4 min read

In the Loop

The BrainYard - Where collaborative minds congregate.

A lot of my fellow bloggers on Collaboration Loop have been talking lately about the pitfalls of trying to establish a successful collaborative business environment. In our experience, there are three primary barriers to widespread adoption of collaboration technology: integration, e-mail, and human nature.

Integration: For collaboration tools to reach their full potential and become a workplace-changing technology, they need to work together. The next-generation desktop will let users launch instant messages, audio, Web, and video conferences, asynchronous workspaces, telephone calls, and documents from a single real-time communications dashboard. Presence will be incorporated into all applications, so users can see where others are at all times, and how (and whether) they can be reached.

Today, a handful of vendors have developed RTCDs, although they don’t yet interoperate; others have partnered to enable integration between, say, an IM client and a Web conferencing service. Deals between AOL, Microsoft and other collaboration vendors are enabling interoperability among online presence services, but interoperable telephony presence is still practically, if not technically, impossible. And although SIP and SIMPLE hold the promise of out-of-the-box interoperability, the standards have not gotten us there yet.

E-mail: Many companies consider e-mail to be a part of their collaboration efforts, and have ranked it as the most-highly valued collaboration technology; in a Collaboration benchmark we conducted, IT executives scored e-mail a near-perfect 5 average on a 1-5 scale, where 1 is unimportant and 5 is vital. But in reality, e-mail is not a collaborative tool. Certainly, it can be a good tool for sharing information (though even there it’s outranked by online workspaces for document sharing, and IM for real-time messaging). But its asynchronous, one-to-one nature makes it complicate collaboration efforts rather than enhance them. And yet, users are so used to e-mail today, it will take time (and a certain amount of educational effort) to break them from the habit.

Human nature: Collaboration technologies are best suited for businesses where intellectual property is king (admittedly, a definition that fits more and more businesses these days). But the irony is, in businesses where IP rules, employees act a bit like courtiers—they’ll do anything to preserve their unique relationship with the information at hand. Sharing their knowledge, and working together with others in ways that may not make clear who owns a particular idea, is an alien concept to many American workers. This cultural stumbling block must be overcome for true collaboration to happen—regardless of how good the technology is.

This viewpoint can be entrenched in surprising places. One executive who works for a vendor of collaboration technology tells this story: “When I worked at [another collaboration vendor], I was the knowledge management guy. In that role, I produced a whole bunch of work—whitepapers, research, best practices, you name it—and I’d put it all in the online database, so everyone could see it. And then I’d get a call from a guy across the world who wanted to tap me for my knowledge. And I’d ask ‘How did you find me?’ Almost always, they’d have done a search for “knowledge management” and they’d find the list of the documents I wrote, and decide that I was the in-house expert. But they never read them.

“They always wanted me to fly to wherever they were and teach their staffs about what I did. I’d tell them that all they had to do was give the presentation I’d put in there, complete with notes for the presenter and everything; I’d even work with them in advance to collaborate on the project. They’d still tell me to fly out. That’s about expertise location, but it’s not quite serving the ultimate purpose of collaboration. And that’s still the story.”

In that example, technology wasn’t the problem, nor was the attitude of the holder of the knowledge in question—it was the fact that others in the organization couldn’t grasp the concept of collaboration.