David is an old friend, someone I have been arguing with for decades, so I thought he’d be a perfect fit here.

About David Coleman

David Coleman is the founder (1989) and Managing Director of Collaborative Strategies. He is a frequent public speaker, an industry analyst, and author of numerous magazine articles on electronic collaboration and knowledge management. He is also the author of four books on collaboration, the best known being Collaboration 2.0.

The Interview

Stowe Boyd: David, you’ve been following “collaboration’ tools since the early ’90s when I first met you at your Groupware conference. Aside from the emergence of the web, can you boil down the key characteristic of collaboration that has not changed in the past 20 years, and the one that has?

David Coleman: Stowe, actually I have been following groupware since 1989 and we met in 1991 at the first GroupWare conference in San Jose…little did I know! 

The key characteristic of collaboration is interaction, which I see as the atomic unit of collaboration. An interaction consists of person A sending a message to Person B, Person B receiving this message and sending a message back to Person A.  This is one loop, many of these communication loops over time helps to create collaboration. This is one thing that has not changed in the last 20 years.

People use many different words to mean collaboration (see figure 1), I still stick by the definition I did 20 years ago “2 or more people interacting repeatedly for a specific purpose or goal (via the computer, tablet or any device)1. The fact that this is such a general definition of collaboration has helped it to stand up to the many technology and infrastructure changes that have occurred over the last 20 years.

figure 1

As you can see, I differentiate these terms based on level of commitment and alignment with a specific purpose or goal.  The higher up you go the more commitment and purpose is needed.

The key benefits of collaboration are still the same (after 20 years): The benefits of collaboration are many and have not changed over the last 20 years.; 

Saving time or money (tangible)

Increasing quality (tangible…but less so)

Innovating and/or providing decision support (tangible but less than quality)

Collaboration benefits can be seen in everything from reduced travel costs to shorter cycle times and a better bottom line. Greater transparency, support for multimedia and user-generated content, extended enterprise access, along with policy and compliance features. Collaboration enables people to connect with content as well as each other through these social technologies.

The thing that has changed the most in collaboration is participation and engagement.  Until about 2005 with the rise of social networks, you were lucky if you had an online community that had 10% people engaged and producing content.  But with the explosion of user-created-content on the consumer side, I also saw a great rise (70-80%) in participation on the business side!

SB: In my dogma, I make a distinction between collaborative and cooperative sorts of work management architectures. For example, collaborative tools rely on inviting participants to closed contexts (“groups”, “projects”, “spaces”, etc.), while cooperative tools rely on open following. Likewise collaborative tools rely on push communication while cooperative tools use pull communication. I believe that we are transitioning from an era of collaboration to one of cooperation. What’s your response to that thesis?

DC: I believe I say essentially the same thing. I talk about collaborative infrastructure, which sounds like a heavy, weighty term because it is. This infrastructure has been around and growing larger since I started looking at groupware in 1989. The way I see it we have been following one paradigm for asynchronous collaboration and one for synchronous. Those paradigms can be typified by SharePoint and WebEx. 

Let me take the real-time issues first; I was around when WebEX had its first production web conferencing tool, and essentially, that paradigm has not changed. I wrote a blog a few years ago entitled “Why have our real time conferencing tools not changed since 1998?” Sure there are a few more bells and whistles, but essentially the tools are the same.  And there are a hundred other tools like WebEX out there that use the paradigm of a F-2-F meeting as the metaphor they are trying to emulate.  But what if a meeting is the wrong social paradigm? 

One of my favorite quotes from Einstein is ‘No problem can be solved from the same level of consciousness that created it’. The problem is that when you are in a hole it is hard to see over the edge of the hole, so many collaboration vendors just do more of the same. In a recent survey we did in the spring on end-users and what collaboration tools they use, about 50% said they use WebEx, GoToMeeting, or some other similar tool.  This shows that end-users can’t seem to get out of the meeting paradigm either. We also found that 30% of the time IT chose the collaborative tools for them, or 20% of the time they had to use the collaboration tools mandated by a larger partner.

Then we had a perfect storm hit: Gen Y, social tools, and BYOD or mobile.  These three factors have caused people, especially those that are new to the workforce, yet are digital natives (they grew up with Web technologies, and were literate with computers at an early age. We have seen the astonishing growth of social tools like FaceBook, LinkedIN, Twitter, Pinterest, Tumblr, etc.  Which all come from a very different paradigm, one that is cloud-based than client-server (desktop) based. Don’t get me wrong the cloud is still a client-server environment, the big difference is that that environment is open to anyone who wants to pay the subscription, and many are free.

The biggest difference here is one of behavior rather than technology (although Web and Cloud infrastructures have made this easier), I call this behavioral change “the collaborative shift.”  It is the willingness to be transparent, to participate in community, with anyone (until they prove themselves unworthy). This is a enormous shift from the mindset of Seniors or Baby Boomers (like us) to the Millennials.  I look at this shift and the willingness to share trust over the Web. Seniors were brought up with WW II and “loose lips sink ships.” So of course they were wary of these new technologies and the public nature of them. If they have a disagreement with someone they would rather handle it over the phone or e-mail in a private (minus the NSA eavesdropping) conversation.  Whereas Millennials, if they get into a disagreement, they throw it up to the group or community to chime in and help decide.

I think it is best to be at neither extreme but somewhere in the middle.  But I run into more and more organizations where older upper management does not understand “Social” and their role in it, especially transparency.

SB: Yeah, I’ve run into those managers myself. The thesis of sociology is that organizational culture and management should be grounded in modern scientific understanding of people’s motivations and the ways in which our social interactions shape our understanding of the world. Do you see that awareness growing in the world of business?

DC: I have always thought that the tools we use, which are extensions of ourselves whether they be spears or cloud apps. The tools we build are also extensions of the way we think and relate to our surroundings.

I also believe that someone can’t know what is in another person’s head. It is easier to see behavioral direction in crowds, and the goal the crowd has (either toppling a government, or funding a movie) than trying to do that with an individual. I think an awareness of behavioral interactions and relationships are starting to get more greatly recognized in business. In more and more processes we see people starting to be taken into account.  Since people are a business’s greatest resource, it is good to see this. However, most collaboration still starts with technology rather than people; I am hoping that will soon change.

SB: Thanks, David.

This post was written as part of the IBM for Midsize Business program, which provides midsize businesses with the tools, expertise and solutions they need to become engines of a smarter planet. I’ve been compensated to contribute to this program, but the opinions expressed in this post are my own and don’t necessarily represent IBM’s positions, strategies or opinions.

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