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Being clear on collaboration

Twice recently, I’ve been confronted with systems that claim to be collaboration platforms. And I think distributed collaboration is one of the most powerful options we have for accelerating our innovation.  So in each case I did some investigation. Unfortunately, the claims didn’t hold up to scrutiny. And I think it’s important to understand why.

Now, true collaboration is powerful.  By collaboration in this sense I mean working together to create a shared representation. It can be a document, spreadsheet, visual, or more. It’s like a shared whiteboard, with technology support to facilitate things like editing, formatting, versioning, and more.  When we can jointly create our shared understanding, we’re developing a richer outcome that we could independently (or by emailing versions of the document around).

However, what was on offer wasn’t this capability.  It’s not new, it’s been the basis of wikis (e.g. Google Docs), but it’s central.  Anything else is, well, something else.  You can write documents, or adjust tables and formulas, or edit diagrams together.  Several people can be making changes in different places at the same time, or annotating their thoughts, and it’s even possible to have voice communication while it’s happening (whether inherently or through additional tools). And it can happen asynchronously as well, with people adding, elaborating, editing whenever they have time, and the information evolves.

So one supported ‘collaborative conversations’.  Um, aren’t conversations inherently collaborative?  I  mean, it takes two people, right?  And while there may be knowledge negotiation, it’s not inherently captured, and in particular it may well be that folks take away different interpretations of what’s been said (I’m sure you’ve seen that happen!).  Without a shared representation, it’s still open to different interpretations (and, yes, we can disagree post-hoc about what a shared representation actually meant, but it’s much more difficult). That’s why we create representations like constitutions and policies and things.

The other one went a wee bit further, and supported annotating shared information. You could comment on it.  And this isn’t bad, but it’s not full collaboration.  Someone has to go away and process the comments.  It’s helpful, but not as much as jointly editing the information in the first place, as well as editing.

I’ve been a fan of wikis since I first heard about them, and think that they’ll be the basis for communities to continue to evolve, as well as being the basis for effective team work. In that sense, they’re core to the Coherent Organization, providing the infrastructure (along with communication and curating) to advance individual and organizational learning.

So, my point is to be clear on what capabilities you really need, so you can suitably evaluate claims about systems to support your actions.  I’ll suggest you want collaborative tools as well as communication tools.  What do you think?

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