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Using collaboration platforms to work with external partners is better than the alternative of dealing with a deluge of emails with countless attachments. To make external collaboration work, it's best to take a structured approach and consider some best practices.
Evaluate levels of collaboration access
Many platforms and methods can be used for external collaboration. Assuming your company gives you a choice, pick the platform most appropriate for the work you need to do with the partner. Collaboration can have different levels of complexity for capabilities and support requirements.
A typical starting point for collaboration is basic file sharing. A cloud offering, such as Dropbox or Microsoft OneDrive, could be all that you need to enable file sharing. For paid services, be sure to find out whether your collaboration partners already have accounts or would be willing to buy them.
For more extensive collaboration, you might need a multifunction system, such as Microsoft SharePoint. In a SharePoint environment, not only can files be shared, but they can be monitored to avoid multiple updates. Internal websites and checklists can be developed, and SharePoint environments can be customized for complex projects.
Collaboration that needs to be more integrated may require giving a partner access to your internal network. In this case, you would have to provide VPN access into your network, which includes a VPN gateway on your site and tunnel software on your VPN client to allow for outside access to the private network.
Supporting collaboration with external partners
No matter which option you choose, you must provide support for your external collaboration partner. Support won't be a concern if your collaboration consists of Dropbox file sharing. But, for systems like SharePoint or VPN access, support is necessary.
Those systems will require user logins that need to be defined by your system administrators. Your collaboration partners will need documentation on how to use a platform like SharePoint. Similarly, VPN access requires credentials and client software. You'll need to provide these to your collaboration partner.
If your partner has setup problems, it will need to connect to your IT support team. Check beforehand to be sure your IT team can provide support for nonemployees.
Managing access when external projects end
External collaboration initiatives tend to fall short in the cleanup phase. When the project is over and the team breaks up, what happens to the files in a shared Dropbox folder? What happens to all the postings on SharePoint? What happens to the credentials you provided to your partners to access your systems?
All too often, the answer is nothing, and everything is left as is. Leaving everything in place is a bad idea. Leftover shared folders are weak links in the security chain. When folders from finished projects aren't dealt with, organizations run the risk of new documents accidentally ending up in defunct folders, which leaves potentially sensitive information vulnerable.
Cleanup should be an integral part of the process of finishing projects with external partners. When the project is over, archive documents, delete them from the shared environment and shut down external user access.
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