Collaboration Without Structure is Just Chaos

Ann All

Some parents are all about structure: bath, snack, jammies, tooth-brushing, kiss and lights-out for bedtime, in that order and at the same time every night, ending with the kid cuddling his special blankie. While I always envied those kinds of predictable schedules, we've never been able to do that at our house.


Sometimes such routines do backfire. You run out of snacks and your kid implodes. You're traveling and miss the usual bedtime time and your kid implodes. The blanket gets lost, and your kid implodes. You get the picture.


But there's an opposite side to that coin. The fluid bedtime at my house results in my kid needling me nearly every night about staying up "just 20 more minutes." I rarely give in, but he often ends up with an extra five to 10 minutes because that's how long he tries to convince me.


Some technology users are like kids. They cling to a technology and its accompanying routine because it's the way they are used to getting things done. The idea of making a tweak to their processes -- even ones that will improve things -- is scary. So they resist change.


Then there are users who thrive on change, but resist structure. That's mostly a good thing, but not always. Like my kid, these kinds of users sometimes find it hard to adhere to structure, even when it's needed to get the job done.


Phil Wainewright alludes to the two kinds of users in an eBizQ post about disruptive business structures. He mentions a company called FinancialForce.com that creates accounting applications built on Salesforce.com's Force.com development platform. It also recently created an app called Chatterbox that incorporates Salesforce's Chatter collaboration application and can be used to build rules to initiate Chatter streams around any Salesforce app. FinancialForce.com's 55 employees, who are spread across two continents, use it to stay "in constant contact with each other," writes Wainewright. He says:

See how agile and efficient it can be using today's Internet-enabled collaboration technologies.

Some users wouldn't want to adopt these kinds of technologies, says Wainewright. He writes:

My initial reaction to the notion of putting Chatter technology into the accounts office was that you can't just graft this kind of interactive, collaborative infrastructure onto an organization in which Clive and Doris in accounts just want to get the books closed and frankly would rather be skinned alive than have to try and exist on the same wavelength as Dave and his circus in sales. To reap the benefit of real-time collaborative technology, an organization needs to have a culture that's comfortable with open, quickfire dialog.

While adoption wasn't a problem for FinancialForce.com, maybe a lack of structure was. Wainewright says the company had to impose rules discouraging employees from putting content such as videos and images directly into their Chatter streams. (It's not clear why these rules were needed. Was this content gobbling bandwidth? Was it inappropriate and/or distracting?)


FinancialForce.com isn't the only company using this kind of an always-on collaborative approach. Writing for Forbes, Dan Woods describes a friend's startup where formal meetings were abandoned in favor of a "never-ending management stream-of-consciousness based on e-mail, instant messaging and internal social media." Woods has a few misgivings about this approach. And while few people hate meetings as much as I do, I share his misgivings. Unstructured collaboration works best in settings where goals are clear, employees are motivated and there aren't many complications.


As companies grow, however, what Woods calls stream-of-consciousness management may not cut it, at least without adding more structure. It becomes more important to document ideas and to create standard procedures for accomplishing tasks. Woods suggests six steps:

  • Monitoring streams of activity for analysis and review.
  • Defining processes to help people better perform their jobs.
  • Establishing a mechanism to clarify plans and intentions and identify any conflicts or contradictions.
  • Creating a conflict-resolution process to deal with such problems.
  • Monitoring progress and issuing regular reports.
  • Offering opportunities for fellowship to periodically bring folks together (It sounds like he means in person, though it's not entirely clear).


I've run up against this open-ended collaboration question myself. I like IM because it lets me shoot an idea at someone as it occurs to me. I didn't realize it was a problem for my immediate supervisor until it came up at a performance review. She complimented me for coming up with lots of ideas, but let me know I was putting an undue burden on her to document all of them and follow up with me later. So now I am trying to save the ideas that can wait -- most of them -- for our regular biweekly meetings.


Three folks left comments following Woods' column.Two blasted formal meetings. The third commenter offered a prediction that I think seems likely to occur:

I think we'll end up with more focused meetings, held in a few different formats (in person, online, etc) and lots of people at companies who are very knowledgeable about CRM and project management systems.

Collaboration without structure can get chaotic. If it's really going to add value, it'll have to be reined in a bit with appropriate processes. The trick lies in adding just enough structure to bring ideas to fruition without stifling them.

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Add Comment      Leave a comment on this blog post
Apr 20, 2010 5:32 PM Jeremy Roche Jeremy Roche  says:

Hi Ann - I'm FinancialForce's CEO and was the one talking to Phil Wainewright, so I thought I'd clarify our guidelines on usage of Chatter.

We use salesforce Content to store, index and manage our content (essentially like an intranet document store). So rather than embedding objects like documents, presentations or videos into Chatter streams we encourage people to post to Content and link in Chatter.

It's that same as with Twitter, for example - you don't embed a document in a twitter post - you store it and link to it. Then other people link to it so the content gets used and consumed in multiple ways. If you stuck your document in a twitter post (if that were possible), only your followers would see it.

So we're not discouraging our staff from sharing documents and videos etc - quite the opposite. It's all about defining the right techniques for effective group collaboration.

Hope that helps! Happy to discuss further...


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