Collaboration Is Still a Singular, Personal Experience

By David Strom  |  Posted 2008-05-27 Print this article Print

Collaboration technologies would seem to be all the rage over the years, but the personal aspects of computing continue to dominate. Sharing is for sissies.

What makes the PC successful as a personal productivity tool has also been its biggest obstacle toward better collaboration: the fact that it is personal. And the more powerful PCs become, the more difficult it is to collaborate with them.

The primary collaboration tool today is still what it was 10 years ago: sending an e-mail attachment with a PowerPoint deck or Word document back and forth between two or more parties. It is a serial form of collaboration: I put together my work product, send it to you, and you send back your thoughts or changes. It is fraught with problems: I have to wait to receive your revisions before adding my own, and if I don’t agree with them, we pretty much have to start the process from scratch. I have seen documents that had more changes and comments than the original text.

Weren’t local area networks supposed to help us share our documents, at least around the office? Now the hard disks on the average computer can contain hundreds of gigabytes, so we can carry around our entire work output for the last decade and still have room to digitize our movies, music and pictures. And just in case we don’t carry our PCs around, we all have iPods and can shut out the rest of the world by booting them up. Our electronic cocoon has become more potent.

Wasn’t a constant Internet connection supposed to make it easier to connect distributed work teams? Well, it has made e-mail even more powerful, and now most of us feel bereft when we are offline for a few hours. Organizations such as CA that turned off their corporate e-mail system for several hours a day (which it did in the early ’90s to get people to actually move around and talk to each other) seem so quaint now. 

What about blogs and wikis, putting the power of communication in the hands of the common folk? Still, e-mail is the main system to notify users when this content changes. And while Google Docs and all those nifty Web 2.0 mashups have made it easier to build collaborative applications, someone still needs to collect the data sources and do the heavy lifting. And social networks, which are great at grabbing and spamming your contact list, aren’t really all about collaboration, but more about who can collect the most names fastest. I didn’t do well at popularity contests in junior high, and I still feel somewhat deficient today.

There have been some notable attempts at collaboration, but all have been abject failures. Look at Lotus Notes, which is nearly 20 years old. It is still 95 percent used as an e-mail system. Yes, it has some wonderful collaborative features, particularly with its Sametime messaging and telecommunications add-ons, but most people don’t know how to build their own Notes apps or don’t have these add-ons installed.

The inventor of Notes is now at Microsoft with his Groove product, which is also a great idea that has hasn’t gotten much traction. To get any real collaborative benefit from Groove, you have to change the way you think about your data. SharePoint isn’t much better, but to leverage that you need a lot of Microsoft infrastructure, and many organizations are just getting started with understanding how to use it for something besides running a simple Web bulletin board.

I’ve seen some promising signs of change, particularly with two-person teams that make use of screen-sharing technologies like LogMeIn or GoToMyPC, where both parties are connected and can control the same desktop, to make changes to a presentation or to interactively edit a document. Call this the Jurassic period of collaboration: We still have a ways to go up the evolutionary chain. Salesforce.com is another good case in point, where multiple people can share contacts and client information, provided they are religious about doing the updates. And a third area that is also promising consists of shared calendars, which at least make scheduling meetings easier.

So, as PC processors get faster, disks get bigger and our social networks get larger, we still don’t have the perfect collaboration solution. We still think of the data on our hard disks as our own, not our employer’s. Sharing is still for sissies. Until that attitude changes, the headphones will stay firmly stuck in our ears, blocking out the rest of the world around us.


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