Do people really understand what they do when they “collaborate”? Do they know how to use technology to achieve what they want? How do collaboration tools affect things like goal setting, prioritisation, conflict resolution, production, creativity, and all the other dynamics found in a team trying to solve a problem or deliver something?

Fun fact about me: Close to twenty years ago, I spent two years of my life following and trying to understand how a project team in Statoil used video conferencing, email, and other tools to get their work work done with the team members spread across four different cities. I wrote a dissertation (sort of a “mini-PhD”) on this, and how the team members picked communications tools (sometimes appropriately!) to what they wanted to achieve. I got some great insights, but since then I have mostly been paid to get the technology to work, not to improve distributed team work. But finally the state of the technology is getting to a place where we are able to improve how people collaborate, not just improve the quality of the collaboration tools! A deeper understanding of people and how they work in teams is necessary. For those of you responsible for choosing and introducing collaboration tools to increase productivity in your organisation, you need to know what to choose based on what you want to achieve. Let me share some insights from my research study.

First, collaboration is not one thing, but many things. One simple model is the 4Cs model, dividing interaction into four categories: Communication, Coordination, Cooperation, and Collaboration. We all have an intuitive understanding of what we do when we do each of these. We also several times a day pick communication tools that fit with what we want to achieve. Email? Phone? Travel? SMS? IM? Video? I found that people often choose communication tool based on what I called the “richness” of the tool, or how many social cues or signals that they perceive the tool will convey to other person. This explains why there is value in high-quality (HD) voice as a clear voice call will convey lots more information about tone of voice and nuances of what a person is saying than a low-quality phone call.  It also explains why low-quality “thumbnail” video calls have just been for fun, and not a real difference when people communicate. I also found that things broke down when the social interaction needed more richness than the tool could provide. We all know the typical email storm where a conflict escalates beyond control!

Another interesting thing I found was that choosing the right tool was a skill that could be learned and that some peopler were better than others; e.g. of knowing when to stop emailing and make that phone call or call that team meeting on-site.  A lot of productivity is wasted in people choosing tools with the wrong richness.  Also, an interesting aspect, was that the better people know somebody, the less richness they need in the tool, probably because they are better at interpreting the other person. 

I work in a business where we work hard to increase the richness of the collaboration tools we make, and we love to make stuff that makes you feel that it is “better than being there”. However, choosing the tool with the most richness is not always the most productive choice. For example, coordination activities tend to flow better when a team finds a way to share what they are doing and how they impact each other without meeting all the time. Wiki-pages, kanban systems, spread sheets, bug tracking systems, status emails… the tool will vary dependent on tasks and people’s preferences. Sometimes you need to interpret some information or create a shared understanding, which is a cooperation task, and you need to interact with more richness.  If you don’t have a shared coordination tool, but do everything in meetings, they tend to be in-efficient and ironically, leads to coordination problems as everybody tries to remember or interpret what was said or agreed in the meeting. 

Going back to the 4Cs, communication is about conveying a message to somebody and make sure they understand. Still, listening and face to face interaction may be important in many cases, as an example, you don’t fire somebody using a text message even though you really want to communicate something one-way.  We typically talk a lot about teams and how to improve interactions that are focused on producing something. In the fire-somebody example, the production task is to convey the message. But there are two other things equally important, something most people grasp intuitively: the well-being of the individual and the well-being of the group. So, when firing somebody, the production part of conveying the message is far less important than the individual well-being part of what you are trying to do.

The second C, coordination, is about identifying where what I do has an impact on you and how to make sure that we don’t negatively impact each other. This is not “productive” work, it is something most people hate (except program/project managers…). However, the third C, cooperation, is the task where I contribute to your task and you contribute to mine, such that we both improve what we produce. Most people feel a meeting is warranted to do cooperation task, but not for pure communication or coordination tasks (however, IM or a group chat system is often very good for coordination).  While coordination tasks subtract from your personal production, cooperation adds to your production, so it feels worth the time. 

The fourth C, collaboration, is the current buzzword in our industry (it used to be communication, as in Unified Communication). Collaboration is where two or more individuals do a production task together, and they contribute together in such a way that the individual contributions are impossible to point out or are of far less important than the sum of the contributions. True collaboration is difficult to set up or control, it is very personal, everybody’s got their own style, but you immediately recognise it when you do it. Typically, collaboration tasks need far more richness in the interactions than for tasks in the other categories. These tasks is the holy grail of the collaboration industry, even though by far most of the tasks in an organisation are in the other categories.  The reason is that productivity tends to go up if people cooperate and in particular, if they collaborate.  

In fact, in my research I found that people were pretty conscious around when to use which tool to interact with other team members. Indeed, some of them had pretty manipulative thoughts around when to use email, the timing of when to send it, pretend not to have seen the email, avoid picking up the phone and so on. I also found that perceived conflicts of interest and in particular conflict of motives tended to last for days or weeks between team members who were in different cities, while between co-located members, and when they met, the conflicts would quickly be resolved by a face to face interaction. A phone call was often not even attempted. The explanation, I believe, lies in the need for more richness in the interaction when there is a conflict, and even if a phone call could have helped, people are hesitant to use a communication tool to resolve a conflict when they cannot interpret non-verbal signals that typically help in a conflict situation (or when you are firing somebody…).  

To conclude, and a call to action: the more cooperation and collaboration your company wants across physical locations (or even floors), the more richness you need in the tools you offer your employees. And, unless you believe conflict is not present in your company(!), you need to offer personal communication tools with high degree of richness (like desktop, high quality video), or allow people to travel, or make sure that people are co-located when they work on tasks that are undefined, sensitive, or highly complex.

PS! Although my dissertation is 186 pages long with probably too much detail, if you fancy more details, it is available for download.

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