Select from popular items or look up items alphabetically: the trouble with choosing collaboration tools

With collaboration now becoming a mainstream business discipline every bit as important as HR, Marketing, ICT, or Finance, there is an unavoidable rise in offerings of tools and aids.  While most are predominantly technology based, not all are tech tools.  Business is booming but an entirely separate question is how much the products on offer can actually help a business be more competitive, grow and increase its profit.

consumer-choiceFor a start, an unusually large majority of offerings that have emerged over the past few years are little more than glorified filing cabinets with Email attached.  The creators of these collaboration aids seem to think that the ability to share documents and exchange a few words online is all there is to collaboration.  At times I see the word ‘collaboration’ used almost as an afterthought, to make the product sound sexier.  Things will change for the better though.  The biggest single factor that will help that happen is the consumer.  As consumers become better at collaborating and start to grasp the idea of collaboration as a strategic practice, so too will their nuanced demand for better products.  At the moment, makers of collaboration tools rely on speculation about what people want.  Very few makers actually have experience working as collaboration strategist or managers.

One of the key problems with the current offering of collaboration tools is that it focuses overwhelmingly on one aspect of client experience: ease of use.  By all means this is vital because people don’t like using complex tools.  Especially when they are built by code.  But, by the same token, serious collaboration requires serious effort.  This means that the whole collaboration experience should not be ‘easy’.  It should include some degree of ‘rack your brains’ effort.  Collaboration is not a puzzle where we simply add bits to make a new object.  It is both adding bits and also creating new bits; which then leads to a new object or outcome.  That means that there is a significant element of creative process in collaboration which simply can’t be made easy by a tech-based collaboration tool.

In fact, one of the main features of a collaboration tool should be a specific set of limitations that the user understands.  It is simply not good enough to pretend that a tool itself will make or break collaboration.  Businesses that embark on collaboration to achieve a major outcome should be clear from the outset that a tool itself, no matter how expensive and no matter how shiny, cannot substitute human effort in terms of seeking a creative, innovative and workable solution.  The importance of the right kind of experience for clients is paramount.  When it comes to collaboration and the tools that are used to make collaboration work well, the experience should be about allowing people to use the tools with little interference in the process of collaboration as possible.  This means that the bright shiny tech application should be barely noticeable.

What tends to happen however is the exact opposite.  Collaborating parties often get bogged down in the way the tool works.  This then makes the already hard work of thinking, analysing, discussing, brainstorming, testing, debating, etc much harder and, in fact, at times even frustrating.  A good collaboration tool should work a light bulb; it should provide the necessary light but we should barely notice that it is there.  Seamless.  There is little doubt that we will see collaboration technology improve as the experience of collaboration becomes more informed by the end user.  At present, the design of the experience that goes into tool engineering is largely based on input from a select few.  Most businesses still struggle with the idea that collaboration is an inclusive operating system.  A competitive, innovative, resilient-to-disruption business does not switch collaboration on and off … it is always on.