Collaboration Is Still a Singular, Personal Experience

The primary collaboration tool today is still what it was 10 years ago: sending an e-mail attachment with a PowerPoint deck or Word document back and forth between two or more parties. It is a serial form of collaboration: I put together my work product, send it to you, and you send back your thoughts or changes. It is fraught with problems: I have
to wait to receive your revisions before adding my own, and if I don’t agree with them, we pretty much have to start the process from scratch.
I have seen documents that had more changes and comments than the original text.

I’ve long been a supporter of Wikis and similar whiteboard tools.
There are now on-line shareable mind-maps and flow-charters.

But it has to take a business change. And that’s coming slowly.

We’ve been talking about the ‘paperless office’ for decades but we still think in terms of paper. Our sending back and forth word documents illustrates this (not least of all when plain text e-mail would suffice). Many are hung-up on PDF not because its un-editable (I now always send out may key documents like resumes in PDF since I found recruiters were altering them!) not because they render the same on different platforms (unlike HTML and very much unlike MS-Word) but because they look like the printed page.

Or perhaps not.

The media talks of “Gen-X” that lives with their ‘berries and IM.
Well Whoopie Dee! They make out that my (?our?) generation are technically lame. Not so! We place more emphasis on utility than toys.
My father, who would be in his 80s now if he lived, was a MS MVP/Developer in his 70s, was much more of a gadgeteer than I am or ever was. I pioneered commercial applications of UNIX in the 70s, skipped MS-DOS and went to small systems UNIX from SCO and others, and was an early adopter of PDAs – The Newton. Many the non-technical people my
age that I know are tech-savvy; those who view me as an expert are all high level users.

And one thing about high level users – they use the technology for a function that is of value. No geekishness.

But one thing the author of this article forgets is that there are other social shifts. Whether they are the result of technology or not is beside the point. Intellectual and creative work is still primarily an individual activity and the ‘confluence’ is there to synchronise, organise and direct.

Databases, wikis, blogs, e-mail, IM, all the other tools are there to store and communicate. May of them get around the problems of traditional tools like paper (“you can’t grep dead trees”), physical presence, common language, different time zones and many others.

The article refers to “all those nifty Web 2.0 mashups” as if they were a Good Thing(R) on the one hand and then goes on to point out that they aren’t really about collaboration.

Perhaps one reason that tools like Lotus/IBM Notes and Microsoft’s Groove haven’t got much traction is that they don’t really reflect the way we work.

And there are many variations in the way we work – even as individuals, depending on context.

Once upon a time an executive of a telegraph company predicted that the telephone would never catch on because people would not tolerate the continuous interruption. I can’t imagine what he’d think of today’s environment with cell phones that double as cameras that double as personal juke-boxes and movie theatres.

We all know what the telecommunication companies think of ‘sharing’ using P2P and such legitimate alternatives to FTP as BitTorrent as well as multiple users sharing a single connection.

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  1. > But it has to take a business change. And that’s coming slowly.

    One interesting possibility for this is the Facebook system. It has been so successful because it allows an interaction system that resembles real life social interactions. One can control somewhat who gets to see what detail of one’s persona, so people are willing to share thoughts and ideas more readily.

    It also has a number of tools for collaboration built in which arerather intuitive to use.

    It also has an open API for add-ons that allows great flexibility for what data types it handles.

    I have heard rumours that Facebook is about to open source its basic software, so it might be something one could use internally for collaboration.

    Bill Royds

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