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11/21/2005
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Back to Basics for Communication and Collaboration

Communication and collaboration concepts have been inconsistently applied during the last couple decades, sometimes resulting in considerable customer confusion and consternation. Some of the terms vendors have used to describe their products include groupware, teamware, and workflow, but the similarities and differences among the categories haven’t been clearly defined, and some vendors have even been inconsistent in their use of fundamental concepts such as communication and collaboration (some consider communication to be a subset of collaboration, for instance).

Fortunately, consensus is emerging on a new, consistent, simpler, and standards-based framework for communication and collaboration.  The new framework is composed of channels for communication and workspaces for collaboration.  It also includes tools and services designed to maximize the extent to which people can work in their preferred contexts, enabling them to focus on their real-world activities rather than switching among a collection of distinct tools for different facets of communication and collaboration.

At the risk of seeming a bit pedantic, it’s useful to briefly elaborate on the three key concepts:

1. Communication is the exchange of information (through assorted channels)

2. Collaboration is joint purposeful activity within a workspace, typically focused on a document, project, or process

3. Context refers to the circumstances wherein something takes place

Communication and collaboration may be asynchronous or synchronous.  Examples of commonly used asynchronous communication channels include email, XML syndication-based (e.g., RSS or Atom) resources such as blogs and newsfeeds, faxes, and systems based on NNTP (the Network News Transfer Protocol).  Synchronous communication channels include instant messaging, real-time audio and video, and telephony (with the latter increasingly virtualized, via services such as Skype). 

There’s a similar distinction for collaboration, with asynchronous workspaces incorporating tools for joint activities such as document sharing, discussion forums, and project calendars.  Synchronous workspaces are also increasingly popular, e.g., for multi-participant web conferencing and other types of shared tools for group brainstorming (using shared whiteboards and other tools) and other collaborative endeavors.

Workspaces and channels are complementary.  Communication is often conducive to collaboration, for example, with activity in communication channels (such as a competitive update or a customer request for proposal) leading people to gather in a workspace in order to collaborate on appropriate actions.  Similarly, collaboration usually results in communication, such as a workgroup publishing updates for others to receive via their preferred channels.

Workspaces and channels are not, however, interchangeable.  Anyone who has attempted to coordinate a complex collaborative task via email understands that collaboration via communication channels is usually ineffective.  Problems include information dissipation (people filing information in different email folders, for example, or who never see the information in the first place, due to overzealous spam filters), the lack of a consistent record of activities and artifacts (making it very difficult for new participants to review historical interactions), and the general problem of overflowing email inboxes (making it increasingly challenging to triage and organize incoming messages). 

Context is a subtle but critically important facet of communication and collaboration.  The primary goal with contextual tools is to make it simpler for people to work at a level of abstraction that consistently sustains focus on real-world concepts and tasks, rather than technology details.  Contextual communication and collaboration tools can also minimize rework by unobtrusively capturing metadata in context (distinguishing between a generic email message and a customer meeting summary, for instance) and by seamlessly making other resources – people and information – available from within individuals’ preferred work settings. 

These concepts are all reasonable and intuitive.  They generally describe how people have been working together for centuries, after all, long before the advent of mixed blessings such as global email systems.  Most organizations and individuals nonetheless face considerable communication and collaboration challenges, however, and it turns out that the infrastructure and tools required to productively, reliably, robustly, and seamlessly foster contextual communication and collaboration are exceptionally deep and integrated.  In my next couple posts, I’ll explain how we got here – some of the causes of current communication/collaboration complexity and chaos – and why recent market trends are aligning to make communication/collaboration tools much more effective for managing your time and attention.

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