Implementing Digital Collaboration in Your Organization

a team discussing digital collaboration in the workplace while sitting around a conference room table

The need for comprehensive digital collaboration has never been more clear within the manufacturing industry. Satisfied for years with basic communication tools, like chat and email, for their collaboration needs, manufacturers are finally realizing the need to confront the challenges of their industry and embrace digital collaboration fully. What’s caused this shift? As one McKinsey report succinctly put it, “An aging workforce, regionalization, and data proliferation are changing the composition of the manufacturing labor force and how work gets done.”

But a full embrace of digital collaboration will require the manufacturing industry to overcome the very challenges that have kept it lagging behind other industries. These include the difficulty of sharing technical product data with the right stakeholders, properly contextualizing it, and ensuring efficiency and security along the way. Despite these obstacles, the potential rewards are well worth it: that same McKinsey report values digital collaboration at an estimated $100 billion.

So let’s break down what digital collaboration really means in today’s manufacturing context, what its challenges look like, and how you can make it an indelible part of your business.

Understanding the Scope of Digital Collaboration

Digital collaboration in manufacturing once meant sending an email to another department asking for their input, or maybe attaching a screenshot or PDF of a technical document. For the most part, knowledge was kept in-house and could be shared via more traditional digital methods or, preferably, in person. 

But this has changed. According to the National Association of Manufacturers, an estimated one-quarter of the workforce is 55 years or older. This means that much of the institutional knowledge manufacturers have long relied on is now in danger of leaving, requiring them to look further afield for the expertise they need. There is also the fact that rising transportation and labor costs have required many companies to relocate their factories so they’re closer to the customer, leaving them more geographically dispersed. At the same time, manufacturing technology has become increasingly connected, overwhelming workers with vast amounts of new data.

All this adds up to a new understanding of what digital collaboration now means in manufacturing. Rather than a supplement to standardized manufacturing workflows, digital collaboration has become something that must be deeply embedded into the end-to-end manufacturing process. What does this entail? For one, manufacturers should be making use of tools and platforms that facilitate seamless communication and collaboration. Instead of relying on tools like email and file sharing applications that remain disconnected from the flow of information, they should leverage solutions that enable them to work together, discuss issues, exchange data, and make decisions all directly within their process workflows.

As collaborative processes (such as engineering design reviews and quality planning) proliferate and become more integrated, the amount of data and the number of stakeholders involved will increase as well. Instead of just individual teams or departments, entire divisions and, eventually, downstream organizations (including suppliers and OEMs) will be working closely together to realize productivity and efficiency gains. This will require other digital collaboration tools such as work management platforms in order to help manufacturers coordinate between different stakeholders, track and manage orders, and plan complex projects – all while keeping data centralized, organized, and secure.

Ultimately, modern digital collaboration should make information sharing as fast and seamless as possible. Whether this collaboration is happening synchronously (all at once in real time) or asynchronously (separately, over a length of time), the goal is for everyone to be able to request, access, and use the data they need.

Evaluating Your Organization's Collaboration Needs

There may be no magic level of collaboration an organization should achieve. After all, every company will be different. Still, it’s important to take a careful look at your current capabilities so that you can understand where you should be investing your resources to avoid the hidden costs of poor collaboration. Here are some steps you can take to determine exactly what you need:

  • Identify common bottlenecks and inefficiencies: If there’s one place to start, it’s by making a list of any workflows, processes, or other areas that are slowing down productivity. In particular, look for places where people lack the right information or context to make progress, or where mistakes and revisions repeatedly take place. This may be a sign that data is getting siloed or is otherwise difficult to access, which is likely an opportunity to introduce more collaborative processes.
  • Consider how communication is currently taking place: How are the people across your organization talking to each other? Is information being shared primarily through a single channel, such as email or chat? Or is there a hodgepodge of different methods in use? Try to come up with a detailed map of how messages and information circulate around your organization. As you do this, identify areas that are slowing down the work process or are otherwise repetitive. These can likely be replaced by more modern digital collaboration solutions.
  • Look at the flow of technical information: While considering how people are communicating, you should also take a closer look at how technical content in particular is being shared. Can people across the product lifecycle access engineering data? Or do they have to rely on a few contacts to get this information? When they do access it, are they seeing it within its proper context? Or do they have to sift through loads of extraneous information first? All this can help inform the collaborative processes your organization may need.
  • Measure current levels of cross-collaboration: The benefits of collaboration don’t end inside the factory walls. Ideally, manufacturers should also be working across the supply chain and with their customers. Fortunately, measuring how much or little this is happening is likely something you can quantify with specific numbers, or at least use surveys to properly gauge. If there are gaps between divisions or partner organizations, ask what kind of digital collaboration tools can best facilitate closer work. This will help you identify where you should invest.

Selecting the Right Digital Collaboration Tools

Which digital collaboration tools best fit your needs? Once you’ve finished your evaluation, you should be in a much better position to answer this. That said, it can still be intimidating sifting through the many different options and features out there, so here are some key capabilities that most manufacturers should be looking for:

  • Real-time data sharing: When key stakeholders have to wait to get access to the latest product information, or when suppliers have to delay production schedules because they’re stuck navigating file-sharing applications or converting different file formats, productivity suffers. Instead, look for tools that make it easy for you to share and access data the moment it is ready.
  • Collaborative annotation: Discussing product and technical data without it right there in front of you is like making a cake without using a recipe. It will take more time and usually make a mess. A better approach is when you can give feedback and exchange information directly inside the relevant files and documents. This will both save you time and make it easier for everyone to contribute.
  • Third-party integrations: Whether within an individual manufacturing organization or across its network of suppliers and OEMs, there are a variety of different tools and applications where vital information lives. These include PLM and CAD systems, as well as ERP, CRM, and MES platforms. The best digital collaboration solutions will be capable of integrating with these applications seamlessly, enabling data to stay up to date and information to flow to those who need it.
  • Security and data privacy: Effective collaboration won’t happen if there are concerns around security. This is why a good collaboration platform requires comprehensive security measures that can protect sensitive information from falling into the wrong hands. Users should feel safe sharing IP and product data, and should not have to think twice about their communications. Even better is when there are governance capabilities that make it easy to control data access at a granular level.
  • Automation: The ability to automate repetitive tasks and workflows can also contribute directly to collaboration and improved productivity. Particularly when it comes to carrying out complex but frequent tasks such as converting and packaging technical data for wider use, automation can ensure this is done efficiently and without errors. The result is wider access to data and more time to focus on vital tasks.

Overcoming Common Challenges in Digital Collaboration

Although the benefits of digital collaboration may seem obvious on paper, there can often be stubborn challenges when it comes to implementing and integrating these tools, along with the associated shifts in workflows that must come with them. These can be summarized by the following three main factors: 

  • Information silos: Most downstream users have become accustomed to having technical product data sent to them through primitive file sharing and communication tools due to the fact that they aren’t used to or don’t know how to access PLM systems where authoritative information is managed. In other words, they’re used to working with information silos and may see little need to adjust their habits.
  • Inability to scale: While data modernization efforts may be easy to implement in the office, they can run into more considerable obstacles when trying to scale them out into the field. These barriers can include manufacturing floors that have insufficient computer or mobile device availability, environments where digital access isn’t possible at all, and users who are unfamiliar with modern digital collaboration processes.
  • Cultural resistance: Introducing change, whether it’s new digital collaboration habits or new technology, can be hard. This can especially be true in the manufacturing industry, where there are often deeply ingrained cultures and structures that may not have seen change in years. As a result, people might go out of their way to find excuses not to adopt more modern technical data sharing and collaboration solutions.

So what’s to be done? There are a number of practical solutions that may help. For example, it’s important to preface any rollout of new tools or workflows by first meeting with the larger organization to get them on the same page and establish some clear objectives. These could be table stakes, such as improving productivity or enhancing communication, as long as they get everyone on board. While you’re at it, it’s also a good idea to gain buy-in from leadership as well.

As you introduce new digital collaboration tools, it can be useful to pair them with ample training and support. You want to strike a balance between easing new users into new habits without overwhelming them with too much information at once. A good way to do this is by offering a mix of traditional training sessions alongside self-guided resources like tutorials and help desks. Make sure to include clear guidelines and policies in this training that detail how these collaboration tools should be used. This way, you can ensure security and compliance from the start.

However, all this will be beside the fact if the digital collaboration tools in question don’t meet the needs of the organization. This is what makes it so essential to properly evaluate your collaboration needs and choose tools that have the right capabilities. 

Anark’s solutions are built to address the collaborative needs of modern-day manufacturers by connecting teams to the product data and input they’re looking for – all while enabling them to collaborate in context and have the conversations they need to make better decisions. Let’s start transforming the way you work and collaborate. Request a demo today to see what Anark can do for you.


What does modern digital collaboration mean today?

Rather than supplement standardized manufacturing workflows, digital collaboration must now be deeply embedded into the end-to-end manufacturing process. This means using tools and platforms that facilitate seamless communication and collaboration so that users can work together, discuss issues, exchange data, and make decisions all directly within their process workflows.

How can you evaluate your collaboration needs?

A great place to start is by first identifying any bottlenecks or other sources of inefficiencies, as these might be indicators of where you can introduce collaborative processes. From there, you should consider how messages and information circulate around your organization, paying particular attention to where people are getting their technical data. It can also be useful to take measure of how much cross-collaboration is occurring between different divisions and partner organizations.

What are some important criteria for selecting the right digital collaboration tools?

Some key capabilities you should look out for include real-time data sharing, collaborative editing and annotations, third-party integration (such as with PLM and ERP systems), robust security and data privacy features, and the ability to automate repetitive tasks and workflows.