Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Four things killing collaboration in the enterprise

If you have a knowledge-based position -- research and development, engineering, etc. -- you'd probably agree that collaboration is more important to your job than ever. Your assignments and projects require knowledge and resources from your colleagues. You can't work in a vacuum.

Yet, we continue to face barriers to collaborating and communicating across countries, states, cities, and heck, from one cubicle to another. Why?

Knowledge management blogger Luis Suarez points to these three reasons in a recent article.
  • Recognizing individual performance vs. team/community performance
  • Lack of long term vision
  • Lack of education
They are valid responses, and I encourage you to swing over to his article to read them through. I won't recap them here.

But I'll add bullet #4. Collaboration has long been the Holy Grail of information technology. Yet IT vendors have not done a great job of delivering on the promise of collaborative tools. (By the way, I originally left this as a comment on the article, but I haven't seen it show up yet, so I thought I'd publish it as a blog post instead. My apologies if it shows up. Trust me, I'm not trying to duplicate content! ;-))

How many of us remember groupware in the '90s? It ended up costing organizations a ton of money, a ton of time, and never really delivered on the promise of empowering the collaborative workforce.

We have an opposite problem today. Thanks to the availability of a global network -- the Internet -- sharing information has become easier. A lot easier. But sharing isn't collaboration. It's just the first step on the road to real collaboration.

In the past few years, we've seen an explosion of tools that try to tackle the challenges of collaboration … everything from screen, app, and file sharing (think WebEx and such); app/data-sharing platforms like Google Apps, Google Docs, Zoho Office, etc.; huge "science experiments" like Google Wave (which few people find usable or comprehensible); and extremely narrow conversational tools like Yammer, that attempt a social spin on collaboration.

But again, the emphasis is on sharing of apps, data, and posts, as opposed to true collaboration that actually occurs in the real world. In the end, the application requirement remains unmet.

There doesn't seem to be a real clear-cut course or process or platform that really fosters collaboration. In the knowledge management space in particular, you could say the applications have historically been siloed, and under the auspices of the anointed KM experts who vet and control the flow of information. Not exactly collaborative.

I don't think the answer rests in any given application vertical, such as desktop apps or enterprise social networking or KM. Rather, I think we need new virtual collaborative environments within which businesses use these apps. Today the forefront of that type of thinking is occurring around telepresence, the 3-D Internet, and virtual business environments.

We're seeing real metrics that show teams going beyond sharing, to where they are accelerating collaborative decision-making, and making knowledge transfer as efficient as the real world. The end result is what Gartner defines as the "high-performance workplace."

Application requirement met, but not perfectly; at least, not yet. The challenge here remains connecting the sum total of organizational knowledge that's trapped in myriad legacy and contemporary platforms, from mainframes to SharePoint, and making it actionable in a unified way. We're certainly getting closer, but there remains work to be done, even for the most advanced systems.

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