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Email is dead? The trouble with collaboration tech

Galen Gruman | July 8, 2016
There's a constant stream of new products promising to change your world. Here's why only a very few stand a chance

To the extent that collaboration should be broad (company-wide), we're really talking about messaging -- that broad "collaboration" is really about announcements with perhaps some ability to reply and discuss. Email handles that quite well, of course. But if you have a messaging-oriented tool like Slack, HipChat, or Microsoft's terrible Yammer that is widely used for discussions within groups, then you can use their "all hands" channel for such announcements.

It gets trickier when you turn to collaboration around actual work products. This is another area where there's been a long parade of "it" products that have gone nowhere.

For common documents, Google does this kind of collaboration best. Its Google Apps sharing and co-editing tools have long been easy and intuitive. Microsoft has tried to introduce such approaches in Office and SharePoint, but the tools have been much too heavy and complex to be effective. (The latest incarnations of Office 365 and OneDrive, however, are finally giving enterprises a real alternative to Google Apps.) 

But work-product collaboration needs more than good tools. It needs a real purpose. One mistake tech vendors repeatedly make is to assume that everyone can and should participate in work products as equals. That's a Millennial disease, of course. Hierarchy is both good and necessary because, done correctly, it reflects and even imposes responsibility and experience. 

Having multiple people simultaneously write a proposal, spec, or budget is a recipe for a muddle. You know the saying that a camel is a horse built by committee? Well, a horse built by an equal real-time collaboration approach would  make a camel look like a racehorse. There needs to be prioritization on what to do and not do, what to explain and not explain, what to accept and not accept. You don't get that with everyone trying to drive the car at the same time. 

All of this is why that the old-fashioned kind of work-product collaboration remains the one that is actually used: commenting. Sharing drafts with other people to get their feedback, proposed revisions, and details is a very good thing. And we've been doing that in documents for more than a decade. Work-product collaboration is effective when done this way because whoever is ultimately responsible for the outcome has the best thinking of everyone available without having to accept the poor thinking as well.

We can always use better collaboration technologies. But they need to be actually better for the situations in which they will be used. There are many such situations, so there's room for multiple products and approaches -- but not for an infinite number of variations. We'll still end up with a handful of tools at the end of the day at any given organization. Established tools have the advantage in that reality, but new tools can break through (and have) because they really do something meaningfully useful.


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