There’s a continuum of technologies that support the ability of teams to get work done efficiently and effectively. I call it the Collaboration Technology Continuum:
The first important inflection point along the Technology Collaboration Continuum occurs when we moved away from using only file-centric tools and started adding task, communication, and project management tools.
The increased sophistication and adoption of these new types of tools definitely added a new dimension to our ability to collaborate – discussion and visibility into what teammates were doing and why.
Early versions of these collaboration tools (and we're still in the early stages for many of them) unfortunately tend to separate our sharing and discussion of content and projects from the content (files) themselves.
Relying on files as our working metaphor locks us into dozens of silos separating our communication from the content. And such behavior is a hindrance in today’s post-file world. It leaves us forever doomed to chasing the meaning of the work as it progresses. And yet it’s the meaning where the value of collaboration hides — it’s the meaning that lets teams make better decisions, faster.
Thus the Collaboration Paradox gets wider as technology keeps evolving along this continuum, until tools reach the next inflection point: where capturing context – i.e. meaning – is ingrained in the technology.
Taking a closer look at each stage along the continuum, we can see where context and meaning get lost in the early stages, and how it can get added in the newest incarnation of collaboration tools.
Finding the Meaning in Our Work
Forget the big picture of meaning. I’m not trying to save the world in this post. I’m aimed at helping you achieve your business goals. For now, let’s look at how easily team members can glean the purpose of a piece of content, or communication, as it relates to achieving a specific outcome.
The Technology Collaboration continuum shows how we started off — with simple, "dumb" technical capacities such as storage. Running along its own internal continuum, storage started on local machines, moved to networks where multiple people could access the stored files. Now cloud storage allows controlled access to a wide variety of people, at any time, anywhere. So people can easily access content, but they can't clearly assess its relevance.
Moving nearly concurrently with storage are the types of files being stored. Documents, spreadsheets, presentations, eventually expanding to audio and video files. Content creation suites, such as Microsoft Office, that integrated content among certain file types, took content creation to a new level of efficiency.
Tools allowing multiple editors and synchronization of all their changes were a logical next step in the evolution of collaboration technology. In both these phases, the content quality, and the efficiency of its creation, markedly improves, but it remains without context. Why are certain changes made or rejected? And although commenting is allowed, anyone can easily delete (intentionally or deliberately) comments. Unfortunately, in many cases there’s no way to know what the comments were (unless different file versions were kept) — much less who deleted them, or why they did so.
More recently, better communication tools have been popping up. Instant messaging and video conferencing enable collaborative conversations instead of restraining people to the asynchronous flow of email threads. Now we can capture more of the conversations that circle around our content, that explain the why. Yet these communications still exist, separated from the content because they’re kept as files.
Project management tools bring together files, task lists, and resource management. The most current wave of project management tools is where we we're starting to reach the next continuum inflection point: bringing the conversations around content and tasks into a single tool.
Content + Conversation = Contextual Collaboration
More project management tools are starting to incorporate communication functionality. The scope of this functionality varies. It may track discussions on a project level, task level, or attached to content. The ability to tag and search through conversations also varies. Another important permutation in these next phase project management tools is their complexity and how well they can handle the plethora of typical, mundane, everyday projects.
Some file share and sync tools have now added conversation threading to specific files. And some IM tools have added file sharing. This creates some context for that specific file, but doesn't always provide larger context for where that specific file fits into a larger project or goal.
Even so, the more we see communication and content joined together into a single tool, the more refined this next phase of tools along the technology collaboration continuum will become. It's an exciting time to see how building context directly into tools will positively impact the collaborative process.