I've been writing about technology for nearly 20 years, including editing industry magazines Connect and Communications International. In 2002 I co-founded Futurity Media with Anthony Plewes. My focus in Futurity Media is in emerging technologies, social media and future gazing. As a graduate of philosophy & science, I have studied futurology & foresight to the post-grad level.
Today more than ever, we are taught that collaboration and virtual teams are the solution to many of our problems. Web 2.0 tools have been presented as a panacea that can increase organisational efficiency and make the flow of work throughout an organisation more fluid. But, is this always the case? Morten Hansen, a professor at the UC Berkeley School of Information, suggests that we should we should not swallow the concept of online collaboration whole without questioning its benefits. Only then, when we focus on the results, we will really be able to use the tools correctly.
Prof Hansen is the author of the book, Collaboration: How Leaders Avoid the Traps, Create Unity, and Reap Big Results. He argues that there are some kinds of collaboration which are good, and some that are not. One of the biggest traps faced by organisations embarking on a collaborative initiative is preoccupation with the process of collaboration, rather than with the end result. Organisations may spend too much time focusing on how to use the collaboration tools, rather than on what they want to achieve with them.
In collaboration, as with any process, it is important to keep your eye on the prize, and not be distracted. The more technology and workflow that there is to distract a company, the more likely it is to get sidetracked in discussions of workflow, folder structures, and whether to use the file upload system, the whiteboard, the group emailing system, or the in-browser instant messaging function.
To avoid this trap, Prof Hansen advises organisations to engage in 'disciplined collaboration', in which organisations concentrate purely on the results of the project, and minimise the idea of collaboration for collaboration's sake.
don't underestimate the human factor
There are other potential pitfalls to the collaborative process that organisations should be aware of. For example, the human factor should never be underestimated. Treating all members of a collaborative team in the same way is a sure recipe for disaster. Young, enthusiastic team members who are eager to learn and to prove themselves may buy into the idea of virtual teams from the start. Old dogs, on the other hand, may not wish to learn new tricks. Instead, they may wish to protect established positions within an organisation. They may be reluctant to share a base of knowledge that they have built up over the years. Persuading them to be involved in the collaborative venture may or may not be appropriate, depending on the end goals of the project and their relevance to it.
Such problems can at least partly be overcome by creating collaboration incentives, such as bonuses for team members that contribute actively to the project. However, that implies imposing some form of metric to quantify a person's contribution. A healthy balance should be found between measuring the success of a project, and giving members enough fluidity to get on with the job.
It is also important for those managing collaboration processes to ensure that all team members have the same understanding of the goals involved. When dealing with teams across multiple time zones, language barriers, and cultural divides, a manager should not underestimate the potential for miscommunication and misunderstanding of what is required. Outlining these requirements in written form, with detailed conversations at the start of a project, will help to mitigate any difficulties before they emerge.
Collaboration may not be the cure for all ills, but it can be a significant tool in enhancing enterprise productivity. But, as with any process, setting proper parameters and emphasising goals and results is an important part of the managerial process.