Intertwingled Collaboration and Communications

I ran across quite an interesting thread on the relationship of communications and collaboration.  While industry has held these as separate topic worthy of separate technologies, there is an argument to be made that they should be viewed as a single topic.  He describes them as “intertwingled” evoking the legendary Ted Nelson of hypertext and Computer Lib fame.

Mike Gotta (Cisco) starts with a long post on Pushing The Reset Button On How We Look At “Collaboration”.  Making the point that communications and collaboration are conceptually presented in the media as different:

To collaborate, the “right tools” have been workspaces, discussion forums, shared document libraries, wikis, and even web conferencing. The common thread across these tools is their ability to create a “sense of place”.

In contrast, to communicate, the tools of choice have been e-mail, telephony, instant messaging, texting, and audio/video conferencing. The common thread across communication tools is their ability to create a channel – a bi-directional interchange between parties that often shields the interaction and information shared from those not identified as senders and receivers.

He says that the distinction between spaces and channels has a subtle but pervasive influence on how the industry views “collaboration”, at least until the appearance of Enterprise 2.0 / Enterprise Social Systems which start to merge these concepts.  One might ask whether Twitter is a channel or a space, and indeed the concept seems to blur, yet his concern is that this blurring is not generally recognized.

The discussion turns interesting when he touches on “directed collaboration” and “structured activities”.  Here I believe he is struggling with the same thing that the authors of “Mastering the Unpredictable” did.  Many people see collaboration in the office place as being a pre-defined process, and this is even commonly called a “structured process”.  Yet, as I have discussed many times here, much of the most interesting and valuable work is not predictable or predefined, but rather “emergent” as proposed in adaptive case management.  I am seeing some strong parallels there, and his full post expands on this topic.

Then Peter O’Kelley responded with a post where he says Mike goes too far.  He presents a two-by-two matrix of synchronous/asynchronous versus communication/collaboration and claims that everything falls neatly in the framework.  I might mention that Twitter is conspictuously absent from the picture — is Twitter synchronous or asynchronous?  Is Twitter collaborative (like a tweet jam) or communicative (like text messages)?  I tend to agree with Mike that the desire to classify things in these buckets is causing more harm than good — there will increasingly be a blurring between these categories, and that is a good thing.

Craig Roth also weighed in with a post “The Collaboration Spaces vs. Communication Channels Argument Continues“.  His proposal is that social systems fall into a third category between collaboration and communication.  That means that social systems are neither collaborative nor communicative, and I don’t find this intuitive, nor do I see how this three-way categorization helps in any analysis of system deployment.

Craig goes on to say that “people join or leave communities at will and post topics without an end goal in mind”.  I disagree.  A goal can be very broad and indirect.  It need not be something concrete and near-term.  Joining a community is always because you believe that the community will help you accomplish things in the future.   As evidence of this, I cite that people pick to join particular groups on Linked-In or Google Groups based on the subject presented in the description of the group (or a sample of contents).  If people entered into a group with no goal at all, then the selection of groups would be essentially random, and that does not appear to be the case.  People leave groups when it appears that it will not help them.

I should not be too critical of Craig, because I understand his point that the goal of “maintaining your network” is clearly a different category of goal than “go buy some milk”.  There is a spectrum of goals from one extreme where the action is predictable, to the other extreme where the action that will be performed for the goal is unpredictable.

Mike Gotta respond to both of these with Collaboration: It’s Not About The Tools.  He says that if we continue to look at “collaboration” through the tooling of collaboration, we will always draw incorrect assumptions regarding “collaboration” from the view of its participants.  “We” (as an industry) need to shift the emphasis of collaboration strategies away from the very limiting tool discussion to a focus on design, user experience (individual and collective), and relationships, to enable collaboration within whatever environment collaboration occurs.

Overally, I agree, we should focus on providing whatever it takes to get things done without arbitrarily attempting to separate communications from collaboration.  Collaboration is about accomplishing common goes, and it is in self-obvious that this requires communications.  I would go further and say that the distinction between collaboration/communication is simply user preference or available infrastructure.  Users will switch between communicative and collaborative modes (to the extent that the distinction exists) whenever they feel like it.   Some people get all their tweets through email while others use Tweetdeck which feels like a “space”.  Some people post blog entries through email.  Forums which store email conversations can be browsed like a wiki.  Many devices convert between synchronous and asynchronous: answering machines, DVRs, and most notably the “recorded webinar” which starts out as communication to an audience, but ends up in a library of educational videos.

While reviewing all this, I found a number of Mike’s blog posts interesting.  Dont miss:

1 thought on “Intertwingled Collaboration and Communications

  1. Thanks for sharing your insights. To answer one of your questions, I consider Twitter an asynchronous communication system — it is a classic fire-and-forget, channels-and-items service.

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