The word collaboration is so overused and overhyped it’s becoming meaningless. People refer to all software with a social component (chat, messaging, document sharing, etc.) as collaboration software; and this causes confusion.
Even with the launch of new intranet software and other collaborative tools, some people still suffer from, and complain about, poor collaboration.
This forced us to ponder the true nature of collaboration and explore its many dimensions. Most importantly, we discovered that collaboration is a deeply human activity, and no tool on its own can solve the problem of poor collaboration.
This may seem obvious, but many people believe that “if you build it, they will come”, and if you just launch a tool like an intranet, the magic will happen. We know that organizational culture and managerial practices can either hinder or nurture collaboration, but it took a lot of failure and org dev theory to discover that fact.
A useful definition for collaboration
In response to bad collaboration we wanted to craft a definition that could inspire a more holistic, useful, and simpler perspective. We eventually landed upon this definition:
Two or more people working together towards shared goals.
That’s it — just nine words to define collaboration. It’s a very simple definition. But simplicity is necessary when collaboration has become overly-hyped, where social business vendors are trying to sell new ways of working to confused companies, and where business experts constantly stress the importance of building more collaborative and innovative organizations.
This simple definition includes three parts:
- Two or more people (team)
- Working together (processes)
- Towards shared goals (purpose)
This definition doesn’t mention technology or software, but it does provide a solid framework for understanding what collaboration is and isn’t. For starters, collaboration takes place in teams.
A big group of people using social software together doesn’t equate directly to collaboration. It may be conversation; it may be cooperation; it may be knowledge sharing; it may improve employee engagement; but it is not collaboration.
Next, collaboration is about people working together and completing shared processes. This is where technology fits in, but not all of these processes are technological.
Finally: purpose. This is where a lot of the misunderstanding around collaboration stems. If people are working together, but have no shared goals, they are cooperating, not collaborating. Cooperation is usually much more lightweight than collaboration and often has less focused goals.
Social intranet software is excellent for increasing cooperation and collaboration, but these two activities are not synonymous. Technology is just one piece of the collaboration puzzle and there is a limited scope of what collaboration actually is.
What’s the best method of collaboration?
Organizations deploy social software internally with the goal of improving collaboration. While a social intranet offers collaboration tools, it’s important to remember that there is no one perfect tool or method for all roles and activities.
Collaboration can be grouped into three broad categories: simple collaboration, document collaboration, and structured collaboration.
Simple Collaboration (instant messaging and microblogging)
Tools that allow for instant response times are great for tasks geared around coordination—like preparing a project for launch. However, they can be distracting, and can remove people from deep concentration. Commenting may work well for increasing dialogue, gathering feedback, or editing a document or project. However it will fail when attempting to build something new.
When members of a specific team use microblogging to share updates and information about their joint work, it becomes collaboration. Imagine a marketing team working towards a deadline and posting status updates about tasks completed or questions that arise. This is a specific group of people (the marketing team) working together (communicating about the project) towards shared goals (deadline for a project).
Document collaboration (Google Docs, Git)
Where simple collaboration is focused more on the conversations between people and teams, document collaboration is focused on a deliverable. Think of a sales team working together on a proposal, or a software team coming together to contribute to a source code repository.
Where simple collaboration tools are only useful when other parties are involved, document collaboration tools have value for the individual, yet are even more powerful when connected with a team.
Structured Collaboration (forms & idea sharing)
Where the first two types of collaboration do not have any required format, structured collaboration does. Either explicitly with a series of fields (e.g. a vacation request form), or implicitly via a specific topic (e.g. an Idea or Q&A forum).
Many intranets allow users to complete a form to request things like vacation, or a new computer. Typically, there is some kind of workflow process to review and approve these requests. Unfortunately, many of these systems (while meeting our definition of collaboration) aren’t always easy to use. When done correctly, intranets should make it easy to collaborate around fielded data, allowing for flexibility in the process and conversation around the best ways to achieve a task.
The other type of structured collaboration revolves around a topic, like idea management and Q&A forums. By limiting their context these areas become more focused and directed. Often times idea forums can act as the nucleus for future collaboration, such as when an employee identifies an opportunity for cost savings, which could then be spun out into a project for further collaboration.
As you will see, identifying the best way to collaborate can be confusing. There is no one tool to rule them all approach to collaboration. Collaboration is role and context dependent. Sam Marshall of Clearbox Consulting has done a further exploration of these ideas in his blog post titled Collaborating without documents in the digital workplace.
It’s important to remember that collaboration happens within small groups of people—think project teams, cross-functional management teams, or functional teams. While collaboration can happen with two or more people, there is an upper limit to how many people can collaborate at once. Attempts to collaborate across an entire organization will result in noise, distraction, and annoyed staff.
We often think of collaboration as this big thing that the whole organization has to improve, but collaboration is something that happens on a smaller scale, within teams with clear and often narrow focus.
Don’t believe the hype
Many people correlate collaboration with social software. They imagine purchasing a piece of digital workplace software and launching it to every employee in their organization and calling that collaboration.
Collaboration is a targeted, team-based activity. Social intranets and other social software can help to drastically improve collaboration, but you can’t lump all the possible features and activities into one term. And collaboration is about people’s interaction with each other as much as about the tools we use.
When someone says you’ve got to get better at collaboration, ask, “Who, exactly, needs to get better at collaboration?” and, “How do they need to get better at collaboration?” and, “On what work do they need to improve their collaboration?”
Intranet software can improve not just collaboration, but communication, cooperation, coordination, idea-sharing, knowledge sharing, and more.
Let’s work together to be clear about collaboration, what the business value of stronger collaboration is, and what the full array of changes are that can lead to better collaboration.
Editor’s Note: This post was originally published in 2012 by Ephraim Freed and has been updated for accuracy and comprehensiveness.
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March 15, 2018