The Three Requirements for Collaboration

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.

3 Responses to “The Three Requirements for Collaboration”

  1. Mike Riversdale

    I agree with the first two (even if they are a little simplistic IMHO) but I definitely don’t agree with the thrust of “agreement”.

    I believe that the same tools must be equitably available but there is no dictate/agreement that it must be done using one medium or another OR that 100% must agree.

    A “single collaboration” (for wont of a better phrase) occurs between the parties in many forms with higher priority of the “medium” fluctuating as the needs of the parties change. As I have recently outlined this can occur within seconds moving from “collaboratively editing” to chat to email as the needs change and with the new technologies we now have the “medium” can be hidden or, more properly, the boundaries between the tools can be blurred. Someone’s chat can be another’s email.

    This is where Google Wave is actually more natural in its approach … but we have some old e-behaviours to unlearn :-)

  2. Dan Randow

    It sounds like you actually agree with me. If all the key participants (true, that is not necessarily 100% of the participants) agree to use Google Wave, then the group can viably collaborate there. Likewise with multi-medium collaborations (I presume this is the post where you discuss this?), they only work if everyone is there.

    And presumably, along with un-learning old behaviours, there are some new ones to be learned. Ideally there is some agreement on those new behaviours, so that people are not talking past each other.

    Being simplistic is always a risk when trying to simplify complex stuff. (Who ever started this “n secrets to life” meme, anyway?) I will keep working at it!

  3. Pankaj on Collaboration

    Although the business need is a great driver for collaboration, it would be wrong the say technology has no part in it. For examples, mobiles did not create the need to communication, it only made it easier. Similarly for online collaboration tools.

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