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Approaches to online collaboration Kate Carruthers Sydney - Sep 2007 This work is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 2.5 Australia License. To view a copy of this license, visit http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-sa/2.5/au/
It is important, as a technologist, to keep this discussion real - and to that end this Dilbert cartoon is provided. Sometimes I suspect that Scott Adams has a hidden camera in our office. Often technologists get so caught up in our love of the gear that we forget that, at work, it ought to serve a business purpose of some kind.
Today this talk will cover some perspectives on Web 2.0 and online collaboration in the workplace. From my perspective once Gartner identifies a technology as important to business in their hype cycle (as they did for Web 2.0 in 2007) that means people like me have already moved on. But what it means in business is that CEOs and CIOs are just starting to hear about that technology and trying to work out what it can do for them.
Thus 2007-2008 is likely to be the year of Enterprise 2.0, and it means that the large software providers will be moving heavily into the Web 2.0 space to drive their solutions. This has some important philosophical and practical implications for practitioners.
“ Web 2.0 is primarily interesting from a philosophical standpoint. It's about relinquishing control , it's about openness , it's about trust and authenticity. APIs, Tags, Ajax, mashups, and all that are symptoms, outputs, results of this philosophical bent.” (Peter Merholz, http://www.peterme.com/archives/000560.html)
The internet changed everything in as fundamental a way as did the introduction of radio. Suddenly new ways of communicating and creating were made accessible to ordinary people who cared to learn HTML, and Web 2.0 is a continuation of the trend that started with the open source community. It is based on collegial sharing of ideas between practitioners and harnesses the energy of the mass to drive innovation in technology. What is really interesting about this area is that most participants who are driving this technology forward are doing it out of interest and not for an obvious extrinsic reward. The technology that enables Web 2.0 (and which will enable Web x.0 in future) has bubbled up from a community of practitioners rather than being driven downwards by large corporations. Of course, nowadays large corporations are seeking to harness this energy and the tools resulting for their own purposes under the banner of Enterprise 2.0.
One thing that you might notice about this diagram is that many of the memes are antithetical to the way that businesses operate their technology. So a challenge for Enterprise 2.0 is how to harness the energy inherent in Web 2.0 without killing the innovation that drives it.
Phillip Keller, Tag history and Gartner's hype cycles
The hype cycle for technology is an important element to keep in mind for both Enterprise 2.0 and online collaboration. Keller’s amusing take on history of tagging, inspired by the well known Gartner ‘hype cycle’, gives a good perspective on the mutable nature of platforms.
Change is so rapid that the generations of web software have almost the same life span as a midge fly (which lives for 5-7 days according to various internet sources). This shows how useless it is to predicate corporate collaboration initiatives on (a) a specific technology direction, and (b) highly expensive, configurable and labour intensive large platforms.
The bottom line is that collaboration technology will always move faster than an IT department can keep up with. So corporate in-house solutions may not be the best answer.
Source: Dion Hinchcliffe, A checkpoint on Web 2.0 in the enterprise, Part 2
“ A powerful global conversation has begun. Through the Internet, people are discovering and inventing new ways to share relevant knowledge with blinding speed. As a direct result, markets are getting smarter—and getting smarter faster than most companies.” (Cluetrain Manifesto)
This trend means that the expectations in the workplace are changing. In the past companies could set the agenda in the workplace and workers followed. But now with the rise of knowledge work, a company’s most valuable resources walk out the door every night. It also means that the competitive environment for business is moving faster and changing more rapidly than in the past. Further, customers are moving fast too – their expectations of service and functionality are increasing.
These changes in the business and technical landscape are forcing companies to change the way their people work so as to deliver innovation (always faster-better-cheaper) and with less people involved. This drive means that companies need to find better ways for their people to collaborate. To enable better collaboration Web 2.0 offers a number important technology based resources. However, the implementation of those technology resources still requires some good old fashioned change management. The key steps remain to:
establish and communicate a cohesive vision that aligns with organisational objectives;
ensure that employees do not fall victim to change fatigue;
overcome behavioural barriers to online collaboration; and
encourage participants to engage throughout the implementation process.
The next area to consider is the people involved in the collaboration process – again, the people are changing in their use of technology and their expectations of what means of communication should be or are available to them.
It seems that today we have a generation gap, not in the music we listen to or the clothes we wear, but in the way we choose to interact and communicate with each other.
Connected people (mostly gen x or y) have embraced Web 2.0 applications online as part of our daily lives. While others (often boomers) have chosen not to interact with these tools. The idea of being always connected seems to horrify many people. Thus one of the problems we need to resolve is how to encompass people operating in each of these modes in online collaboration.
Another problem to be addressed is that most companies and their corporate IT departments do not readily embrace the openness and level of un-control inherent in this multiplicity of communication and collaboration technologies available.
Again, here the speed of technology change can be seen in the example of the telephone.
During my grandmother’s life (she was born in 1912) the model of phone on the left was state of the art until her passing in 1990. In the past decade phone models have changed so fast I get a new one every year.
The speed of technology change should just be expected now. Instead what we need to consider is how to help humans harness the technology for use by means of process and culture.
Different Needs Source: Mark McCrindle, http://www.mccrindle.com.au/wp_pdf/BridgingTheGap_Employers.pdf
“ Change also leads to a need – indeed a powerful search – for greater personal connectedness and meaning in our work.” (Champy et al, Fast Forward: The Best Ideas on Business Change , p. 264 )
There are many management theorists studying organisational change and our workplaces have undergone substantial changes over the past decade, with many more to come. The research indicates that we are not very good at doing change. Kotter (2002, p. 1) has argued that to effect change we need to stop making rational appeals to shift people’s thinking, rather we should show them truths that influence their feelings.
This aligns to the power we are seeing in Web 2.0, it has grown up around communities of people who become passionate about the application or community and seek to drive it in new directions. This sense of meaning and connectedness is the power we can leverage in building online collaboration.
However, it is difficult to manufacture meaning and connectedness out of nothing. It must arise from being part of something larger than the individual, and this is where clear articulation and sharing of the organisational goals and direction becomes important.
To foster collaboration we need to build a community, a place where people can congregate and share ideas and knowledge. I like to use the metaphor of the agora, or marketplace. In ancient Greek society this was called the ‘agora’ and it was where the citizens gathered to decide important issues – merchants offered goods for sale and it was also the focus of intellectual and political life. The Agora was the physical place where every citizen (bearing in mind that the term ‘citizen’ in that world only included males) gathered to conduct their business, participate in their city's governance, decide judicial matters, express their opinion for all who cared to listen, and elect their city officials. We need to create equivalent places at work for our people to share ideas, learn to know each other better, discuss issues and resolve problems.
Online collaboration tools can provide a platform to enable the development of an ‘agora’. However, corporate culture and the agreed rules of engagement must support collaboration for it to work.
In the area of software development it is very hard to build applications in the old waterfall style, instead we are moving increasingly towards agile development methods. This move requires consistent and open communication between team members to achieve goals. In a world where teams may be situated in disparate regions effective online collaboration becomes critical.
The key challenge for organisations is to deal with ambiguity and unclear meaning and to enable participants to achieve organisational goals. One of the means by which this can be dealt with is through online collaboration. Since online collaboration can help to create an organisational ‘schwerpunkt’ (or focus of effort) , where energy is focused appropriately to deliver the goals.
I know from experience that it is very challenging to manage multi-location development teams. Many delays and misunderstandings are created by a dearth of collaboration tools, sometimes timezone differences mean it can take days to understand an issue, decide on a response and communicate with predicants what needs to be done and thus resolve the matter. Tools like email and telephones are insufficient to the task. This is where tools like Basecamp (and others like it), forums, wikis, etc come into their own. The ability to see who’s doing what and where it is up to (even if they are in a different timezone) reduces delays significantly.
RESPECT: We treat others as we would like to be treated ourselves. We do not tolerate abusive or disrespectful treatment. Ruthlessness, callousness, and arrogance don't belong here.
INTEGRITY: We work with customers and prospects openly, honestly and sincerely. When we say we will do something, we will do it; when we say we cannot or will not do something, we won't do it.
COMMUNICATION: We have an obligation to communicate. Here, we take the time to talk with one another...and to listen. We believe that information is meant to move and that information moves people.
EXCELLENCE: We are satisfied with nothing less than the very best in everything we do. We will continue to raise the bar for everyone. The great fun here will be for all of us to discover just how good we can really be.
Corporate values in action are the key to creating effective collaboration in both the on and offline worlds. It is not about the values that are on the posters on the walls, but the real values that are displayed by the behaviour of people in the space*.
If managers talk about open collaboration but then punish those who openly collaborate then collaboration will either die or turn into lip service.
Enron had some pretty nice sounding values but, as history shows, they meant little in practice. One of the key business practices to support effective online collaboration is to define rules of engagement for the participants so that they know what is expected and what is acceptable behaviour. Openly reward appropriate participation and quietly correct inappropriate participation.
* A good discussion of this can be found in Chris Argyris “Overcoming organizational defenses”, Journal for Quality and Participation , 15(2), 26-28.