The fallacy of collaboration technology

Videoconferencing, unified communications, and shared editing don't work the way people do

Sometimes, the future won't go away, even though it also doesn't actually transpire. Case in point: I've been a technology writer and editor for nearly 30 years and have yet to see the promised utopia of collaborative computing. This is the same future that envisioned flying cars and undersea cities, mind you. Just as those don't exist, neither does the virtual collaboration vision in which we're all videoconferencing from anywhere while working on the same documents and projects together in real time.

Many of the technologies needed to support that vision exist, so why isn't it a reality? In fact, we've seen the failure of a high-profile version of this future in the ignoble death of the Cisco Cius videoconferencing tablet. Additionally, despite the universality of cameras in laptops, their rare use in business for videconferencing shows it's not just exorbitant infrastructure costs that doomed the Avaya and Cisco tablets.

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Likewise, the adoption of unified communications technology -- pitched for better business collaboration -- has been negligible, despite more than a decade's worth of promotion by Microsoft, Cisco, Hewlett-Packard, IBM, and many others. At the same time, personal communications has exploded through instant messaging, email, social networks, and other new techniques.

There are several reasons relating to the fallacy in understanding what collaboration is and should be. As often happens in technology, the futurists start with the technology and impose it on people's behavior, without looking to see where the technology can leverage innate behavior.

I've described how social networking in business suffers from a similar fallacy. People love to talk and chat and gossip, and social networking lets that happen at a scale never before possible. But that doesn't mean such behavior makes sense at work. The dynamic is similar for collaboration, as 30 years of knowledge management and its failed progeny have amply demonstrated.

Still, collaboration is good, and I believe we have more of it than ever -- but not in the way the major vendors are pushing.

There are three components to the vision of business collaboration. Let's take each one in turn.

Videoconferencing: An awkward, pricey phone call
The sexy aspect of collaboration, if you're a nerd, is videoconferencing. Technologists have long loved the notion of immersive video experiences, where people can get together without getting together -- a weirdly alienated camaraderie. Of course, the business pitch was to save on travel costs and, after 9/11, the uncertainties of air travel. I'm confident it can be useful, but not that often and not for most of us.

Think about it: Throughout human history, collaboration was either hyperlocal (that is, in person) or hugely distant (in both time and space). People would conduct business via letters that took months or years to deliver -- even just two centuries ago. Or they would send agents who would act independently but establish a local presence. In other words, for thousands of years, we didn't need groupthink for most actions and decisions, and instead worked together asynchronously.

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