The state of collaboration: It's the people, not the tech, who make it all work

The state of collaboration: It’s the people, not the tech, who make it all work

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Business collaboration is finally fulfilling its promise — but less because of new technology than people finding better ways to use it.

The technology has gotten a boost, thanks to post-COVID distributed work teams that have embraced video conferencing and instant messaging. But figuring out the collaboration workflows isn’t just choosing between Microsoft Teams and Zoom. but becoming more adept about when and how to work with others. In other words, having the right people with the right mindsets and operating under the right corporate culture are more important than having the right technical infrastructure.

Back in the 1980s, the personal computer era brought about an unprecedented transformation in the world of work. These computers mostly empowered individual employees to run their own productivity apps. Although this was a big deal in the decades since then, we have gotten more powerful computers and global connectivity, but attitudes towards work haven’t evolved as quickly as our office tech.

Indeed, the PC has become the biggest obstacle to business collaboration: Data is labeled “My Documents” and “My Photos” to remind us of its personal nature.

And because of this personal context, sharing these documents is far from seamless. Technology here has become part of the problem, in large part because there are so many different ways to share, with multiple workflow paths, across multiple devices and apps. And as the number of personal devices is supplemented beyond a single PC to a mobile phone and a tablet, sharing becomes more complex. The cloud has also added to this complexity, introducing software that is web-based for ease of access.

With all this technology, it’s easy to lose sight of the fact that what makes for great collaboration is to have people with complementary skills working together on a project. Without a culture of collaboration, all the fancy tools won’t do much to make people more inclined to share their work, their thoughts and their expertise. Yes, sharing is caring, but only when users want to share their work to begin with.

Historical collaboration examples

Let’s take an example from computer history. We need to go back to the 1940s and examine those early computers used to decrypt enemy codes at Bletchley Park in the U.K. These machines look like Rube Goldberg inventions viewed in today’s eyes, but it wasn’t so much the hardware (and there was a lot of that, occupying several rooms) but the people who worked together.

I visited the site several years ago, and spent time in what is now a museum dedicated to the people and machines that once occupied its grounds and staffed with volunteers that demonstrate how these computers worked. I saw a very complex workflow that involved about a dozen different people, each one given a specific task to move data from one operation to another to transform the encrypted signal into plain German text.

What made this collaboration even more remarkable is that the entire crew worked in lock step without even knowing what other team members did because security was so tight. Granted, they were highly motivated and under regular bombardment by the enemy, but still it’s amazing to contemplate.

But let’s contrast wartime computing with something more recent. The documentary “A Faster Horse” shows how the 2015 Mustang design team at Ford Motor Co. collaborated to build their car. The film shows numerous scenes where teams gather around a speakerphone in a conference room. Ford didn’t need anything fancier than that, because it had a group of people who were used to working together on its cars. It shows that collaboration happens in spite of the underlying tech, which should give us all lots of hope.

Back to the original PC: The second-biggest tech problem with collaboration has to do with the ubiquity of corporate email. It wasn’t all that long ago that many business executives prided themselves on their lack of typing skills and the fact that they “didn’t do email,” leaving those tasks for their secretaries and underlings to resolve things. Thankfully, those attitudes are mostly extinct in today’s businesses.

But because everyone is using email, sharing a document is as easy as clicking on an attachment. And sadly, email attachments are where collaboration dies as the workflows even between two correspondents quickly devolves into tracking changes or reaching a consensus.

The original collaboration tech stack

There are ways around emailing attachments. Those original PCs also created the beginnings of a collaboration tech stack that flourished in the 1990s. Back then, we had workgroup software that was designed to share documents across a local area network, such as Novell’s Groupwise. Digital files were shared across the network using tools such as Microsoft Corp.’s Sharepoint, and contacts and calendars shared with tools such as IBM Corp. and Lotus Notes.

Although Sharepoint is still with us, all of these tools were cumbersome and took creators out of the personal moments of creation, tacking on another “sharing” step to bring others into the conversation. Sharing carried this “work tax” forward for many years.

But since then we have had the work-from-home challenges brought about from the COVID pandemic. We needed ways to connect workers, and quickly many of us flocked to Zoom, Cisco Systems Inc.’s Webex and other meeting spaces. The instant messaging tools from Slack Technologies LLC and Microsoft’s Teams became better integrated into our workflows, reducing the sharing work tax and making it easier to have real-time comments embedded in our work products.

We also saw the expansion of on-premises local area networks of the 1990s into the global internet and the increased use of virtual private network software we have today. As part of this movement, we have replaced those early LAN-based tools with ones in the cloud and using web browsers instead of installing endpoint apps.

This browser-centric world has enabled users to switch among a variety of endpoint devices too, using a phone when on the move or a tablet when typing isn’t required. All of this has helped evolve the collaboration tech stack to having tools with the right mix of device, functionality and ease of use.

Trends in modern collaboration

Collaboration now underlies mostly everything we do digitally, or so Nojitter says in its latest predictions. That is great news, and finally we can put an end to having the “personal” in our PCs.

But wait: Everything isn’t all rosy. With the change in working patterns brought on by COVID, we now have a mix of remote and in-person situations, what analysts call hybrid work. That has accelerated some of the nascent trends to change the way we collaborate.

Javed Kahn, senior vice president and general manager of Cisco Collaboration. says that 98% of all future meetings will have at least one remote participant, making every meeting a hybrid one. To get people back into the office, the office environment should encourage rich collaboration and community-building experiences that people flock to — what he says should make the office a magnet, not a mandate.

That provides some hope that collaboration culture will flourish. And by having more hybrid meetings, collaboration can happen more naturally, without everyone doing a forced march into a conference room.

Hybrid meetings can also save time and money: Shopify, according to this tweet, got rid of 12,000 meetings this year, saving thousands of dollars per meeting.

Another trend is how AI has helped make hybrid meetings more engaging, such as providing background noise cancelation, creating custom virtual backgrounds, switching camera angles to be able to track who is speaking, automatically detecting “Be Right Back” when a participant leaves the frame, and providing smart lighting based on the time of day and lighting conditions.

Yet another development is more sensitivity to promoting universal meeting equity. This means that everyone has the same chance to participate, no matter if they are remote or in the same physical space, with whatever gear they are using. This article, by a collaboration software provider Stormboard, describes some of the ways to provide this equity, such as having the best quality audio-video tools possible, and building out and supporting a collaborative culture throughout the organization.

All that means the end is near for dedicated conference rooms with multiple cameras and multiple screens. When they combine meeting equity and these AI-based cinematic enhancements, organizations won’t need to rely as much on all the fancy conference room hardware.

In the end, though, people, not tech, make for great collaboration — and the reason the future for collaboration looks better now is that people are taking control of the technology.

Image: Pixabay

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