Saturday, March 5, 2011

Collaboration Is Missing The Point

MIT Technology Review has started a new monthly topic in Business, entitled Collaboration Tools. They promise to examine why some tools work, and why others don't. They will also be looking at when and how collaboration is valuable.

Think about that last statement. I didn't see it phrased quite that way on Technology Review, but at least a few articles urge caution in the deployment and use of collaboration tools. So that's what they mean, that sometimes collaboration can be overrated. And that means that it's not always necessary, and sometimes collaboration is counterproductive.

A lot of technology companies and IT users are still mesmerized by the Kollaboration Kool-Aid. After all, how can it be a bad thing if as many people as possible are in touch, and always in touch? How can it be a bad thing if people are sharing knowledge 24/7?

Well, it can be a bad thing, and in my opinion often is. An IEEE Spectrum article entitled "Metcalfe's Law is Wrong" pretty much lays some real-world realities on the line. As the article surmises, a fundamental flaw behind Metcalfe's or Reed's laws is in the assignment of equal value to all connections. The authors argue that Zipf's law makes more sense. And intuitively it does - in my work environment, for any given problem I am working on, I can rank the value of collaborating with various people. To a greater or lesser degree only a few connections have significant value.

Let's go one further. It stands to reason that some connections actually have negative value - opening up a social, "collaborative" channel with a certain person may actually hamper my work.This may also depend very much on the nature of the work: everyone has had tasks from time to time where, quite frankly, everyone else is a nuisance and a hindrance to getting the job done.

This happens more often than the vendors of collaboration tools are willing to admit. To hear their user stories everyone benefits by intimately working together all the time. Not true: it's more likely the case that valuable collaboration is the exception, not the rule.

What knowledge workers really need is effective knowledge management (KM). The typical state of KM in enterprises is abysmal, and that's perhaps a subject for another blog. What I'd like to be able to do (and usually have to resort to Google for, in place of something truly effective) is to search for information inside the organization, and not have to disrupt other peoples' time to do it. Collaboration is disruptive, good KM is not.

Unrestricted, uncontrolled collaboration cannot work. If jamming a dozen people into a room without leadership, and letting them jabber at each other to try to figure out how best to solve a problem, had ever worked, then organizations would be doing that all the time. Oh wait...those are called meetings. Sorry.

Seriously, carefully controlled small doses of collaboration are fine. But here's a thought - we've had an excellent IT tool for that, for decades: it's called email. Switch off the email notification pop-ups, and simply ask that people on a team check their Inbox at least once an hour. Do you really think you need more than that?

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