The fallacy of collaboration technology

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

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Real collaboration means paying attention, and the more streams in play, the harder it is. That's the fallacy of unified communications in the context of collaboration. It makes more sense as a repository for multiple forms of related information -- but email does that decently enough with attached presentations and links. An Internet-connected computer or tablet does that at an even higher level, so the need for a dedicated unifier tool is questionable.

Shared editing: A free-for-all
The final form of collaboration technology is group editing, where everyone can work on the same document live. The metaphor is of whiteboarding in a brainstorming session, where people sketch out their thoughts on a surface everyone can see, and argue verbally and on the whiteboard over their points of view.

That's great for brainstorming, but not much else. If you've used a tool like Google Docs for group editing, you know how implausible it is to work that way. Not only do you have competing changes, but you lose all sense of organization as everyone goes off in a separate, uncoordinated, and essentially stovepiped directions. That's not how you get things done. Yet Microsoft, Google, and others have been trying to sell that vision for years.

In the traditional model, you assign someone to create the draft. That person gathers input before creating the draft, circulates the draft for comments and thoughts, assesses all that feedback, and delivers a final draft. The same person needs to formulate a view of the whole document, assess the feedback and other context, and drive the final document to a cohesive whole that meets the original goal. That's something a single human brain does. There's collaboration, but it's managed and filtered. That's why revisions tracking and commenting tools are so widely used, but not ones connected to live shared edits.

I suspect the push for group editing technologies comes from a chip-on-shoulder desire to be heard (in that alienated manner common to many techies), so it's a way of imposing naive equality on a process that requires an expert. People have different skills and levels of ability, and pretending otherwise is bad for business. There are very few human group activities where it's a free-for-all, which is what the shared-editing approach really is.

Collaboration is better than ever
Where does this leave collaboration? In a better place. Because it's so much easier to communicate to individuals and groups through so many means -- blogs, email, video and photo sharing sites, instant messaging, social networks, phone calls, and so on -- there's much more opportunity to collaborate. But most of these are asynchronous forms of collaboration that let each party think (if desired) about their contributions, and it allows the people ultimately responsible for the results to take and deliver on that responsibility.

The problem with the much-hyped collaboration technologies is that they destroy the benefit of asynchronicity or overburden the participants with so much mental and technology overhead that more is lost than gained. Yes, there are justifiable uses for videoconferencing, unified communications, and shared editing -- but they are the exceptions, not the rule, as you can see in the workplace.

This article, "The fallacy of collaboration technology," was originally published at Read more of Galen Gruman's Smart User blog at For the latest business technology news, follow on Twitter.

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