Collaboration: People Must Come Before Technology

By Paul Chin

Originally published in Intranet Journal's Chin Music (18-Jun-2008)

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Makers of collaborative software would have us believe that they can bring an organization's employees together like never before. They tout their ability to bridge geographically dispersed workgroups and create a virtual environment free of physical boundaries and time constraints. Software features such as centralized knowledge and content management, synchronous online meeting and collaboration tools, and shared calendars and discussion groups are supposed to turn your organization into one big, happy Brady Bunch family. "Supposed to," however, are the operative words here.

It's true that these software suites can augment collaboration, but technology-based tools will only help an organization if collaboration already exists on a basic human level. If employees have a natural tendency to work with their colleagues and share information, then collaborative software will strengthen that foundation. But if employees hoard information and have a "don't bother me" attitude, no amount of technology will fix this problem.

A lack of communication and collaboration within an organization is a human problem that must be addressed before any technological solution is added to the mix. Organizations that harbor a negative and counterproductive corporate culture—such as those that reward information hoarders and elevate them to an elite class of privileged employees who are "in the know"—are not conducive to teamwork at the most basic interpersonal level. These cultures and attitudes can't be changed by covering up the problem with a layer of technology. Employees who are unwilling or unable to work with someone sitting two doors away will be equally unwilling or unable to work with someone in a digital space. In fact, adding an extra layer of complexity can make matters even worse.

Unfortunately, far too many people in the corporate world—especially those in the IT field—buy into this notion that technology is a panacea. They see a shiny new toy labeled with all the right buzz words and then, like a Pavlovian dog, drool over the tool's potential in a theoretic and nonexistent perfect world. They fall for the marketing hype and gimmickry that promises to cure all their communication and collaboration woes. The real solution, however, can't be bought off-the-shelf.

Technology can sometimes be a red herring, used to avoid having to address the root cause of an organization's problem. Whether an organization is aware of its interpersonal shortcomings or not, they adopt a technology-based tool because writing a check seems so much simpler than having to deal with the myriad complexities associated with social behavior and workplace dynamics (This brings to mind the many people who repeatedly undergo superficial cosmetic surgery to avoid having to deal with more complicated and deep-rooted self-esteem issues). In the end, you'll be exactly where you were before you implemented your collaborative software tool—minus the money and time you wasted implementing the tool.

Technology-driven collaboration tools are merely enhancements to existing human-based interpersonal skills. They're meant to complement and support social interaction, not replace it. Technology should never be used as a cheap substitute for our own fundamental abilities to do something. Regardless of how good a technology-based collaboration tool is or how many awards it has won, if it's to have any chance of success, there must already exist an underlying sense of community and cooperation within the organization. Without it, you're merely building a mansion on top of quicksand.

Copyright © 2008 Paul Chin. All rights reserved.
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