by Mark Ace | January 01, 2016

Working as a team in today’s environment often requires us to span time zones, connect with remote workers and still keep everything moving. To learn more about how teams overcome these kinds of challenges, attendees at the annual meeting of the American Society of Association Executives were surveyed. The study identified three common challenges: the lack of a single system of record, a heavy reliance on email and limits of existing systems. The survey results also underscored the importance of recognizing that different teamwork models require different tool sets.

Challenge No. 1: The Lack of a Single System of Record. A single system of record, or “single version of the truth,” provides the foundation for effective collaboration. Keeping everything related to team collaboration in one place can facilitate and increase the pace of collaboration. Yet many teams lack this foundational resource. More than half of the leaders polled said they are operating without a system of record, relying instead on a changing set of tools, separate data sources and even private accounts. Still others said they use more than one system of record—a practice that can lead to issues with data integrity and defeats the goal of a single version of the truth.

Challenge No. 2: A Heavy Reliance on Email. Important, often time-critical communication is still primarily reliant on email. According to the survey, more than 80 percent of respondents said their teams or committees always use it to work together. Email is a great tool for communication, but it poses some significant challenges to teams engaged in complex collaboration. It’s hard to keep track of the most current version of document revisions, for one thing, and it doesn’t scale well—the sheer volume of emails between members of a large group can become a barrier that discourages people from following the entire thread. The proper role of email is a notification tool, not a collaboration tool. To move from engagement to true collaboration, and enable strategic rather than tactical discussions, teams need to have access to a more robust infrastructure, one that supports collaboration-building activities through organizational knowledge, version history, consensus building, project management and audit support. Team members also need to have confidence that their participation is absolutely secure within the group—something that’s impossible when a message can be forwarded without the knowledge of the author.

Challenge No. 3: Limits of Existing Systems. By and large, surveyed respondents noted that teams are being challenged by inherent limitations in the tools they use. These common tools—which include email, file-sharing services (such as Dropbox), discussion forums and listservs—lack visibility; team members are unaware when, or even if, other team members see a newly shared comment, document or decision. These common tools also suffer from a lack of traceability. Survey results also revealed a “build-versus-buy” dilemma. In an effort to attain just the right mix of features and functionality, organizations are sometimes tempted to sponsor custom software solutions. Aside from the difficulty of building quality software, many organizations underestimate the costs associated with ongoing maintenance. This almost certainly accounts for respondents listing “difficulty modifying without IT support” as the leading limitation.

It’s important to recognize that different teamwork models require different tool sets. Collaboration styles and needs will vary depending on the nature of the teamwork. Teams whose primary goals are to share information and knowledge can afford to rely on less-structured tools. In contrast, teams that work together on complex projects have longer life cycles and stricter rules around participation, privacy and security. Their infrastructure needs are more robust, and the concept of a system of record is much more important.

If your organization can get a handle on establishing a system of record, use email for the right reasons and understand the limits of various technology systems, it will be better off when a complex project rolls around.