What becomes collaboration most

What makes the PC successful as a personal productivity tool has also been its biggest obstacle towards better collaboration, that it is personal. And the more powerful PCs become, they more difficult it is to collaborate with them.

The primary collaboration tool today is still what it was ten years ago: sending an email attachment with a Powerpoint deck or Word document back and forth between two or more parties. It is a serial form of collaboration: I put together my work product, send it to you, and you send back your thoughts or changes. It is fraught with problems: I have to wait on your revisions before adding my own, and if I don’t agree with them, we pretty much have to start the process from scratch. I have seen documents that had more changes and comments than the original text.

Weren’t local area networks supposed to help us share our documents, at least around the office? Now the hard disks on the average computer can contain hundreds of gigabytes, so we can carry around our entire work output for the last decade and still have room to digitize our movies, music, and pictures. And just in case we don’t carry our PCs around, we all have iPods and can shut out the rest of the world by booting them up. Our electronic cocoon has become more potent.

Wasn’t a constant Internet connection supposed to make it easier to connect distributed work teams? Well, it has made email even more powerful, and now most of us feel bereft when we are off line for a few hours. Organizations like CA that turned off their corporate email system for several hours a day (which they did in the early 90s to get people to actually move around and talk to each other) seem so quaint now.

What about blogs and wikis, putting the power of communication in the hands of the common folk? Still, email is the main notification system of when this content changes. And while Google Docs and all those nifty Web 2.0 mashups have made it easier to build collaborative applications, someone still needs to collect the data sources together and do the heavy lifting. And social networks, which are great at grabbing and spamming your contact list, aren’t really all about collaboration, but more about who can collect the most names fastest. I didn’t do well at popularity contests in junior high, and I still feel somewhat deficient today.

There have been some notable attempts at collaboration, but all have been abject failures. Look at Lotus Notes, which is nearly 20 years old. It is still 95% used as an email system. Yes, it has some wonderful collaborative features, particularly with its SameTime messaging and telecommunications add-ons, but most people don’t know how to build their own Notes apps or don’t have these add-ons installed. The inventor of Notes is now at Microsoft with his Groove product, which is also a great idea that has hasn’t gotten much traction. To get any real collaborative benefit from Groove, you have to change the way you think about your data. Sharepoint isn’t much better, but to leverage that you need a lot of Microsoft infrastructure, and many organizations are just getting started with understanding how to use it for something besides running a simple Web bulletin board.

I’ve seen some promising signs of change, particularly with two-person teams that make use of screen-sharing technologies like LogMeIn or GoToMyPC, where both parties are connected and can control the same desktop, to make changes to a presentation or to interactively edit a document. Call this the Jurassic period of collaboration: we still have a ways to go up to evolutionary chain. Salesforce.com is another good case in point, where multiple people can share contacts and client information, provided they are religious about doing the updates. And a third area that is also promising are shared calendars, which at least make scheduling meetings easier.

So, as PC processors get faster, disks get bigger, and our social networks get larger, we still don’t have the perfect collaboration solution. We still think of the data on our hard disks as our own, not our employer’s. Sharing is still for sissies. Until that attitude changes, the headphones will stay firmly stuck in our ears, blocking out the rest of the world around us.

10 thoughts on “What becomes collaboration most

  1. One of my readers writes:
    The most p2p collaboration I’ve done, web-wise, has been using google apps (calendar, docs). I’ve probably shared and concurrently edited more google docs in the past year than I’ve ever successfully worked with someone else on ms word ever.

    I now routinely share my proposals and reports with my clients before I deliver them (I typically branch a doc after I’ve got it to a certain point first). Invariably I get the: “huh? — cool!” reaction…and more than a few converts to google docs.

  2. Another of my readers writes:

    One pet peeve of mine is mailing documents to people who “can’t find it on the shared drive/sharepoint.” As our networks get bigger and our PCs have greater capacity and we have all sorts of file sharing tools, we are still slave to the mentality of “I’m the boss, I don’t want to have to go look for it.”

  3. Tony Stirk comments:

    You have succumbed to American thinking, that somehow a technology, a rule/law, or throwing money at something will “fix” a problem.

    You are talking about technical solutions, but not (much) the soft factors that make a technical solution a success. It isn’t that these solutions aren’t viable. It is that the soft factors that go into making them a success aren’t there. Or, as I’ve coined the term, the Return on Grief doesn’t work. You have to make wholesale changes to policy, procedures, and standards. You need to get the word out and train everyone. You need to set appropriate expectations. You need to be convinced that the end product will be better than what you are doing now. Perhaps the crux of the matter is that collaboration is difficult IN PERSON. A large part of human communication is non-verbal. Also, people want to take time to think and get recognition for their own personal contributions. While collaborating is analogous to playing together on a sports team, using the methods you describe, no one is likely to smack your butt and congratulate you for your great job!

    More on ROG: http://www.ih-online.com/hs64.html

    You might also want to remember that homogenization is not necessarily a good thing. “A camel is a horse designed by a committee.” There are many studies that show that meetings often decrease rather than improve productivity and that interruptions (Instant Messaging, etc) lead to innattention and innaccuracy. Humans may be able to do a lot of things at one time, like breathe and type. However, for cognitive tasks, sustained SERIAL attention produces the best results. If you doubt me, try to get my 2 year old to tell you what you said when he was actively engaged doing something else.

  4. And speaking of camels, another reader writes:
    Ya know what. I hate collaborating.

    Especially in a group.

    It waters down the process and makes camels by committee. So….maybe it’s human nature.

    As an urban studies major in college I learned that you don’t create paths between a campus buildings. You let the students create the paths….then you pave them.

    So….what is the evidence that people WANT to collaborate this way. If they wanted to….they would.


  5. And Matthew Joshua says:

    I was a little surprised that you didn’t mention SVN anywhere in your post. Distributed developer teams have to use subversion (http://subversion.tigris.org/) powered by collabnetfor SW development. I do agree that sharing your desktop wouldn’t be possible. Also, I know of public SVN servers that professors and students/researchers can use for
    working on research papers, presentations etc. We cannot live without it
    at our office. And the TortoiseSVN client is the best client out there available for SVN. So most folks use this combination. Now anyone who has worked with Microsoft VSS would dislike it for many reasons. One of them was that no two people can work on the same page/file at the same time. SVN solves this problem.

  6. Collaboration is hard and technology won’t solve the problem until technologists understand the psychology behind collaboration. When you are doing a draft, you want to own it. It feels better to send it out for review in email because you get to retain your original. You can easily discard whatever comments that you don’t want to include – or just say you lost them in the spam filter. What collaboration system lets you do that?

    Kind of like your blog here Dave, I noticed that you ‘own’ all the comments. 😉

  7. David, this is the most important piece I have ever seen from you. (And you’ve written a lot of good stuff over the years!)

    What I mean is that you have chronicled here the struggle of technologies to empower people to cooperate. Engelbart’s unfulfilled dream. But what comes through to me from this clear recounting of yours is that maybe, just maybe, we are trying to automate something that people are just not good at in the flesh. Hmmm? Yes, Ipods help us isolate. No wonder they are so popular.

    Anyway, I don’t know what to do more than urge you to get this piece into much wider circulation to stimulate other thinkers. And maybe some “actors”.


  8. Hi David

    I think you are just scratching the surface here but also hitting the heart of the matter. Yes there are plenty of applications and systems of collaborative work but it seems to me that silos of information connectivity are being created resulting in islands of connectivity.

    I have particular interest in using some of these applications having to mange a distributed venture. Reading much of the marketing information about these applications only tends to confuse me more. (TLA’s anyone?) Why should use it? How do I use it? Where is my benefit? Help me understand the problem I’m solving before trying to sell me something. I think there is a lot of fodder here for many WebInformant columns.

  9. Hi David,

    Nice article- interesting because it reflects the mainstream view of online collaboration. My comments come from the perspective of a hosting provider of collaboration and version control tools to software development teams (http://CVSDude.com). From there, I consider the implications for more general, non-software industries.

    The main attraction of hosted platforms like ours is that it makes emailing of documents redundant. Instead, people store versions of their files on their computer and on our secure server network. Every time that person adds/deletes/changes their files, and commits (synchronizes) their work to the central servers, then all of their team members are notified by email.

    This may not seem so powerful if you are a lone software developer, or a lone CEO writing a business plan. But when working with 13 or 300 other team members, from many different locations, then keeping track of file versions, and distributing those files, becomes a logistical nightmare by email. So does the ability to discuss strategy, delegate jobs, and manage deadlines. So hosting services like ours provide a central document storage facility that updates all files and compiles a history all changes (in case you wish to undo a change further down the track).

    Additionally, wiki-based tools and job ticketing systems help organize the brainstorming and delegation of work. Taken together, this makes team work and collaboration a whole lot easier. Coming from an academic background myself, I wish I had access to these types of services when I published papers with co-authors.

    Just as linearly-organized, in-house management systems are steadily being replaced by hosted (online) collaboration platforms in the software development industry, we’re starting to see this shift spread to all industries (our company already serves over 40 industries, including writing, academia, and government). In fact, over the next 10 years, I suspect there will be a proliferation of hosting providers that serve customers using only thin networked PCs, with heavy-lifting being done by the online provider. And as people increasingly collaborate in parallel rather than serial manners, industries of all types will undergo fairly serious ramp-ups in productivity.

  10. Pingback: The 10 Biggest Mistakes That Derail Business Collaboration | The Fast Track

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