Use a Simple Tool like Email Groups to start Successful Online Collaboration

Whatever technology you use, your main challenge in getting collaboration started is going to be social. So you may as well start using simple technology and work on the social factors.

Building Collaboration is a Social Problem not a Technical One

Collaboration one of the holy grails of organisations. Everything will go so much better if we collaborate. But in practice, collaboration is hard. It is hard to do and hard to get others to do. It is not hard because of poor technology. There is plenty of great collaboration technology. It is hard because of people and the environments that we work in.

Collaboration involves helping other people, often before they help you. If you help other people enough, they might start helping you. Or they might not. Most people in organisations are busy. Busy achieving their individual goals. That’s what doing our jobs usually requires. So to collaborate I have to stop doing my job and start doing yours for a while. If you ever come to help me, I have to take the time to explain the problem to you.

For me to take the risk of helping you, or of making myself vulnerable by asking a question takes trust. Pretty much the only way to build that trust is repeated examples of helpfulness in a group. So building a culture of collaboration is a chicken and egg process.

There is no easy formula to this. Pressures of competitive culture, or of cultural difference mitigate against it. Great leadership and facilitation help but they also depend on the gradual building of trust and relationships.

So if all the problems of getting collaboration are social, why should we focus so much on technology? We shouldn’t. You can not solve a social problem with technology. You can lower the barrier to collaboration with technology, as long as the technology itself has a low barrier to adoption.

Choose Technology with Low Adoption Barrier

The technology with the lowest adoption barrier is email. Everyone has an email address and an inbox. All flavours talk to all flavours. But as we know, group collaboration using email can quickly turn into a mess of emails and files.

The system with the next lowest barrier is email groups. Email groups have a low adoption barrier because group members can keep using email to participate. Email groups work with all flavours of email. Effectively all they do is provide for a group what most individuals already have: an email address and an inbox. Group members email the group and the group emails the group members. The group inbox on the web makes it easy to follow several conversations at once, to search posts and files. And you can post from the web as well.

By organising posts by the subject line, email groups provide a very simple way of keeping parallel conversations separate.

Email groups using GNU Mailman work well via email but do not support posting from the web. Google Groups and Yahoo! Groups both provide free web-based email groups but they are supported by advertising and do not provide a dedicated site for your groups.

With OnlineGroups.Net, your groups are all on a dedicated site with no ads. You can have as many public or private online groups as you like for different teams or communities associated with your organisation.

Social Adoption Hacks

Whatever technology you use for online collaboration, it’s never quite going to meet all your needs. This means that you are going to have to adopt particular approaches to using it. For example, I usually use an “Availability” topic in team online groups. Everyone in the team uses that topic to let others know when they are going to be away. That way there is only one place to look to find out who is unavailable when. It is not as sophisticated as a calendar but it works and is trivial to set up.

If you are going to have to adapt to your software using social hacks anyway, you may as well start with simple versatile software. This will give you a chance to focus on growing participation.If participation does grow, over time you will learn about specific tasks that the group has. This will give you the detailed information necessary to choose a more specialised tool.

A Lean Collaboration Tool Adoption Process

This approach is similar to the lean startup approach to business development. The lean startup approach starts with a hypothesis about how customers will interact with a new product. It uses the most lightweight implementation of the product that is possible (a “Minimum Viable Product“) to test the hypothesis. Making iterative tweaks to both the hypothesis and the product allows you to measurably verify the demand for your product before investing in expensive development and promotion.

Steps to Successful Online Collaboration

As your main challenge in building collaboration will be social, here are the steps I recommend.

  1. Choose a simple collaboration tool like email groups.
  2. Engage your members, build participation and enjoy the benefits.
  3. Make social adoption hacks to adapt your generic tool for specific purposes.
  4. Collect data about any key collaboration tasks that are not supported by your simple tool.

You may choose to use that data to select a more specialised tool. Or you may simply continue to enjoy the fruits of collaboration using your familiar simple tool in a variety of ways.

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