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How Communication Can Block Collaboration

August 26, 2015

How Communication Can Block Collaboration

Collaboration requires communication. In fact, conversation is the heart and soul of collaboration. According to a study by uSamp Research, 97% of us say that communication impacts our daily work. Email, with 1.3 billion users, is still the workhorse. Messaging apps, both real-time and stored, are growing in popularity.

But it's getting harder to stay on top of it all. Message threads are getting longer. How can we tell which thread is most current? Are you even on the most current thread? How many emails are coming into your inbox every day anyway?

The point is – there's a lot of talking going on. Some of it is valuable. Some of it isn't. And deciphering it all has become increasingly difficult. We spend 28% of our work week doing email, which accounts for part of the 17.5 hours a week we lose due to inefficient coordination and sifting through unwanted communications.

As this Tower of Babel of workplace communications grows taller, it complicates our efforts to communicate in a meaningful, actionable way. It's part of what I call the “Collaboration Paradox.” The Collaboration Paradox holds that as our collaboration tools and efforts increase, so does the challenge of coordinating the fruits of collaboration to achieve desired results.

In applying the Collaboration Paradox to messaging, we find two key obstacles:

  • The yawning abyss between our messaging tools and content tools. When we can't connect our conversations to the underlying content, our ideas and decisions easily fall into this abyss where they're hard to find and act upon.

  • The advances in messaging technology, and our skills in using them, lag behind our intentions to collaborate effectively.

The Abyss: Where Context Goes to Die

The Collaboration Paradox stems from the fact that all our collaboration tools are isolated from each other. Yet the most consequential abyss is the one that separates the two major types of collaboration tools: content and communication. When we combine content with its surrounding conversation, we have context. We need context to make decisions, which is the purpose of all our collaboration.

Our discussions hold the sparks of ideas, the flow of creativity that turns ideas into projects, the conclusions and decisions required to execute those projects. Unfortunately, most of our contemporary communication tools don't address this fundamental deficiency. If we can't connect our conversations to the content, we can't extract the context. And nothing moves forward. Or if it does, our actions are flawed.

Communication Tools: Productive or Distraction

We have a number of ways to communicate at work and in-person meetings are our least favorite. Instead, we use WebRTC (web real-time communications), integrated audio and video conferencing, as well as email and business-oriented chat apps. Such advances are positive as it means we can capture and store all these conversation threads. Our challenge is retrieving what's valuable in them and ignoring the junk.

Contemporary messaging applications are providing more sophisticated discovery functionality, including tagging and searching. These are first steps in improving the productivity potentially gained from using these tools. However, they don't close the conversation – content abyss.

In some instances, a tool may allow for attaching files even as it organizes around the conversations. The result is often a jumble of content and conversation from which it's difficult to extract context.

Even as messaging tools’ functionality increases, workers’ ability to use them effectively lags behind. For instance, how do we determine which types of communication belong in which channels? Chat apps are primarily used as the new water cooler. And although we know social bonding is essential to creating a high functioning team, using these apps socially can become a distraction. Which also begs the question, where do we record consensus on a final decision?

Knowing how to create a framework of protocols and tagging, training team members to use them consistently and properly – these are all part of the new skills we all need to learn to make these tools genuinely valuable.

Moving Context Forward

We know that nothing results in greater productivity gains faster than improving workplace communication. Creating easier ways to collaborate. Reducing hours wasted in writing, responding, or wading through unwanted communication. Clearly identifying important, current decisions.

Nevertheless, such productivity gains are undermined by the conversation – content abyss. We need to discover and clarify best practices for using collaboration tools that connect content and conversation to provide context. Then comes guiding our teams with the training and culture needed to exploit them to their fullest.