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5/23/2006
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Collaborative Choreography And The Future Of Work

One of the age-old challenges daunting those involved in collaboration strategies is getting other key decision-makers to understand why they need to think of collaboration beyond technology and tools like e-mail, instant messaging, workspaces and such. We (as technologists), tend to fall into a trap I refer to as “toolbox thinking”. It causes us to focus too much of our time and resources on vendors and products and minimizing our understanding of softer issues around people and groups. It also has us measuring the value of collaboration in very rudimentary terms related to task and functional productivity.

We need to raise the discussion level up from technology. Improving collaboration begins with understanding organizational dynamics around people such as their motivations, behaviors, relationships and interactivities across groups, teams, communities and networks and how such dynamics influence “work”. It ends after applying methods and practices (and technologies) that influence people in terms of their joint cooperation and performance within activities that support enterprise objectives that are typically linked to processes and information management needs. What happens in the middle remains part art and part science.
Comprehending what goes on at the social level within an enterprise is typically beyond the skills and competencies of most IT organization unless they employ resources that have a background in organizational development, ethnography, anthropology, psychology, sociology, epistemology, and so on. I believe that skill and competency gap will change as business leaders increasingly call upon technologists to provide them with some perspective on the role of technology, collaboration and the future of work.

The “future of work” is a hot topic. And much of what that discussion comes back to people and how they communicate, share information and collaborate:

  • Business strategists are looking at people and how they impact organizational productivity, but not at the individual level but rather at an activity level – how does an organization optimize an entire activity so that the group or team involved are more efficient and effective from an end-to-end perspective?

  • Line managers are looking at people and the future of work more from a process perspective. How do people drive process performance in terms of reduced cycle time and better process outcomes?

  • Senior executives are looking at people and the future of work at a higher level of abstraction that deals with their workforce collectively. How do people influence the metrics by which they measure growth and innovation? How does the organization build up the social capital of what “it” knows and transfers that know-how to keep its growth and innovation engine running fluidly?

  • Those involved in human capital management, are responding to management needs by looking beyond simple skill and competency assessments and more towards managing talent and succession. That links to knowing how healthy an organization’s relationships are in terms of teams, communities and networks.

And all of this is against a backdrop where executives are looking at a more global and virtual enterprise. What new work models are needed? What functional areas need to be outsourced? What facilities can be eliminated or virtualized? And how do people thrive in a workplace that is evermore variable, unpredictable and externalized to embrace customers, partners and suppliers?

Collaboration strategists need to think in radically different ways. We need to start with understanding people and how work gets done – and more importantly – how work needs to get done in the future. That includes examining many non-traditional areas. We should look more closely at the blurring lines between work, worker, workplace and lifestyle. We should consider not only trends that affect enterprise environments but consumer environments as well. We ought to debate the issues related to people always being connected and available. We must plan for mobility as the new normalcy. We have to consider what meta-information people need to maintain a constant state of situational awareness. As the velocity and variability of “work” increases, people will rely more on other people as their connection and filtering mechanisms so we need to include such concepts in how we design systems that are more socially oriented.
People and their interactivities around work and lifestyle are becoming more deeply intertwingled than ever before. We need to think and act more like multi-disciplined choreographers than as technologists. In our role as collaborative choreographers, design becomes paramount as we think about the future of work and devise environments where groups, teams, communities and networks can excel.

That means designing around how people socialize as they “work, learn and play” – either together in a cohesive manner around a shared activity – or in parallel in a more loosely coupled manner that maintains a collective peripheral vision or weak tie to a common interest. A fresh approach to collaborative choreography should include supporting emergent behaviors that cannot be anticipated. Providing people with the means to construct their own social environments enables groups to organically establish their own relationships and community practices.

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