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The Collaboration Paradox

August 12, 2015

The Collaboration Paradox

There’s a lot of excitement and buzz about the productivity improvements that workplace collaboration offers. But it seems to me that true collaboration is a bit of a Holy Grail. It’s more than the right attitude and mindset. It’s also about the tools we use. And therein lies the gotcha. Because from where I sit, the mechanics of collaboration are broken, holding back the potential of genuine collaboration.

Think about it. Ever get frustrated trying to find that email with that one report attached that you need for your next meeting? Which email address did it come to? Which email folder did you put it in? When did you get it? Who sent it to you? What was their email address again? What was that report called? Do you remember the file name? What format was it? PDF? DOC? XLS?

Somewhere there’s a cloud storage system that has a version of the report on it. But hang on a minute. You don’t know if it’s the most recent version of that report. Maybe a couple team members talked about it and modified the report an hour ago. But that version isn't with your email, so you don’t have it. Now you go into your meeting, ignorant of the latest information, but making decisions anyway. Only to find out the decisions need to be revisited once you get the latest report. This is efficiency? This is effectiveness? Nope. That’s the collaboration paradox.

What is the Collaboration Paradox?

The Collaboration Paradox is the tension between our collaboration efforts and results produced. The more collaboration tools we use, and the more we encourage people to work in a collaborative manner, the more difficult it becomes to synthesize and act on all the output of collaboration.

Think of Big Data. We have the technology to create, collect, and store an astonishing amount of data. However, our capacity as humans, and the data analysis tools we use, to pull out actionable insights from Big Data can't keep up. We know insights are in there. But we struggle to get to them.

Well, we're now creating the same situation with collaboration. The growing volume of output of all this collaboration – the increase in content and the conversations that surround it – is making it more difficult to use the collaboration output in an efficient and meaningful way.

If our collaboration efforts don't lead to us into making better and faster decisions – what's the point?

How does collaboration output stymie the goals of collaboration?

Let's take a closer look at the spiral of the Collaboration Paradox.

  • Content silos: Teams have great collaboration tools. Cloud-based file sharing, project management, messaging apps, brainstorming tools, business process workflows. But they're all isolated from each other.

  • Content and conversation aren't connected: The isolation isn't just the bits of information, but all the conversations that give them meaning and context. Why was that report changed? When was that decision made? Who made it? How did I miss that discussion? The conversations are separated from each other and from the content that inspires them.

  • The challenge of context switching: Every time someone needs to move from one data source to another, jump into the middle of an on-going conversation, or find an available resource, she needs to re-orient herself from the context of the previous task to the new one. Since we don't really multi-task, all this context-switching takes a toll on productivity, efficiency, and increases the risk of miscommunication and misunderstanding.

So the greater the collaboration, the greater the volume of output we have to create, follow, and digest before we can act on it.

Resolving the Paradox

The solution to the Collaboration Paradox lies within the paradox itself. We need a better tool — a unifying force that centralizes all the collaborative output for a team or a project. Where teams can access relevant content and conduct their conversations in one place.

More importantly, the conversations sit with the content so all team members stay on the same page regarding how a project is moving forward. New team members are quickly brought up to speed. Decisions aren't made without the most up-to-date information available to everyone. The logistics and substance of the project are transparent to all, minimizing confusion and delay.

Of course, the unifying platform must resolve the paradox, not contribute to it. Another challenge of collaboration productivity is the complexity of so many of the centralization tools that already exist. Preparing quarterly reports or launching a new marketing campaign aren't as complex as a multi-million dollar construction project. Navigating the unifying platform shouldn't add to the overhead of collaboration.

When a team can bring together their various content sources along with their conversations, then it's finally paving a straighter path to the ultimate goal of collaboration: discovering insights to make better, faster business decisions.