Building an IT Collaboration Strategy for Agile Environments

Nearly all of our clients have adopted agile methods. Some experiment with agile processes within IT, others are re-orienting their organizations to embrace agile methods. Whatever the approach, agility requires organizations to build an effective collaboration strategy.

The success of agile methods is dependent on effective collaboration.

No matter where an organization sits on the agile spectrum, the success of these methods is dependent upon effective collaboration between individuals and teams. Collaboration has become especially challenging over the past decade or more because most large corporations are supported by a distributed workforce that operates around the country and throughout the globe.

The three components of a collaboration strategy: visibility, interactivity and communication.

When building a collaboration framework for the organization, you should consider three key requirements: visibility, interactivity and communication. To the maximum extent possible, you should try to unify those enabling technologies that make collaboration happen. Provide a roadmap that includes a set of rules about how to collaborate, curate content and operate within a defined information architecture.

Collaboration Requirements. When it comes to using collaboration methods for agile business and development, there are numerous people and process challenges that must be overcome. Consider these key requirements that help make collaboration effective:

  • Understand your backlog of work. A key requirement for agile teams is to have visibility into the backlog of all teams’ workloads. Knowing the workload, progress, and status is key to rapid decision-making and the ability to prioritize functions, processes and work.
  • Remember that stand-ups and storyboards are part of the mix. Unfortunately, these approaches are intended for face-to-face interactions. We need to create the equivalent of these interactions in the virtual world to be successful with agile.
  • Audio, video and text communication must occur simultaneously. Organizations need all of these channels of interaction for their distributed teams that may be scattered around the world.

Technologies that support collaboration: video conferencing, project management, real-time authoring and chat.

Enabling Technologies. Many enabling technologies already exist, and users are comfortable with them. But no one tool embraces all needed enabling capabilities. We need an environment t0 leverage existing solutions and augment these with additional tools.

Some of the most critical tools to collaborate in an agile environment include:

  • Video conferencing needs to be bomb proof, and it needs to be easy to set up from a conference room or a workstation. Video provides assurance that everyone is actively participating—something that is missing with just audio conferencing. How many times have you heard “can you repeat the question” from a passive participant who really wasn’t paying attention?
  • Project and task management and tracking. Our clients use a wide variety of tools to manage and track projects. The challenge is that traditional project management tools require lots of manual updates and tend to be overkill for the daily needs of a scrum team. (This is why whiteboards and good ole’ paper sticky notes work so well for idea boards and to-do lists!)
  • Multi-user, real-time authoring, editing and sync. Google Docs is the gold standard here. But with Microsoft Word on virtually everyone’s desktop, there tends to be confusion about which tool to use when. Fortunately, the younger incoming workforce is accustomed to Google Docs-style collaboration.
  • Chat. While chat is now considered a “basic” tool, multi-user, multi-lingual requirements can make this capability complex in a hurry.

Information governance in an agile world.

Regardless of the capabilities and tools you use, the key to success is to put in place a set of protocols and guidelines (dare I say “governance”?) that prescribe how we want our agile teams to interact with one another and the enterprise as a whole. Communication and cooperation protocols are necessary for anything to get done. Too often, we let users “organically” figure out what works best—it’s the agile spirit, after all.

You need a set approach that defines how your workforce collaborates.

How to Collaborate. From my experience a prescribed approach that directs users on how to collaborate is essential. The three most important aspects are:

  • User guidelines. Here we tell developers which tool to use to perform different tasks. A great example is document storage. Nearly all tools allow users to store content, resulting in content being saved everywhere. Organizations need to be explicit. You CAN store content in a variety of tools, but you SHOULD save them in X or Y system.
  • Curation of content. Agile methods require the same kind of governance as any business process. It’s increasingly important over time to have either automatic or manual disposition with enforced “expire on dates.” All too often, collaborative systems become cluttered. The result is a drop in productivity. Designate a super user or two who will take responsibility for ongoing clean up.
  • Information architecture. Don’t forget the simple things such as system-agnostic naming conventions for tasks, groups, documents, etc., the application of meta-data and hierarchy where appropriate. This is especially important when there is a vast array of tools available.

Combining effective governance with collaboration and technology requirements.

The agile revolution is in full swing. But you don’t want speed to be equated with anarchy. It’s important—indeed, it’s critical—not to repeat the mistakes inherent in so many non-agile environments. Like so much in business and IT, it comes down to effective governance, a necessary condition that must be combined with collaboration and technology requirements. 

Rich Medina
James Watson
I’m President and co-founder of Doculabs, serving as executive sponsor on consulting engagements for financial services clients.