Collaboration technology: Just a lot of noise?

FRAMINGHAM (10/03/2003) - In a recent editorial our esteemed editorial director, John Gallant, discussed the problems of collaboration technologies and observed that "Technology is developing faster than our skills to deal with it. We're always on and always connected. But are we always better off? Are we more productive, or simply busier dealing with more messages and more distractions? Share your thoughts with me."

Oh, all right, if you insist, John, I will. . . .

And the answer to whether we are, in general, more productive because of collaboration technologies is, I doubt it. Just consider the problems caused by instant messaging, a tool that is often a distraction and a cause of social friction.

From what my readers tell me, the instant-messaging problem is common in many organizations, where it is definitely as much a waste of time as it is a useful communications tool.

Instant messaging isn't the only problem. In many organizations e-mail has become an endless cocktail party of jokes and poor thinking.Some of this chatter is useful because it keeps people in touch and maintains relationships, but most is noise. And because the noise is mixed in with the signal it is an effort to extract information that you dare not miss.

But the problem of productivity actually has little to do with technology. Just as guns don't kill people, technology in and of itself doesn't kill productivity.

Sure, some technology is so complex, overbearing and rigid that people find it hard to use it effectively (just consider how few companies use Lotus Notes as the total enterprise information solution it was intended to be). But underlying the limitations of technology is the biggest problem of all: people.

This is because we, as human animals, are intrinsically problematic when we are collaborating. We are driven by history and biology to look for connection, to get accepted by the "tribe," to seek approval, to be wary of offense, to exercise hierarchical dominance and rivalry, and to indulge ourselves in ritualistic antagonism. And we're lazy and undisciplined. We don't take kindly to detail and concentration.

All of these drives are incredibly hard for us to put aside and very difficult to ignore in others. Worse still, our culture doesn't really frown on such traits except in the abstract. Our society is generally more concerned with style than substance and more interested in the score than how the game is played.

So mix all those human attributes with new ways of communicating and you are guaranteed to have problems. People will use these tools poorly because they don't know otherwise and their drives are usually unchecked by training or feedback.

IT groups need to make sure that communications and productivity systems are managed and their users taught how to use the tools effectively. For instant messaging and e-mail, you should run courses in their effective use. To back this up you absolutely must have acceptable-uses policies and you should ensure that the services are monitored.

And monitoring can be very effective. By simply filtering e-mail for the Seven Dirty Words you'll be able to identify those users who are probably part of the messaging noise problem and look to manage them.

This of course leads to the problem of whether monitoring is an acceptable practice. Legal concerns aside, I'd suggest that if you have nothing to hide or be ashamed of, then you wouldn't care.

Most crucially, if corporate resources are being wasted or abused, the organization has a responsibility to fix the problem. And if that requires monitoring and correcting or even disciplining users, how bad is that? Surely that counts as a mature, commonsense solution to a serious problem?

So are we better off with these collaboration technologies? Not yet. But they are here to stay, and the sooner we start managing them effectively the sooner they will pay off.

Discipline to backspin@gibbs.com.

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