Collaboration is becoming an overused term, despite the fact that few people seem to agree on exactly what it is. It's a little like the Supreme Court's long-running -- and thus far unsuccessful -- effort to define obscenity.
Andy Blumenthal, CTO of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, last summer tried to define the difference between collaboration and communication, concluding that collaboration differs from communication by taking folks out of their usual functional and organizational boundaries. He wrote:
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.
Vendors trying to sell organizations tools designed to facilitate collaboration are among the biggest proponents of collaboration. I'm not sure I can take another vendor telling me about the next "Facebook (or Twitter) for the enterprise." Truth is, you can collaborate using traditional business communicatons tools like e-mail. IT Business Edge VP Ken-Hardin made that point in a post from 2008 in which he noted that the simple software-as-a-service collaboration platform used by our editorial team hadn't exactly wowed him. He wrote:
... The ability to post team updates and brainstorm on content ideas in an open, collaborative and (mostly) searchable environment is well worth our monthly subscription. [But] what this tool has not done is revolutionize our business processes. We had e-mail, a personnel directory and a networked file server for documentation before it came along. Believe it or not, most office suites had versioning and sharing built right in before wikis introduced the notion to the blogosphere.
You can collaborate with them, but do most of us want to? Not really, as it's an overly arduous and often frustrating experience. Ken also mentioned he'd asked me about some interviews I'd done with folks about their organizations' use of social software. Though I don't remember the specific conversation, I apparently told him most of my interviewees used collaboration tools to improve communication, not totally revolutionize it. Again, from Ken's post:
By "improve communication," I mean just overcoming tactical obstacles, like making it easy to search team messaging and documentation. Again, office suites have been offering perfectly useful -- but decidedly unsexy -- ways to accomplish this since the last millennium.
That was a fair assessment then, and I think it's still a fair assessment today. That doesn't mean, however, that social software doesn't help organizations achieve some truly significant improvements. Like e-mail, smartphones and other communications tools before them, it's hard for us to imagine at this stage just how important they might ultimately become to many of us.
You can get a taste of it by reading a blog post written by Sebastian Schaefer, a consultant for Capgemini in Munich, Germany, who discusses Capgemini's use of the Yammer microblogging platform. (Yammer is one of 15 free enterprise collaboraton tools included in a CIO.com slideshow.) Schaefer touches upon three big benefits of social tools like Yammer, ones that separate these newer tools from more traditional ones like e-mail:
Open communication makes it easier to share content, gives recipients more control of the content they want to consume and relieves content owners of the task of deciding who should receive it. Notes Schaefer:
Hence, content is filtered on the way out, not in. The benefits are more awareness on current issues and the support of topic oriented networking across inner-organizational boundaries (i.e. silos). Eventually all employees ("our most valued capital") get the ability to contribute which also opens new spaces for synergistic effects, e.g. important contributions may arise from where nobody had ever expected it.
Open communication leads to emergence, or new ways of organizing content. Examples offered by Schaefer include tag clouds, information streams based on hash-tags, convergence of stable content on wiki pages, context-embedded information and the dynamic formation of emergent teams around certain topics.
Open communication also leads to serendipity, or discovering something of value not included in the original scope of a search. This is an already accepted phenomenon in most workplaces, says Schaefer, usually taking place via personal "water cooler conversations." Social software, however, "scales the water cooler spot to a company wide meeting place," in a way that increases the odds of engaging with the right person at the right time.
I know what some of you financial types are thinking: How do I quantify these benefits? I discussed the difficulty of quantifying the benefits of social software -- and shared some examples from companies that have attempted to do so -- in a post I wrote earlier this year.