The Futility of Collaboration without Context

The term ‘collaboration’ gets thrown about as something inherently valuable and worthwhile – an end in itself, rather than a means to an end.  In reality, collaboration in of itself is:

a). Unlikely to happen
b). Unlikely to create anything of value

So Many Collaboration Platforms, So Little Collaboration!

Collaboration platforms are everywhere!  Most IT shops have at least one collaboration platform (usually SharePoint) and often several others.  And some people do participate.  The question is, with what result?  The answer often is little that is really worthwhile, and even less that can truly be called “collaboration.”

I used to wonder if there was something in our human nature that inherently resisted collaboration.  Of course, the opposite is true – human beings are both inherently gregarious and naturally collaborative – it’s in our instinct for survival.  The reason I was seeing so little collaboration on collaboration platforms was not that people did not want to collaborate – it’s that they did not understand (or believe in, or want) the purpose for collaboration.

The Collaboration Context

Alan Kay is credited with one of my favorite quotes, “Context is worth 80 IQ points!” In the case of collaboration, context not just the extra IQ points – it’s the whole enchilada of collaboration!

Several years ago, while I was an Executive Vice President at the The Concours Group – a management consulting, research and executive education firm, we were acquired by a company that had developed a collaboration platform.  Our new management was very keen for us to “eat our own dog food” and encouraged everyone in the company to get on the platform and ‘collaborate.’

I found this to be an interesting and enlightening experiment.  Most of us did indeed get on the platform.  Thoughts were posted and commented upon.  Interest groups popped up.  We had a ‘social reputation’ system, and I was proud the day my avatar suddenly listed me as a “Docent”, though I could not find out what that actually meant in this context!  After an early spike, usage dropped.

After a while, someone introduced Yammer into the firm.  A new groundswell of so-called “collaboration” surfaced, but after a while, that too dropped.  I observed that in spite of putting time and energy into “collaboration”, in reality, people were engaging in conversations that, while they may have been interesting, never went anywhere.  Conclusions were never drawn, deliverables were never created, insights never extracted, lessons never learned and applied.

The problem was not the tool – it was a lack of context.  There was no clear purpose or intent to the collaboration.

So, What’s Your Collaborative Intent?

  • Are you trying to engage people in problem solving?  For example, stakeholders and/or subject matter experts might be invited to review and expand upon a cause-effect analysis.
  • Are you trying to create a deliverable, such as a project proposal?  People might work together on creating the proposal, perhaps each working on their own section, but reviewing and commenting on others sections such that the whole is coherently structured and internally consistent.  Or you might wish to get everyone’s input to the whole proposal, rather than have people focus on their section.
  • Do you want a community of practice or interest to capture and evolve a body of knowledge – best practices, templates, examples of how to do something, such as charter a project?
  • Are you creating an ‘operating manual’ for an organization, with processes, roles, competencies, rules of engagement, and so on?  Perhaps people will be encouraged to not only create and/or refine the knowledge content, but will also rate the content based upon usability, clarity or how well the organization handles a given situation.
  • Are you encouraging people to share across organizational silos – looking for points of leverage or redundancy?

Each of these ‘collaborative intents’ implies a specific goal or set of goals.  And each goal, in turn, might lend itself to a different type of collaboration mechanism.  While content or document management systems might be great for managing ‘documents of record’, they might not be so effective at encouraging multiple authorship.  In fact, document-centric tools tend to deepen and strengthen the traditional document mindset, where a document is something you email around to people to get their input.

It’s all a question of context – what are you hoping to gain through collaboration?  Is the goal clear?  Do those that must participate understand and believe in the goal?

Graphic courtesy of diagoal

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4 thoughts on “The Futility of Collaboration without Context

  1. I totally agree but I always wonder that no context-specific platforms are available on market. Most of the solutions I know are either technical oriented like Sharepoint or very generic as your mentioned other examples.

    I think the software industry needs to change direction. I would phrase this as “connect joy and value” to enable collaboration and furthermore to think about a community approach (which should be by default self-organized and free to join).

    This brings me to the following conclusion as requirmements for such tools:
    – Engage your employees by 1. provide applications that supports to fulfill their tasks and 2. motivate them to stay active by trigger them with relevant information
    – Maximize value from the start by 1. allow undirected growth like a wiki and 2. provide built-in knowledge.

    See here for a nice graphic:

  2. Pingback: Social Collaboration: Getting it Right - Chris Steele on Agile

  3. Pingback: Social Collaboration: Getting it Right - Project Management, Email Management, Agile Productivity Tools -

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