronous and asynchronous.

Together, these two dimensions of software define how a tool or technology can be used - that is, at what time, in what place, and by how many people. Any communication, conferencing or coordination software is either synchronous or asynchronous. Let's break down these software dimensions further.

1. Synchronous or real-time collaboration software

Synchronous collaboration programs operate in real time, meaning two or more people communicate, review, and collaborate simultaneously on the same platform. There are no delays in responses, regardless of where the communication partner is located. You can expect to receive an answer or solution to a specific question, request, or task as soon as you share it.

Some examples of synchronous office collaboration software include instant messaging, chat forums, VoIP calls and digital whiteboard applications, to name a few. Like most technologies, real-time collaboration has advantages and disadvantages:

  • Synchronous Software Advantages: Real-time communication is expedient and highly efficient. It allows users to get the feedback, information or files they need, exactly when they need them. This makes enterprise-wide communication a process that is easier, clearer, more focused, and arguably more productive.
  • Disadvantages of synchronous software: Real-time communication platforms may lack documentation or future cross-referencing capabilities. These platforms can also be difficult for high-level, abstract, or value-oriented conversations compared to task-oriented conversations, and they can become complicated and disorganized when large groups of people are involved.

2. Asynchronous or non-real-time collaboration software

Asynchronous software represents the other category of today's collaboration tools. Unlike the immediate interactions that define real-time software, asynchronous platforms are not designed for immediate tasks or activities. Short wait times between when someone initiates an interaction and when that interaction is completed are not only expected, but often beneficial.

Examples of asynchronous collaboration software include email, group calendars, document sharing, and some enterprise resource management systems. They have advantages and disadvantages that depend on the needs of the parties involved:

  • Asynchronous Software Advantages: Asynchronous software allows a broader perspective or new expertise to be brought to a project. Asynchronous platforms are often more documentable than real-time communication and give individuals more time to think before contributing a response.
  • Disadvantages of asynchronous software: long delays between questions and answers can create task bottlenecks and affect team collaboration - the very thing you're trying to improve. Asynchronous communication can also be complicated by things like time zones or unaligned work schedules, leading to even longer communication limbo.

What are the classifications for collaboration tools?

1. By host

All software needs to be deployed somewhere, which means it needs to be installed or set up somewhere that your employees can access it. How that software is set up and how approved users can log in and use it is part of a broader IT issue called hosting.

Today, most collaboration software can be "hosted" in several ways, each with its own benefits:

  • On-premise collaboration software: On-premise software is installed and managed internally on your own physical servers. On-premise software is usually, though not always, accessible only through the hardware in your office building.
  • Web-hosted collaboration software: Both real-time and asynchronous collaboration software can be web-hosted, meaning all software data and applications are stored on a web server. This server can be shared, dedicated, or even a VPN, depending on the size and scope of your organization.
  • Cloud-hosted collaboration software: Some software can be stored and operated in the cloud. This uses cloud computing technology to deliver software and applications over the Internet rather than through your physical servers. The management of software hosted in the cloud is also usually outsourced. Your company doesn't have to worry about software updates and security, leaving those tasks to the cloud provider. All your employees need is a device with an Internet connection to access the collaboration software they need to do their jobs.
  • Collaboration hardware: some types of collaboration tools require specialized hardware to fully function. An example of this would be VoIP, which uses an IP-enhanced phone to make conference calls, convert voice messages to text, and so on.

2. By areas served

Collaboration tools can also be classified by what tasks or activities they help handle. Certain business functions are essential regardless of the industry or niche in which your company operates. The near universal demand for support in these areas means that there are many software products with a specific focus or function. Some of the most well-known software products focused on specific areas include:

  • Document management software: to help create, edit, design, review and approve files, and to serve as a central repository for employees to access those documents from any device.
  • Time management software: Digital calendars with scheduling, notifications, event alerts and even payroll capabilities.
  • Project management tools: Workflow software to monitor overall project execution across team member responsibilities and activities.
  • Information sharing software: Notification-based applications that allow individuals to send updates and alerts after they have completed a task or checked off a project item, as well as forward questions or messages to the appropriate team members.
  • Knowledge management and creation tools: a single project database with the ability to save and mark bookmarks, enter data, retrieve data for quick searches, and enter information.

3. The three C's

Collaboration software is also broadly classified according to the three C's described in the previous section - communication, conferencing and coordination.

What are other types of collaboration tools?

Video conferencing, screen sharing, employee scheduling, project management, spreadsheets - the list of collaborative enterprise software is long and varied, but is often classified according to its main functions.

But what about those software products that combine different activities or don't fit clearly into one category? We have compiled some of these types of communication tools.

1. Synchronization of documents

Have you ever been forced to manually synchronize two different versions of a document, line by line? Three versions? Or even more?

With document synchronization software, keeping track of changes, adjustments, additions or deletions is just a few mouse clicks away. What's more, these software products merge separate documents into a new sheet based on directory entries, saving teams from redundant document creation.

2. Digital whiteboards

Whiteboarding software transforms the meeting room whiteboard from a physical element to a digital one. It is an ideal tool for remote teams during a video conference. Colleagues can take turns drawing graphs, creating diagrams, mapping concepts, or even jotting down brief notes on a shared screen, then save or erase those images when the next person needs the whiteboard.

3. Shared screenshots and video shots

Share images and even videos of your screen with communication software that converts screenshots into compressed links. This collaborative feature facilitates both real-time and asynchronous troubleshooting. Imagine you're having trouble saving your work in your team's new document management software. You can send a team member a video illustrating your difficulty with the process, and the team member can then send you their own link with visual step-by-step instructions. No more complicated or hard-to-follow written instructions or lengthy responses.

4. Shared accounting and budgeting software

Team members spread across multiple locations can use financial planning, accounting (FP&A) and other budgeting software to create and send invoices, track expenses, view outgoing payment deadlines, submit timesheets, approve reimbursement reports and more - all from one platform.

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