Collaboration has been the focus of some critical business press lately. Harvard Business Review recently published an article titled “Collaboration Overload,” for example, and The Economist published a related article provocatively titled “The Collaboration Curse” (noting that “[t]he fashion for making employees collaborate has gone too far”). The authors of both articles lament the amount of time (typically 70 – 85%, according to research referenced in the articles) knowledge workers spend attending meetings, responding to email, and otherwise handling requests for their time and attention. The Economist article also reviews how business trends such as open office spaces can be counterproductive for people who need to engage in deep work, which in turn is the subject of a recent bestselling business book, Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World.
This post provides some suggestions on how to avoid “collaboration curse” complications. Based on CASAHL’s experience in modernizing and migrating enterprise content/collaboration deployments over more than twenty years, we find that providing clear guidance on what tool to use when and leveraging opportunities to modernize and migrate legacy content/collaboration deployments can help organizations avoid many of the challenges identified in the recent collaboration-critical press.
Provide Clear Guidance on What to Use When
It’s easy to be overwhelmed by the number and variety of tools and services available these days, and leading-edge offerings such as Office 365 include an additional set of new tool choices.
We’ve found the following framework, derived from some research originally published a dozen years ago by Burton Group’s Collaboration and Content Strategies service (now part of the Gartner for Technical Professionals service), to be useful for establishing consensus on the communication/collaboration market landscape:
The framework starts by distinguishing between communication (simply the transfer of information) and collaboration (joint purposeful activity, usually in a shared workspace)
Communication and collaboration are complementary, but they are not interchangeable
It’s useful to also distinguish between synchronous (real-time) and asynchronous domains, with different tools specialized for both
Ideally, the various tools build on a common information architecture and shared platform services
Although it may seem counterintuitive for blogs and messaging-based conversation channel tools to be included in the asynchronous communication category, both are essentially reverse-chronologically-sequenced streams of messages.
The following table provides an example of more detailed what-to-use-when guidance:
A table of task/tool decision criteria
By encouraging knowledge workers to think in terms of the types of work product they need for a particular content/collaboration endeavor, along with the most appropriate user conceptual model, they’re more likely to make effective form-follows-function-fit tool selections.
Many people can relate to the unfortunate consequences of having less-than-ideal tool selections for different content/collaboration endeavors, such as:
Using email messages with file attachments to facilitate asynchronous document-based collaboration: it’s too easy to have messages get lost in email inboxes, and to have version control and governance challenges with attached files; this approach also makes it very difficult to bring new participants up-to-speed in a collaboration context
Using a conversation channel-focused tool such as Yammer, Internet Relay Chat, or Slack for project-oriented collaboration needs: while perhaps an initial improvement relative to using email, these channel-based tools are not ideal fits for collaborative projects that are better addressed with a workspace-based tool, and are often conducive to communication overload
Using a workspace-based tool for an activity that’s more communication-oriented: conversation-focused tools such as Yammer are effective for sharing updates with a general audience (e.g., company-wide updates from senior management); expecting people to periodically visit workspaces in order to look for potential updates is impractical
Using a document library for a data-centric domain in which a list-oriented tool would be a better fit: this mismatch can result in severe constraints on how broadly the record collections can be leveraged, e.g., in data analytics tools
Of course, these tool categories are not mutually exclusive, and team or project workspaces often include a mix of communication and collaboration tools. Office 365 Groups (also known as Outlook Groups), for example, make it possible to easily and securely share all of the following with project teams:
Document libraries in OneDrive for Business (which can include lists managed in shared Excel workbooks)
Conversations and team calendars in Exchange
Web-centric (hypertext) content in OneNote
Project tasks in the new Planner tool
There’s also some functional overlap among popular tools. To address conversation needs, for example, Office 365 users can use Yammer, conversations in Office 365 Groups, and Skype for Business. The criteria for determining which is most appropriate includes the scope of the conversation, with Yammer likely to be most effective for organization-wide conversation topics and Groups more productive for team- or project-based conversations. Personal preferences are also an important consideration, as people routinely using Yammer or Skype may not be eager to learn yet another conversation-oriented tool.
Fortunately, returning to the common architecture and platform services theme, Office 365 technologies such as Office Graph and tools such as Delve make it possible for people to discover and use content (to which they have access privileges) in a way that transcends the individual tools and services.
Modernize and Migrate Legacy Content/Collaboration Deployments
Many enterprises have large collections of content/collaboration tools and platforms, often including traditional (on-premises) SharePoint, Lotus Notes/Domino, enterprise content management systems such as EMC Documentum and IBM FileNet, and file-sharing in on-premises file servers as well as Exchange public folders and Web-centric services such as Box, Dropbox, and Google Drive. Employees are far more likely to discover and productively use content resources when they’re consistently accessible in tools such as Delve, and they’re also likely to be happier and more productive when they’re not constantly switching among legacy tools for different tasks. This relates to the deep work theme mentioned at the start of this post: when people are able to focus on content and activities without being burdened by constantly toggling between large collections of partially-overlapping tools, they’re far more likely to be able to concentrate and work productively.
Many legacy content/collaboration deployments also suffer from poor form-follows-function fits, such as using document libraries for more data-centric lists and using conversations to manage structured document workflows. When modernizing and migrating to Office 365, it’s key to disaggregate and recompose legacy collaborative applications that reflect form-follows-function-fit compromises based on limitations in legacy tools and platforms. See an earlier blog post, Liberating Legacy Content/Collaboration Resources for PowerApps, for a traditional SharePoint app migration example.
By focusing on these fundamentals – providing clear guidance on which communication/collaboration tools to use for different types of work activities and modernizing and migrating legacy content/collaboration deployments – enterprises can both avoid the “collaboration curse” and fully leverage new opportunities made possible by Office 365.