The fallacy of collaboration technology

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

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The Internet and the communications technologies that ride on it have closed much of the time gap -- it takes seconds, not months, for a message to be transmitted. Though we can collaborate faster, it's still very much an asynchronous activity, and that's a good thing. In business, it lets you pause, research, and otherwise think before you speak or act. I believe that's why we've taken so quickly to email -- an asynchronous mechanism that lets you store, organize, and search your communications history -- and more recently to the various forms of instant messaging.

When we need to get together live but aren't in close-by locations, the next best thing should be a videoconference. But it isn't. Instead, it's the phone, a device we've used for nearly a century. A group call can be awkward, as there's no way to signal who wants to speak or prevent simultaneous conversations, but we've learned to manage. Phone conferences work even when you don't know all the participants; you may lack some body language, but you still get voice cues.

A videoconference is just as awkward as a phone conference, and in some ways moreso. Unless you have high-priced room-sized screens and the dedicated networks that go with them, you're dealing with small images of the people in the conference, which greatly degrades the body language signals. Plus, it's hard to know where to focus your attention. What you get is an overhead-heavy version of a phone conference, which is why I believe few people do group videoconferences despite all the tools available.

Maybe Google+ Hangouts and the like will change that, but I suspect not in business. Sure, video calls via Skype, FaceTime, and AIM are popular for personal communications, just as Facebook and Pinterest are for personal socializing. But the point is the personal connection, not so-called collaboration.

Unified communications: Too much work
Wouldn't it be great if all your communications came through just one channel, so you could see your voicemails in your email and your instant messages in your email? Apparently not, as this promise has been pitched for a decade with little uptake. Originally premised on VoIP, in a phone-centric approach, unified communications has tried to morph into a messaging-centric model. That makes sense, as people clearly talk less and message more.

Yet you see little actual unification, despite the dozens of clients for PCs, Macs, iPads, and smartphones available. My theory: Maybe unification is too hard for the brain. As we've moved to larger and larger screens, it's become more valuable to have multiple communications streams in parallel, each in its own window. You can switch attention as needed.

But switching attention necessarily means losing the context of the other streams, and if someone is speaking or showing a video or slideshow, you need to stay focused to get the whole context. These systems don't work like TiVo, where you can pause the stream, go elsewhere, and resume where you left off or even jump back 30 seconds to recall the preceding context. When you start using an iPad or a smartphone, the smaller screen makes such switching even more difficult -- there's room for only one visual or interaction "channel" at a time. You end up at most with two simultaneous modes: what you hear via the audio and what you see on the screen (video, website, presentation, or app).

It's true that many of us have become skilled at half-listening to a phone call while checking our email, skimming PowerPoints, or using the Web -- I know I have. With the iPad and smartphones, we can now do so in live meetings -- and we do. But that's not collaboration or unified communications. That's monitoring one stream intermittently while focusing on another (politely and surreptitiously, of course).

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