Friday, January 15, 2010

Collaboration 2.0 - There's a Shift happening


There's a shift happening and its all around us. We may not be a part of that shift yet, but I'm sure each one of us will soon be. We might want to think that technology is changing the way we collaborate and yes that's true! But there's a lot changing in the way we think as well. Managers are starting to think differently, staff definitely has a mind of their own and are more empowered each day and the focus on collaboration is much more than we saw even 3-4 years back. Over the last week, I've been thinking about the nature of this shift and I've tried to distill down this change into four main areas. Let's see how we're changing!

From Single Source to Crowd Sourced

There was a time when we believed in single sources of good information. Popular authors, popular textbooks, popular magazines, popular news channels, popular radio stations, all led to the birth of Mass media. People believed these authentic sources of information because the people that created information were hugely qualified and apparently quite talented in their field. There was no arguing with that, was there? Organisations were quick to follow this route and then came the age of file repositories and Quality Management System (QMSs). In fact the best people in your organisation would sit all day and do nothing but document 'best practices'. Depending on the policy of your firm, either your manager would have access to this information or you'd have restricted access to only the QMS of your department. And I remember from my experience in my first few jobs, that I wasn't even allowed to share a useful document with a colleague in another department. Apparently that was for 'information security'! Even when it came to project documents, it was either the tech-lead, business analyst or the project manager who created these and the rest of us just looked at them in amazement and were passive users of these documents. This was truly the age of Nupedia style documentation, characterised by control, bureaucracy and long drawn approval processes.

Things have changed significantly today. Most firms worth their name have some sort of collaborative document management system in place. The death of Nupedia and the subsequent success of Wikipedia has led to the large-scale adoption of wikis in the corporate world. Most importantly, organisations have realised that many heads are better than one. Crowdsourcing is turning out to be new corporate buzzword, and as Andrew McAfee might say, mobs have started to rule! The clamour for social and informal learning is getting louder each day if you believe the Internet Time Group. What you'll notice though is that in teams, its not just senior people that are creating valuable information -- everyone is. Teams are quick to adopt tools like Media Wiki or Google Sites to create collaborative workspaces. The responsibility to create knowledge doesn't just rest with managers now -- everyone's responsible. Which brings me to my next point.

From Command & Control to Collective Ownership

Managers are still the bosses and there's no denying that. But with the advent of collaborative, team-based approaches like extreme programming and agile, the definition of leadership is fast changing. Command and control still exists in the workplace but we're doing more to encourage collective ownership. Take the classic case of Microsoft Project and Microsoft Excel based project plans. The only person who at any given point has any idea about where a project is the guy looking at the project plan. Let's flip this over now and bring it over to the collaborative project environment. In this place the team has a card wall instead of a project plan on the manager's desktop. The tasks are represented on swimlanes with each swimlane representing the status of the tasks in it (eg: New, In Analysis, Ready for Development, etc). Team members can pick up cards from the wall an move them to completion across its swimlanes. If there's a bottleneck, the team see's it and rectifies it. Everyone takes responsibility for doing the best they can and the project manager doesn't have to be a supervisor assigning work. At any point, everyone in the team knows what's going on with the project. Its collective ownership in practice.

Modern project management tools are starting to embody these very characteristics. I work for ThoughtWorks and there's no secret that I'm a big Mingle evangelist. But trust me, Mingle is definitely one of the best project management tools that you can lay your hands on. It uses the card wall metaphor for the team to have visibility into whats going on. Its web-based, so all you need is a browser. It has various reporting and visualisation modes for your project data and packs in its own wiki for your team to collaboratively create documentation. I strongly recommend that you download it and take it for a spin. Mingle's free for a year for a team of upto five users, so its really great to try out if you have a small team.

From Inward Looking to Outward Looking

In my first job, I was not allowed to share documents from my department with people in another department. To do so would be an information security violation and consequently a firing offence. For any problem I faced, I could only look at my team because others had absolutely no idea of what kind of work I was doing. In a similar way, people in other teams had no way of using my help, because just like I had no idea of what they were doing, they didn't know what I was good at.

Things have definitely changed. We're more keen on breaking down silos and departmental boundaries are become more and more porous each day. We don't have to be only inward facing to find our solutions -- we can ask our friends in other departments, we can find people with similar interests who aren't in our companies, we can look outwards to our Linkedin contents and the blogosphere to find solutions. The possibilities are limitless. As we break down walled gardens in the enterprise, knowledge sharing improves, the cream rises to the top and everyone can benefit from everyone's thinking. Wikis and cloud computing using platforms like Google Apps are making this almost an out of box exercise.

From Structured to Freeform

One of the enabling forces behind all of this perceptional and behavioural change is obviously technology and I can't help but remark how the preference for platforms is changing. We loved email and we still do, but there's a huge shift towards more free form and frictionless tools. So while email was the cool thing a few decades back, we've moved to wikis and blogs, then the cloud and now Twitter and Google Wave. To supplement good old email, Twitter and other microblogging platforms support status updates while Wave supports in team collaboration, planning and discussion. The phenomenon of emergence allows us to still have structure only we don't need to develop hierarchies and complex taxonomies -- the structure appears over time, based on the patterns of usage. The larger the group, the quicker this pattern emerges; the smaller the group, the more people need to have a reason to participate. Technology is not just cooler, its more representative of the way we think and participate.
As you can see, the shift is real -- its happening all around us. All we need to do is give in to this change and evolve. Its an exciting time already and the future promises more - dont you think? Let me know by adding your thoughts in the comments section.

If you liked this post, you may like my other posts on the topic of Enterprise 2.0.

Also next week, I'm speaking at the Agile Bengaluru 2010 conference on the topic of "Facilitating Dialogue in situations of Conflict". It promises to be a great event, so please come over and interact with all of Bangalore's Agilist crowd. And don't forget to swing by and say hi to me and other ThoughtWorkers. I'd love to see you at my workshop as well.

4 comments:

scott said...

Well argued. "Control" made sense in an era when coordination and communication costs were high -- and grew with the number of empowered participants. As the costs of coordination and communication have fallen to near-zero for almost any number of participants, the idea-suppression costs of "Control" relative to "Influence" are now center-stage in the calculus of organizational models. It is vital that we view this as much more than a preference phenomenon; it is an economic phenomenon.

electronic document management said...

Google Docs provided a cloud solution to DMS, yet, there's still a good need for a dedicated host for your other important documents.

long island document scanning said...

Google Docs can't take huge workloads, though. I would rather store my documents in a full-pledge document archiving solution than any cloud service.

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