Collaboration Flattens Traditional Communication Models

Ann All

It's a given that organizations want better collaboration, right? A passel of vendors, including Adobe, Microsoft, IBM and Oracle, sure seem to think so. They are rolling out lots of new collaboration tools, many of which leverage the cloud. Getting collaboration right could offer a way for Google to break out of the search box and win the hearts of enterprises, say some observers.


But just what is collaboration, anyway? Is it an improved version of simple communication? Do folks just want it because it seems like a fresher and cooler variation of something they may already have? As with so many buzzwords, people talk so much about collaboration that it's become an abstract ideal rather than a specific goal with an underlying plan to achieve it.


Andy Blumenthal, CTO of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (when the heck did explosives get added to that list?), in a Government Technology column, ponders the difference between collaboration and communication.


After posing the question at a recent meeting, he got several answers, none of which seemed to get to the heart of the matter. Yes, collaboration is two-way rather than one-way, as a colleague suggested, but communication often is as well. Wikis made it easier to collaborate than e-mail by centralizing information and making it editable, but both wikis and e-mail involve communication (and sometimes collaboration).


The true difference between two is that collaboration involves working across functional and organizational boundaries, Blumenthal says. Organizations are breaking out of their internal communications silos and iincreasingly also reaching out to partners, suppliers and customers. He writes:

In the process of moving from vertical to horizontal information sharing and collaboration, we are flattening our organizations. The hierarchies are less important and are shrinking, and the intra- and inter-agency sharing and collaboration are being elevated and growing. Before, we had information or "dots" that we communicated about in our verticals, but now we are connecting the dots, by sharing and collaborating on the information horizontally, across the verticals.

The tools an organization selects for collaboration likely won't matter as much as their ability to move from the traditional vertical to the newer horizontal view of sharing information. Plenty of organizations are struggling with this idea.

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