- To work together, especially in a joint intellectual effort.
- To cooperate treasonably, as with an enemy occupation force in one’s country.
One of the things I have pondered in my many years experience in the collaboration technology arena is whether collaboration should simply automate the ways that humans already collaborate – meetings, conferences, etc. or whether our role is to find a completely new mechanism for working together, especially in a joint intellectual effort.
This afternoon I have watched this video on Microsoft’s Office Communicator. The Office Communicator technology seems to be another piece of technology aimed at extending the reach and improving the experience of our normal communications. It’s about video conferencing for people who are too lazy to walk to the next office; and enables people to use the phone without putting their mouse down (only kidding, I know there is more to it than that ). But it’s not about a radically different mechanism for working together. If you think about white-boarding applications they are only extending the reach of what humans have been doing with a piece of paper (or wood, or slate) for thousands of years. I‘m not saying that this technology hasn’t got value, but it’s not really delivering a new or richer way of working together.
Let’s think about one of the other things that we do in the standard office – meetings. Technology has enabled to extend the reach of meetings massively, especially with teleconferences. But my own view is that teleconferencing systems have been to meetings, what office application have been to the document. They have increased the volume of them to unbearable level and massively reduced their value. We are not working together on these things, we are not collaborating, we are wasting people’s time. I personally dread the phrase “Graham we just need a quick teleconference to chat about issue xyz”. When I here this phrase my heart sinks because I know that I am going to be siting on a call for at least 30 mins, or more normally an hour, adding about as much value as a slug does in my garden. This is where the human predicament is fascinating, because we all know this to be true and yet we all do it, over and over again. In the past, when meetings cost us lots of money to host (travel, hotels, etc.) we made sure that the value was high, we did our homework, we put together an agenda and a plan. We made sure that we completed our actions because we knew that other people were investing in being their.
By making meetings easier and cheaper we have decreased their productivity and hence decreased the value. The worse thing about this being that we are wasting peoples most precious asset – time.
Perhaps there is hope though, a long time ago people had to invest lots of time and effort in producing presentations. They had to think about them weeks in advance so that the material could be reproduced and the slides created. In investing this effort people made sure that the quality was high. Then along came the laptop, the video projector and PowerPoint. Now presentation were cheaper and easier to do the value went into terminal decline. But now there is a ground-swell calling for an increase in the value of presentations characterised by the like of Cliff Atkinson and Beyond Bullets. We are on the same curve with email too, I think, with people like Dave Allen and GTD.
Can we avoid this cycle with collaboration, I don’t know. Perhaps it’s just inbred, it’s something that we humans have to go through.
But here’s the real question. Is automating and extending the reach of the interactions we already undertake really what we want to do. Is that really all the IT is good for – automation. I’m not sure I know what the other ways we could collaborate are, but I’m sure there are plenty of people out their with good ideas. I do know, though, that collaboration is about work together, especially in a joint intellectual effort and that educators already know that we all learn in different ways. I also know that the vast majority of our collaboration effort is focussed on text based collaboration, on documents and the like. But how does a kinaesthetic learner participate in that type of collaboration, and where does that leave the auditory learners. If each of the collaboration techniques only appeal to one of the learning styles then only a few people in any collaboration are going to truly collaborate.
here’s n example for you. My son Jonathan is dyslexic (don’t you think it’s a bit sick that we use a word that is so bizarrely spelled to describe something that involves difficulties which include an inability to spell) his particular difficulty is with writing and spelling. Yesterday was Parents Evening at school, I dread these occasions, for two reasons. The first, but secondary, reason is that parts of me regress to my own childhood and I sit there in front of these teachers as if I am 12 again. The second, but primary, reason is that I get so frustrated with the way that our society is so stacked towards the ability to write and spell. Every teacher says something like “It’s great to have Jonathan in the class, he is so bright, he answer questions and really contributes, but (and here it comes) I have had to give him this negative mark because I couldn’t read his answers in the exam.” In other words Jonathan is valued by us but not by the education system. This is an extreme example, but we do the same with collaboration technologies. The person who initiates the collaboration gets to choose the collaboration (learning) style whether it is the most appropriate mechanism for the others in the collaboration or not. That is really where I see that technology has a massive role to play – bridging the gap between the collaboration (learning) styles. Draw me a 2D diagram of a building and I can picture it, draw Sue the same thing and it means nothing, give her a written explanation and she can see it. Ask Jonathan to write an explanation of something and you won’t be able to read it, ask him to do a drawing or even carve it in wood and you will get something very different. Surely we can do something.
Why don’t we hear anything about learning styles in business? Because we don’t regard collaboration as learning?
As a last remark, IT will have truly achieved something when at every level in education we overcome peoples learning difficulties and enable assessment on the basis of peoples knowledge whatever their learning style; rather than assessing them on their ability to draw lines and circles in a way that a teacher understands as words.