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Support external collaboration with guest access and federation

Team collaboration tools support productivity for internal teams, but collaboration with external partners remains a challenge. Learn what features can open platforms to outside users.

Team collaboration is a way to efficiently and transparently communicate with a group of people tasked with accomplishing a shared goal. In today's digitized enterprise environments, team collaboration software used to facilitate this process includes Slack, Microsoft Teams, CA Flowdock and Cisco Webex Teams.

The tools within these platforms enable team members to easily communicate through group messaging, voice, video conferencing and file sharing. Internal and external teams are the two primary types of teams that need to be considered within the framework of team collaboration. It's important to understand the differences and why external collaboration comes with additional challenges.

Internal collaboration occurs when all members of a team belong to the same organization, while external collaboration occurs when team members belong to two or more organizations. The most common type of external team is when a company brings in trusted vendors, partners or consultants to assist with a project that requires outside expertise to succeed. As a result, members from multiple organizations must be allowed to communicate as a unified group within the team collaboration tool.

Internal team collaboration is far more straightforward as all team members will have similar access and licensing rights to the organization's chosen platform. External team collaboration, on the other hand, can be far more complex. The challenge is how these groups can communicate seamlessly across a single platform.

The team must first choose the platform that it will use for collaboration. It's common to settle on the preferred team collaboration platform of the project's biggest internal stakeholder. Once the platform has been determined, the next step is to figure out how third-party users gain access to the host organization's team collaboration tools.

Guest access supports external collaboration

The most obvious choice would be to assign external team members accounts and licenses so they would look and act as if they all belong to the same company. While this approach is possible, it's not recommended as it comes with several inherent pitfalls. These include the need to assign corporate email addresses and enforce access controls to ensure external team members can reach only the resources they need in the context of the project. As you might guess, this can lead to an administrative and data security nightmare.

A better choice would be for the host organization to invite external members to specific team collaboration resources on an as-needed basis as third-party guests. By default, guest access creates the proper levels of separation when working with external parties. It does place a bit more burden on external parties to create and manage their own team collaboration platforms and user accounts, however.

Depending on the platform, external parties that don't have their own organizational deployment or licenses for the chosen team collaboration platform can typically create and use a stripped-down freemium guest account. A free account may or may not have all the features needed for collaboration, and the external partner may be required to purchase a license.

Vendors address external collaboration challenges

To make external collaboration a bit easier, team collaboration vendors are beginning to offer paying customers the ability to invite external users to temporarily use a fully functional guest account. Once the project is complete, the licensed guest accounts can then be reclaimed. Slack, for example, refers to this feature as single-channel guest licenses.

The guest access method works well when companies need to add a few external members to a team. When working closely with a third-party company that requires dozens or hundreds of guest accounts, however, this capability can become unmanageable.

To solve this issue, some team collaboration platforms allow two or more organizations to merge, yet maintain separate access and data security. Microsoft Teams, for example, offers external access federation that essentially creates a virtual bridge between organization domains. Administrators can then permit and deny various aspects of Microsoft Teams access, including how external team members use group project resources.

Organizations also have the option to integrate different team collaboration platforms to create a unified -- but external -- team space. For example, Microsoft and Cisco allow partial integrations between their two platforms. Keep in mind that integrating two vendor platforms together can create added complexities and unforeseen challenges.

To start, it may be best to choose a single host platform and use guest accounts or federate between organizations to overcome the challenge of external collaboration.

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