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Foster cross-team collaboration with IM, mind maps and more

Build a collaborative workspace that's more than just an HR slogan. These tools get teams to talk and tackle problems together.

Collaboration tools remove barriers to teamwork and increase workers' efficiency in the process. These tools can make talking to a remote colleague easier than getting a hold of the colleague one desk away that always wears headphones.

When an organization implements cross-team collaboration techniques, it can eliminate some of the communication challenges that lead to internal silos. Look to collaboration tools and technologies to help achieve Agile and DevOps objectives -- and there's no need to choose only one.

Wikis

Wiki, the Hawaiian word for quick, refers in corporate lingo to an editable webpage with a simple syntax from which nontechnical workers can learn relatively easily. Wikis make it possible for anyone to update policies, procedures and documentation with a few clicks.

Combine wikis with version control, history tracing, comments and email notifications to create a feedback loop that keeps everyone in an organization informed automatically. Wikis set up for collaboration enable co-creation, a cross-team collaboration technique, where two programmers work together on one computer.

TWiki and Wiki.js are popular open source wikis. Many major platforms, such as Microsoft SharePoint and Atlassian Jira, also offer commercial wiki options.

Instant messaging and integrated team messaging

Sometimes, cross-team collaboration simply means a person needs a quick answer to a question. An IM tool that is minimally intrusive can keep technical staff in rhythm. Internet Relay Chat (IRC) was the original IM application, and some servers and open source tools, like Pidgin, still include IRC support.

IM comes free with common applications, from Facebook to Google, often linked to notifications. Microsoft's Skype also offers free video chat, as well as an enterprise version with better security and logging.

Integrated team messaging takes IM to the next level, with chats separated by topics, the ability to share and search for text and files, and integration with other applications, such as Google Drive.

Discord is another option -- a free and open integrated team messaging tool that enables users to house their own server with personalized information. In addition, Slack provides free and paid versions of its team collaboration tool. Slack stores user data on its servers, which might be a problem for corporate data security. Slack limits the file size and message history on its free version, while its professional versions scale for more users and teams, as well as track historical records with better logging.

Why it's too much to be collaborating all the time

Tools like Slack make it easy to be always on and available to one's team. Yet, research shows that everyone can be more productive if there's a balance with solo work. Professors Ethan Bernstein and Jesse Shore discussed their findings on this episode of Modern HR.

Screen sharing

Remote workers can share work in real time -- and it yields powerful results. Co-workers can perform multiuser collaborative edits.

Shared work can be as simple as two people updating a Google Doc while they talk on the phone. However, to share code builds, try a free tool to edit simultaneously. Vim and GNU Screen are two example options. Most video sharing platforms have screen-sharing components for desktops with GUIs. Virtual network computing tools are also free and open and enable multiuser edits.

Workflow

Most large organizations track development workflows on some level, even if it is just a digital version of a Kanban board. Make the board visible to engender cross-team collaboration and conversation, instead of organizing the workflow as a series of insulated steps and handoffs. A collaborative approach to move projects along can improve team performance and eliminate information silos.

For example, you can connect requirements to code, tests and version control, all in one application. This helps team members all know which pieces of a project each co-worker is responsible for, and they can pool code together to make features better.

Multiuser video

Multiuser meeting tools are everywhere, including free ones from Appear.in and others. Other options, like the aforementioned Slack, integrate capabilities like IM and screen sharing. You can also find meeting software that taps into online or smart whiteboards to help team members share works in progress.

Mind maps

Modern software development, test and support cover a wide range of intersecting steps and projects. It's hard to cultivate a view of both specific tasks and how they fit into the entire system. In theory, documentation should help. But it can be hard to find specifics, and documentation goes out of date quickly.

Mind maps are one cross-team collaboration solution that keeps everyone up to date on project status and informs regression testing. Mind maps comprise simple nodes with connections that create a visual system hierarchy. With a mind map, you can mark feature coverage and assign colors for feature status, as well as leave comments that list any defects. Teams can even share and edit mind maps across remote locations.

XMind is a popular commercial mind map option, as is Visual Understanding Environment -- commonly referred to as VUE -- which is an open source tool developed by Tufts University.

Collaborative spreadsheets and to-do lists

Spreadsheets with multiuser edit features enable co-workers to share tasks and status information. You could even display this type of spreadsheet on a large monitor in the office to visualize work status. Color coding on a spreadsheet can act as a near-real-time visual alert to the whole team when something goes wrong. Remote workers get the same benefit when they keep the spreadsheet open in a browser tab.

The objective for this type of display is to visualize and address work bottlenecks. Collaborative spreadsheets also offer value as retrospectives, wherein a team can see what topics are up for discussion.

Most groups that I work with string together a variety of cross-team collaboration tools. One common model is a mind map of features in which each node points to a wiki. That wiki describes what the software does, links to relevant automated tooling and then leaves it up to the tester to decide how to assess the feature for risks. This multitool model benefits customer service, technical writers, development and even sales. And these teams can also incorporate integrated messages to communicate with others before they make changes.

With the right cross-team collaboration approach, quality goes up, conflict goes down and velocity improves.

This was last published in December 2018

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