Recently, I read “Collaboration 2.0: Technology and Best Practices for Successful Collaboration in a Web 2.0 World” by co-authors David Coleman and Stewart Levine.
First and foremost I appreciate that the authors have expanded our view of what co-laboring is all about. The commonly held understanding of the word “collaboration” has for too long been hijacked to simply connote document sharing. For example, a software product review written as recently as October 2011 contained the following line:
“The two most important aspects of cloud computing for small businesses are mobility (reading and editing documents on mobile devices) and collaboration (sharing and co-editing documents).” [My emphasis added]
Collaboration is so much more. As the authors vividly point out, effective collaboration requires attention to people, process and technology. They advise their readers “collaboration solutions that only focus on technology will fail if they do not also address the ‘soft stuff’ – relationships, trust, behavior and attitudes.” Additionally, they suggest “what has been missing and what is a key ingredient for successful 2.0 collaboration are some. . .protocols around the basics of interpersonal communication”. How to communicate in a virtual environment has the same, and even more, challenges as communications in the physical world. Technology designs need to be mindful of “creating a context in which people communicate more effectively”. Coleman and Levine rightly assert the number one communication roadblock is “Lack of Clear Agreements”.
The book’s latter section presents an insightful discourse on what the authors refer to as “Law and Principles of Agreement”, i.e. “Every collaboration is established in language by making implicit and explicit agreements. . . Collaboration and agreement for results is simple, but it is not easy. It requires thoughtfulness and clear thinking on the front end before you move into action, and then a commitment to get through the rough spots after you begin.”
I could not agree more. New software solutions are being developed and introduced that go well beyond document sharing to address the “soft stuff”.
To facilitate effective collaboration, technology can:
- Create a context – a “space” in the virtual world where two or more parties can come together to carry on a dialog about achieving a shared outcome. Different from email, new technologies enable each party to independently work in the shared space without waiting for the other to respond.
- Guide behaviors – users make requests and offers to begin a dialog/conversation between collaborators. Effective and efficient collaboration is spawned and carried through in a well-crafted conversation in which the two participants interact with each other, declaring specific things, in a structured sequence. The requestor initiates the dialog/conversation by making a clear request of the output or result that would satisfy their concerns, the performer responds by making an explicit agreement to produce a specific outcome at an agreed upon delivery date, the performer presents their output, and the requestor explicitly acknowledges whether they are satisfied thus closing the structured sequence loop.
- Make agreements explicit – who will do what by when is “on record”. Document a clear request and the agreement by the performer to deliver by a certain date. To emulate actual conversations, the software controls require an appropriate response from the performer (e.g., the performer must select one button option: “Agree”, “Decline”, or “Counter-offer”).
- Provide protocols to guide the conversation flow – the conversation thread is “managed” by the software to include mutually beneficial actions and comments that progress the conversation and close the loop. These “rules of engagement” must strike a delicate balance and not be overly restrictive; the technology must have sufficient flexibility to support human interactions in ways “natural” business conversations are handled in the physical world, but may include prompts to move the conversation along, to reach mutual resolution, and to complete the delivery. Both parties in the conversation move forward along an explicit path.
- Keep and maintain records – track project status, changes, modifications, updates, deliveries and outcome assessment. Records archive all data and dialog threads associated with completed collaboration agreements for future analysis and learning.
- Reveal execution in progress – graphically display the real-time status of the whole network of interdependent collaboration conversations associated with specific goals, projects, accounts, etc.
- Provide metrics – measurement adds management insight and supports interventions to improve collaboration. Technology can, at a glance, highlight initiatives: still being negotiated, ones on track, those that have been delivered, which are late, etc. These can be presented on an organization-wide basis as well as on a person-by-person basis. On time delivery percentages and satisfaction ratings can be quantified to build reputations.
- Build trust – technology plays the role of a third party to the conversation, monitoring and helping facilitate the development of a successful relationship. The software is intended to introduce and support best practices and more efficient behaviors while enhancing ways of working. Beyond capturing data and managing workflow, the software represents a significant organization development intervention that leads to improved performance and results.
Collaboration technology is so much more than document sharing.