Collaboration is a State of Mind

July 9, 2007 at 2:02 pm | Posted in collaboration | 10 Comments

As a technology industry analyst we often talk about “collaborative technologies” or products and technologies in the “collaboration market”, but I know that’s a lazy shortcut to a more complex issue. While document libraries or wikis in the “collaboration” box on a diagram of the marketplace, do I really mean you’re automatically collaborating whenever you use one of these technologies?

Of course not. We define collaboration as requiring a workspace and a shared goal. The technologies placed there fit this criteria. But what counts as a workspace can be in the mind of the collaborators and can often be surprising. Here are three examples.

  • Walls: Generally one does not think of a wall as a collaborative workspace, but it certainly can be with a set of artifacts with loaded meanings and a collaborative mindset among the participants. I have heard of agile development scrums where the use of post-its on a wall where post-it color, placement, and colored circles with various meanings attached to the post-its upon completion are used by all involved on the project to track the steps needed to copmlete a task.
  • Windows: When I was working in a credit card company I had a large window and a small whiteboard. My solution to mapping out problems with people was often to use the whiteboard markers to write on the window (don’t try this at home!). My window was therefore a collaboration space.
  • Whiteboards: Magnatag is a company that has pushed an ancient technology – whiteboards (the physical kind, not virtual) – as far as they will go with very complex vertical-specific applications. For example, see this $1000+ admissions and bed census control board for a 600 bed hospital unit. When a team of nurses or administrators uses this board to update their portion of the overall view for all to see in order to maximize utilization, they are collaborating.

On the contrary, technologies often associated with collaboration can be used in non-collaborative ways. A document library can be a great way for a team to collaborate on a set of documents. But it can also be used by a single person as a shared drive or for backup purposes. A wiki could be used as an easy way for one person to create a set of web pages even though the ability for others to edit and comment has been turned off, making it just a web publishing mechanism.

Why does all this nomenclature matter? First, I wanted to get my full reasoning down so that when I use a shortcut to zip onto another point I’m trying to make, one can always refer back here for the complete story. Second, when organizations ask which technologies they can use to improve collaboration, it becomes clear that it is the way in which the technologies are used, not the technologies themselves, that characterizes collaborative activity. Figuring out how to get people to collaborate together – whether it is with a multi-million dollar collaboration suite or a pad of post-its and a wall – is the first hurdle.



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