Collaboration Lessons From Covid-19

Originally posted to eWeek, 15 April 2020

I participated in a valuable eWeek-run Crowdchat on collaboration and Covid-19. Lots of great commentary. Here, though, I want to expand on a couple of my comments.

Collaboration is a central feature of the human experience. We are social animals that work together to accomplish remarkable things.

Shelter-in-place edicts have disrupted work habits, dramatically. People and enterprises are experimenting with, or expanding the use of, a variety of work-from-home (WFH) tools. One prominent tool is Zoom, which has become so central to our social-distancing psyches that a Zoom security flaw has become second-page news.

Will this spawn further dramatic changes in work habits? Well, to listen to many technoscenti, including a number of folks on the Crowdchat, collaboration tools are going to usher in a brilliant age of productively working from anywhere at any time so long as you have a cloud connection.

Maybe, but as you think about the roles that collaboration tools will play in your enterprise, please think of three things.

Though Point #1: What Did We Do Before Zoom?

First, let’s not forget that a number of humankind’s greatest accomplishments actually occurred prior to the emergence of digital tooling, mass transportation, the telephone, etc. Thermodynamics, working legal systems, and baseball somehow popped out of the heads of people, perhaps working individually at first, but ultimately in communication over archaic mechanisms like mail or professional journals. While today’s enterprises are moving faster, more frequently perturbed by external events (like customer needs), and distributed at scale, the truth is that human ingenuity transcends digital tooling. Zoom is still a nice to have, not a need to have, for most tasks.

Thought Point #2: Avoid the Classic IT Mistake

Second, to understand if and when a tool like Zoom – or any other collaboration tool – will be beneficial, you have to understand the nature of the collaborative work being conducted. This is critically important. The reason some of the best collaboration tools out there are for IT professionals is that the builders of those tools – IT professionals – deeply understood the nature of IT work when they built them; they built the tools for themselves!

As an industry, we’ve done a great job of modeling process-driven work. Even bad accounting or HR software application typically does a great job of supporting the collaborative flows of accounting or HR work. But buying a bunch of work-from-home infrastructure on the presumption that somehow dynamic, complex, and high-value work will naturally manifest on that infrastructure is, well, nuts.

As I said up top, collaboration is a social activity that takes place in social networks. The great Harrison White observed that social networks form out of social contexts: the things we do together. Context must be the basis for choosing collaboration tooling: Does a tool improve the things that people must do together. Is looking at a person on a screen an essential activity?

Maybe. But if it isn’t, don’t fool yourself into thinking Zoom or any other telepresence tools is going to add mountains of productivity to your business.

Equally importantly, social context must be the foundation for building better collaborative tools. I remember arguing with social networking analysts about whether or not Facebook was going to usurp all digital technology because it was so large a social network. My take (not surprisingly) was that such an argument failed to factor context. Facebook’s context is staying in touch with friends (and agitating them that don’t share your politics). Facebook generally has failed to introduce tooling to support other contexts. Hence, it’s stuck with an ad-supported business model that largely provides a service for wasting time with people you actually physically knew some time ago.

Thought Point #3: Digital Space Is the Place

Third, once you deeply understand the social context, you have to create digital spaces to perform the work of that context. This is the basis for design thinking and UX domains. Building great collaboration tools is not about trying to stuff more video into a cloud-based connection; although the advances Zoom, Cisco, Citrix and others have made here are truly impressive. It’s about creating digital spaces that are conducive to operating in that social context. If a whiteboard is both necessary and sufficient for the social context of a bit of collaboration, then an online whiteboard like Miro is fabulous. But if that’s only one element of what you need, then don’t shoehorn the creative, problem-solving energy of your teams into a digital whiteboard space. If you do, then as sure as the sun will rise, they’ll abandon your collaboration tools.

Here’s what I think will be the lasting impact of Covid-19 on collaboration: We’re going to learn a ton about how bad most of these tools are and how much better they can be. And then super-smart people will collaborate to build better tools.