There is no doubt that online collaboration technology has got better in the last twenty years. But has that resulted in more collaboration? Certainly, it looks like people spend more time hanging out online, but is the technology itself what makes the difference? I have seen enough instances of “build it, and they do not come” to know it is not. No matter how awesome your technology is, it does not make people collaborate. What does then? Here’s how I think about it.
There are three requirements for collaboration:
- Medium — some way to get messages between people.
- Motivation — people have got to want to collaborate.
- Agreement —agreement to use a particular medium in particular ways.
Of course, the medium most familiar to most humans is face to face. If you abstract what happens in face to face collaboration, however, there are processes that can happen via other media. I form an expression of some idea, feeling or intention and I send that in your direction. You receive the expression, unpack it, and it has some affect on you. Body language, cave paintings, spoken language, inscribed tablets, the printed page, letters, telephone, email, SMS, Twitter. They all do the same job.
Merely enabling the technology, however, does not mean collaboration necessarily happens. Anyone in a city knows how isolated we can be from each other, despite even face to face proximity. On our own server, over 90% of the sites and groups started are unused, even though others are well-used.
On the other hand, if the participants are motivated, even the most ordinary technology will often suffice. An obvious example is SMS or “texting”, as it is called in New Zealand. The multi-press system for entering messages can hardly be called usable, and yet is no barrier whatsoever to the teens who send thousands of messages per month from phones concealed under their school desks. Last weekend, I read a story about people rowing three miles in a dinghy to a dance, before the road from Governors Bay to Lyttelton was put in.
If people are sufficiently motivated, they will participate. Hold on to your technology budget until you have established this.
Motivated participants with access to a collaboration medium need just one more thing before collaboration is likely to happen. They need to agree to use one particular medium that is available, and then agree to use it in ways that will be effective. The 19th century Cantabrians observed strict social protocols at community dances. SMS users have found inventing SMS language (or “text-speak”) to be a more effective work-around for the limitations of cell phone keypads than type-ahead.
To use an online collaboration medium, 100% of the participants in collaboration must agree to use the chosen medium. If one keeps using email, all the others must keep using email. In fact, in most cases, people do simply keep using email, adhering to loose agreements such as “mostly reply to all”. Add to that “use a subject line that matches the content” and you can do pretty powerful collaboration, with ordinary email.