From formal to informal collaborations : what are employees’ constraints

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The collaboration 2.0 thing has now been discussed for a few years. Beyond trendy words, that’s nothing more than making people develop collaborative pratices in a more informal fashion, less contrainsted by organizational rigidities, in ordre to access more easily to the right nformations and people to solve the problems that appear in their workaday life. The final purpose is nothing but favoring workaday efficiency in tasks exection and project delivery without any kind of philisophical considerations. And behind the many words that have been used to avoid the use of old worlds, it’s all about collaboration, namely on a new scale and fashion, but still about collaboration.

Experience also teaches us that implementing a new model is not that easy and that making people adopt it is an actual challenge. But do these models that are focused on the point where people have to get take into account where they depart from and what are their constraints ?

What do employees / users tell us ?

• Protect my workflow

In a knowledge intensive work, interactions are necessary not to discuss but to think jointly and coordinate in an efficient fashion. To do that, employees follow a logic that can be informal (tacit way of doing things adopted – even unconsciously – by everyone) or formal (stick to a process or a workflow) that is people’s activities connecting thread. They can’t spend their time going back and forth from a structuring tool to a collaboration/communication one, interupt their work, reconcentre etc…

Tools that make this collaboration possible have to be highly integrated with those that structure their work and collective pratices, even informal, should be organized around people’s personal workflows. Otherwise, people tend to refuse the exchange rather than breaking their usual activity flow.

This trend is starting to be embodied in tools like Salesforce Chatter or SAP 12sprints.

• Different forms of collaboration but only one job

There are different forms of collaboration and different tools depending on if people try to collaborate in a defined and structured context (known team, objectives and roles) or undefined (unknown people, problem that’s never been faced before and that the team can’t solve). What looks clearly separated at a macro level looks differently at the employee’s level. Employees are looking for a logic that helps them to deal with both. They don’t want to see this at a rupture but as the extension of what they know and master.

As a matter of fact, at the individual level, people don’t have neither a 2.0 nor a 1.0 logic and don’t care at all about the difference : they both are different ways to make progress in their work and both have to link together in a consistant and subsidiary way  (“when one doesn’t work I try the other”). That looks like different objectives at a macro level (collaborate in a defined or undefined context) but is a single one at a micro level (doing one’s job) with different modes.

People have to be offered clear principles that explain when to shift from one to another and how, in order to ressure them, make them feel secure. And when different tools are needed, they have to be integrated in order they don’t experience any kind of rupture but feel they can act the same way, while being able to mobilize ressources on different scopes.

• Keep my contexts unified

The fact people spend their time going back and forth between “business” and communication/collaboration tools that are only work enablers and between different tools of a same kind has a consequence : they work and collaborate in many contexts but don’t want these contexts to take place in as many environment on their computer screen. As they interact and collaborate around informations and data they want to gather them in an unique and structured (even prioritized and hierarchically organised) flow and be able to initiate any kind of interaction on a given informational item, within the relevant scope, starting from this single flow. This has to work for both internal and external collaboration flows (with the inside and the outside of the company).

That’s the myth of the unified mailbox, and a rough avatar of the concept has been seen last year with Google Wave that, despite of its perfectible execution, gives us a vague idea of what the future may look like. It seems that the future of Lotus Notes will look like that too and bet than many vendors are working on the concept and that we may except to see many Wave-like products in the enterprise software market in the upcomming months or years.

I often say that tools can’t do everything. But the way they  integrate, articulate, communicate and structure the information in a transparent way for they user that allows to seamlessly and intuitively shift from a tool to another, from a context to another, is also key to the adoption of new work models.