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15 April 2006

Collaboration Types - Part 2

This post looks at the actual act of collaboration. Part 1 described the different forms of collaborative group. As before, this is a bit of a brain dump.

(Too) often, the focus on improving collaboration is really about content management. Ever heard the phrase 'single version of the truth' mentioned in the same paragraph as collaboration? (Well, you have if I've been in the room, I'm as guilty as anyone). There is nothing wrong with wanting to improve the management of content and, goodness knows, most content is in want of better management. But collaboration can be about a lot more than co-ordinating the lifecycle of a document.

Content management

Having said all that, we may as well cover content first, given it is likely to continue to be the starting point for many a collaboration project.

Technology has come along way to improving the management of content. Most document repositories with management capabilities (such as version history, assigning metadata, check-in/out facilities) now have web-based interfaces and are accessible from a browser. This makes it possible for documents to be placed in the context of their purpose. Document libraries can be placed alongside (and integrated with) calendar events, tasks to be completed, transactional data residing in database applications, team membership... the list goes on. Whilst more advanced file managers include the document management components (such as displaying metadata and managing version history), they don't provide the context of the activity. I'd go as far to say the only thing file managers are good for is archiving static data - old documents and records that may need to be accessed for research or compliance purposes.

Web content management is still often a separate activity for most organisations, with dedicated roles being responsible for maintaining content that is published as pages on a web site. I believe this will change over time, as the line between document files and web pages continues to blur and the two merge together. Wikis will be instrumental in the change - they introduce people to the concept of editing web pages with the feel of document management (version history, approval/moderation of changes etc.). If you're unfamiliar with wikis, explore www.wikipedia.org. Many of the traditional reasons for creating documents (memos, meeting notes, training guides, manuals etc.) could be better managed (and more accessible) as web pages. Up until now, the web didn't work because web pages would be static (read-only) and only available online. Wikis make web pages read/write, and RSS syncs web pages offline. The final step to replace documents with web pages will be the offline client equivalent of the web browser - a common application for editing web pages with automatic synchronisation back to the web site and conflict resolution management. That's what the next generation of word processors need to provide (i.e. concentrate on the processing of words, not the creation of documents versus web pages).

Activities

Activities are what a collaboration project should really focus on - what's the reason for needing to create that content and what will it be used for? What steps need to be completed, in what order? Can activities be divided and shared? How can technology help co-ordinate getting stuff done?

The type of activities will vary depending on the type of collaboration group (see part 1 for a review). For teams comprising various roles and responsibilities, the majority of activities are likely to be task-oriented. Lists are the most popular (and effective) way of managing and delegating tasks. People can see who is responsible for doing what, the progress of each task, deadlines to meet and so on. Workflow can enhance lists by sending out alerts and reminders to prod people to complete their assigned activities and flag when the list is held up by an overdue and incomplete task. For peer groups, activities are more likely to be event-focused and optional - opportunities to share and communicate knowledge and expertise. For master-apprentice, the relationship is 1:1 and the primary activity will be meetings and opportunities for the apprentice to shadow the mentor. For teacher-student, the relationship is 1:many and activities will be about supporting the learning environment - surveys to capture pre-training expectations and post-training feedback, lists of pre-requisites that attendees should complete before the training, and information about where the training will take place with links to supporting materials.

The most popular enterprise collaboration tool currently is a web-based workspace. These tools often started life as document management tools and still tend to be used more for content management than collaboration. But they do include all the other features that can support a collaborative environment - lists for managing activities, calendar for co-ordinating events, surveys for gathering feedback, contact information about team members and so on. A collaborative workspace should always be organised around the purpose for collaborating, the goal to be achieved, rather than management of the content involved. When the latter occurs, there is a danger that the management of the content becomes more important than what the content is to be used for...

Communication

What is collaboration? For most organisations, it is what happens when two or more people work together. Now, last time I checked, the most common act that occurs between two or more people is the act of communication. Attempting to collaborate without communication is as useful as trying to drive a car without an engine. Yet I often see organisations focus solely on collaboration tools to co-ordinate content with little thought for how to improve communication between the people involved.

There are lots of technologies - emerging and well-matured - to support and improve communication between people. For example:

  • The telephone: Yes most people have figured out how to use one, even the mobile variety... we are now beginning to see integration between telephony and information networks, enabling you to look up a contact on a web page, click the link and your telephone automatically dials the recipient. The ability to place calls over the Internet is changing the dynamic of a telephone call. One of the most interesting quotes I heard last year came from Stuart Henshall's Skype Journal - "Skype moves your use of voice from telephony to a kind of intercom where rather than closing a line down you just temporarily mute it". Now that's a potential paradigm shift

  • Email: The most common form of digital communication within the enterprise today, it perhaps ought to be labelled the most common form of mis-communication. A recent study (I forgot to save the link) discovered that we mis-interpret 50 per cent of the emails we read whilst we believe we understand at least 90 per cent. Want to improve collaboration? Consider implementing email etiquette training...

  • Instant messaging: It is still a mystery to me why IM is taking so long to become ingrained within organisations. Depressingly, the reasons for not using IM mostly seem to emerge from within the IT department - the very people who led the way in introducing networks, email and intranets. I've already had a whinge about this subject. see related post: 'When will IM come of age'

  • Meetings: Worthy of a paragraph all to themselves - see below

  • Location information: Organised organisations include employee location information in their network directory. Imagine that - you look up someone's contact information, see they are located 50 yards down the hall from your desk, and actually walk across and meet face-to-face :-)

These are just a few examples that should be considered as part of any attempt to improve collaboration. Too often, communication is treated as a separate project and activities are focused on sending messages in one direction - publishing - yet most communication is a two-way activity, a conversation, and the quality of collaboration usually correlates to the quality of conversation between the people involved.

Meetings

Meetings fall under the communication cloud, but deserve special attention. They are the one activity that just about every team will be involved in at some point, and most people would say they have been in at least one unproductive meeting during the past month. There are various technologies that can assist with improving meetings:

  • Meeting workspace: Create a web page to co-ordinate the meeting. Include the objectives, an agenda (with times), invited attendees, any preparation to be completed beforehand, desired outcomes, and amend with minutes from the meeting and agreed actions (ideally with assigned responsibilities and deadlines)

  • Virtual meetings: Use audio/video/web-based tools to enable people to participate who cannot physically attend the meeting. Consider recording the meeting so that it can be replayed by those who could not attend, plus it can be reviewed to confirm agreed actions if required

  • Templates: It's the simple things in life that often have the greatest effect. Publishing templates with guidelines to support the meeting (e.g. suggested objectives, times, what makes a good versus pointless action etc.) can help improve the effectiveness of meetings. The book 'Death by Meeting' provide some excellent advice on how to improve meetings - use technology to share the advice...

Closing comment

Whilst this post is focused on how technology can support collaboration, there is another aspect that is too often is overlooked - how the culture of the organisation affects collaboration. Successful collaboration is about people working together to achieve a goal. People work better together when they trust their colleagues and enjoy their work. This is perhaps why peer group collaboration is often more successful than team-based collaboration - membership in one is always optional, membership in the other is usually required rather than asked. An organisation's attitude towards new technology is often a good indicator - companies that have an adverse reaction to the words 'instant' and 'messaging' are most likely to suffer from a culture that does not support effective collaboration - and no technology will fix that issue.

This entry is posted on the web site under Collaboration