Do collaboration tools enable collaboration?

At the recent IT Roadmap conference in Washington D.C. there was a panel discussion about how the younger generation uses tools such as texting to stay in touch with friends. One of the implications of the discussion was that the younger generation is more facile with collaboration than is the current workforce. Another implication was that as the younger generation enters the workforce, they will bring their collaborative approach with them to the workforce and this will drive the existing workforce to be more collaborative. We want to use this newsletter to express an alternative opinion.

There is no doubt that the younger generation, the kids that are currently in grammar school and high school, are very facile with collaboration tools such as texting. However, most people that we know that are currently in the workforce also text – perhaps not as much as the younger generation, but they do. Hence, we do not see that age is a barrier that keeps the current generation of workers from texting.

One concern that we have is that young people often use texting as an alternative to face-to-face communications. In fact, in some cases, they seem to prefer to send texts back and forth vs. having a conversation. Is this really collaboration or is it running away form collaboration? Collaboration tools such as texting, instant messaging, and twitter are well suited to support a simplex or at best half duplex conversation, such as sending a text to inform someone that you will be late for a meeting. That is a form of collaboration – but a very low level form.

Let’s set up a hypothetical situation. A company is considering using a software-as-a-service provider for some new application. The company pulls together a project team comprised of people in different organizations, including someone from the WAN organization, from the software development group, security and compliance, and one or more business units. The various members of the team have different, and in some cases, conflicting goals.

For example, the people who represent the business units want to get the solution running as soon as possible; the security and compliance people are worried that they will not be able to pass an audit if the solution is deployed; the person from the software organization feels their organization is being bypassed, and the person from the WAN organization is concerned about how much extra traffic will now transit the WAN.

The disparate goals of the project team members will not be resolved by sending text messages, IMs, or tweets. That is not to say that there are not collaboration tools that can help. One IT professional we talked with told us that his organization had used traditional videoconferencing for years. He added that he believes that telepresence is more powerful than traditional videoconference in part because the picture quality allows you to see body language and facial expressions as well as you could in person. Of course, telepresence does place a tremendous burden on the WAN.

Just seeing body language and facial expression may not resolve the fact that the project team members have disparate goals. It does, however, have a better chance of succeeding than a text that reads: OMG, c u @ 10:15.

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