Businesses have always faced the problem of finding ways to get different departments with different expertise to collaborate. Cross-functional team collaboration can help a business find new ways to solve existing problems and open new avenues of communication.

This story plays out worldwide every day; executives, managers, and team members want to collaborate and tap into the company's expertise, but there is no magic wand that makes it happen.

What is needed is a tool or set of tools that facilitate communication and collaboration when team members are in different or remote locations. Technology that can help other departments remember that they are all playing for the same team.

More than a plan

An organization needs more than just a thoughtful plan to get the benefits of collaborative technologies. Your team members will only adopt the tool if there is a plan, and if upper management makes it a priority. This is essentially a change management project.

Technology is only useful if people use it. How often have you listened to colleagues at other companies complain about money wasted on purchasing new software, only to see it unused after it is installed?

It is often forgotten that while having new technology is great, if your team members aren't going to use the technology effectively, it's just a sunk cost.

I was observing one meeting in a company where the CEO and one of the department managers were touting the use of a certain ubiquitous messaging platform. The idea was a good one, as the company had gone through many mergers, acquisitions, and the like, and the employees were using multiple messaging platforms.

In this case, the newer messaging program was better than what they were using. However, the top executives stopped using the new platform almost immediately because the program's installation had taken longer than expected. Once upper management stopped using it, the rest followed suit and reverted to their older systems.

The result was a lot of wasted time instead of a collaboration boost.

Incentivize collaboration

A plan must be in place to embed collaborative technologies into company processes, like the new messaging program mentioned above. This requires not just the CEO jumping on the latest tech product bandwagon but having a plan that incentivizes collaboration and the use of the new technology. Management must also think more strategically about the evolution of collaborative efforts within the company. What is the result management wants to see?

This result should not be something vague, such as “better quarterly results.” Every company wants to see better quarterly results, but cross-functional collaboration tools lend themselves better to goals such as “increased inter-departmental communication and [pick a number] new projects.”

There is going to be push-back about the collaboration and the new technology, so have a well-thought-out plan to address these concerns. Some of these concerns might be legitimate; boots-on-the-ground team members have problems and productivity issues that may not be anticipated by upper management.

This is why management needs to show their commitment to the process and the technology while understanding there may be a ramp-up period. The benefits of implementing and sticking with the use of collaborative software solutions include a breaking down of silos, better communication within your company, and more innovative problem-solving, as staffers from different disciplines tackle common problems.

Types of solutions

There are two main types of collaborative software solutions, synchronous and asynchronous. Examples of asynchronous collaboration software are email, newsgroups, and group calendars/workflow. These solutions can reach a group of any size and at any location. Whereas real-time communication may be difficult for far-flung team members, a group calendar or workflow is available anytime to any team member.

The other solution is synchronous collaboration software. This software enables communication in real-time. This might be an instant messaging system, group video technology, chat room technology, or a CRM system for internal collaboration.

Another example is the category of decision-support systems, like IBM's Tivoli. These systems facilitate analytical thinking through the use of surveys, idea analysis, and brainstorming opportunities.

Ultimately the success of cross-functional team collaboration depends on many factors. Training and feedback are also essential parts of the implementation. Remember that your team wants the organization to succeed as much as you do, give them the tools to help them do so.