Most knowledge workers spend a lot of their time in front of computer screens. This is their window on the world, and with due consideration can be their interface for online collaboration. Indeed we regard collaborative technologies as the pinnacle of the technology pyramid (see diagram).
The Technology Pyramid
Like any pyramid, the bottom layers provide essential foundations for those above. The diagram illustrates the 6Cs of collaboration:
- Connections. Before collaboration can start, the participants must connect with each other, irrespective of location. Good high bandwidth networks are an essential pre-requisite in this day and age.
- Content. Explicit content is usually an input and output of collaboration. Documents and databases, accessible through web-based portals are prominent in this layer.
- Communications. Much collaborative work takes place through personal communications and conversation. This layer includes both voice and data communications. It also covers a variety of communications patterns, ranging from 1-to-1, 1-to-many and many-to-many.
- Conversations. Conversations are sequences of communications. This layer adds the much overlooked function of orchestrating and recording the essence of conversations in a reusable way.
- Coordination. At this layer, a systematic approach is involved to ensure that functions at lower layers, such as content sharing and conversations, "function together or occupy their proper place as parts of an interrelated whole" (dictionary definition).
- Collaboration. This layer represents the highest level of collaboration capability. Each piece of work, however large or small, is done in a collaborative way. Key features at this level are a collaborative style of working and technology tools to match.
(For completeness, there is a 7C version which includes as the second layer Computation - for computer-computer collaboration without human intervention.)
Although they have been around for some time, online collaborate workspaces are improving by leaps and bounds. Simply providing shared access to documents or to web pages provides the basic level of collaboration (people collaborating via content). For more direct people-to-people collaboration email with effective use of lists and agreed protocols, the facility to edit, comment and annotate in shared tools, e.g. Word documents, Microsoft SharePoint Workspace (formerly Groove), moves collaboration up a notch. Full collaboration takes place when people are working more closely on some knowledge output in a shared workspace.
Time and Space
To consider the wide range of collaborative technologies available today, it is useful to use one of the classification tools from the early days of CSCW (computer supported cooperative work), a term first coined in 1984. Technology solutions fall into four groups, depending on the time / space dimension of the collaborators:
- Same time / same place: Powerpoint, electronic whiteboards at the low-end and at the high-end fully-fledged electronic meeting systems (aka group decision support systems) to facilitate brainstorming, grouping, voting etc (such as Facilitate.com); however, good facilitation and manual aids (such as tacky notes) are often preferred.
- Same time / different place: audio and video-conferencing, instant messaging and more comprehensive facilities such as those of Skype and IBM/Lotus Sametime which include features such as presence awareness and screen sharing
- Different time / same place: low-tech solutions such as project team rooms with whiteboards are examples here.
- Different time / different place: the most common, and essential for virtual teams; exemplified in the early days of KM by Lotus Notes, but today by a wide range of point solutions e.g. Novell's SiteScape for threaded discussion forums and more comprehensive collaborative environments such as Documentum's eRoom.
The Technology Choice
Some technologies are absolutely essential in today's workplace - the mobile cell phone, email, and some Office suite. Others fall into the category of nice solutions, but what are the problems or opportunities. OK, many professionals use LinkedIn for their professional networking. Quite a few use blogs which allow some degree of collaboration if they actively seek comments. But how many use wikis to good effect, such as for evolving documentation collaboratively in a project? To some extent the choice of technology is a personal preference - do you prefer voicemail over email, a netwbook or a notebook, a Blackberry or an iPhone - or all of them (though the more you have the more you have to synchonise or segregate.
For each of the above cells, it is not just sufficient to have compatible solutions for each contributor - generally easier today since most software is web-based - but more importantly good person-to-person processes and picking the right tool for the job. An early survey considered a range of over 80 technologies and found that in general a third of the time people were using technologies considered inappropriate for the specific interchange. We have all heard examples of making staff redundant by text message! Thus, suitable consideration must be given to what works most effectively for a given task with a given group of people, working within a specific organizational context.
Typical of the functions that can benefit from the more comprehensive collaborative solutions (upper 1-2 layers of the pyramid) are project management, scheduling, collaborative document development and group decision making. There may be point solutions for some of these functions, e.g. project management, but you need to consider how well they suit working practices and how well they integrate with all the other aspects of knowledge work. Again, as with other themes, there are no clear-cut decision trees for choosing the appropriate technologies, but rather the need to take account of a range of considerations:
- What is the nature of tasks we need to do collaboratively - where is the knowledge located; what knowledge processing software is needed?
- Where are our knowledge workers located? What proportion of their collaborative time do we expect them to spend in each of the four modes identified above (same time, same place etc.).
- How much interoperability do we require with existing computer systems, both internally and with our suppliers and customers?
- How disparate are the needs of the individuals involved? How much free choice do we want to give them?
- Are there constraints that the lower levels of the technology pyramid (e.g. network infrastructure) place on the choice of solution?
An ideal way forward is for some collaborative decision making between users and providers (the IT department, vendors).
Even after appropriate solutions are choosen, their effectiveness depends heavily on how well they are implemented. This requires good involvement of users and teams in the selection process and in configuring the most appropriate features to use for a given purpose. Users also need to be proficient in how they use the technology (which may in turn depend on how user-friendly and intuitive the human-computer interface is and/or on the level of training given). And with technologies ever evolving, the best way to keep on top is co-evolution (between knowledge workers) of working methods and adapting the technology to suit their collective needs.
Last updated: 19th March 2011