Collaboration technology does not make one a good collaborator

The most influential photographers in the history of the medium (almost 200 years) created pictures, iconic pictures in fact, with cameras and technology that were well below the standard of cameras one can buy today. Nowadays, everyone can access cameras that are superior to, for example, that used by Neil Armstrong in his capturing of Buzz Aldrin on the moon in 1969 in his “A Man On The Moon” image. That photograph is one of the top 100 most influential images in history according to TIME Magazine’s project “TIME 100 Photos

Armstrong used the legendary Hasselblad camera. As this is an article about collaboration, it is worth noting that NASA and Hasselblad collaborated for years leading up to Hasselblad’s camera being used on the moon. The thing to note here is that, despite the outstanding technological quality that modern cameras boast, they by no means can guarantee a good photographer. The same also goes for collaboration technology which is currently experiencing a boom, in part spurred by the COVID 19 disruption.

“Collaboration technologies that make connections faster and seamless do not make us more collaborative per se.”

So called collaboration technology is appealing for many reasons. Largely, these reasons are supported by an implicit narrative of what business collaboration is about. And that is the fact that we turn to collaboration, we start one, when we have a problem that is exceedingly expensive, too complex or overly frustrating to solve on our own. We admit that, at least some of the time, we need others.

Real collaboration, however, means forming relationships that are not purely transactional. For example, we may observe in say an architect asking a construction company to build an office block. The solution is prescribed by the architect and the builder applies their capabilities to finish the project.  Each party does their own bit so to speak. But that is not strictly what can be termed as collaboration.

In a true collaboration, the parties engage early by jointly defining the challenge, and then continue the process every step of the way with full knowledge that neither party has all the answers. The solution then results from a relationship that differs from the conventional contracts we are accustomed to in a normal business scenario. The collaborating parties do not impose terms and conditions on each other by requesting a defined service. Instead, collaborators take risks in engaging with others to jointly confront the problem.  

Technologies have the capacity to shape human behaviour. But it is not always clear in advance what that can look like

Inevitably, a healthy collaboration with a high chance of success transforms the parties. An initial relationship between business parties who are all alike, namely very capable professionals, could morph into a relationship between vulnerable parties bemused at their need for each other to overcome the problem. That is where we start to see collaboration; its instinctive nature so to speak, start to shape up.

Collaboration technologies that make connections faster and seamless do not make us more collaborative per se. What collaboration technologies do for business is facilitate an efficiency of transactions. However, it is not the simplicity of ‘sharing documents’ or being able to exchange text and messages 24×7 that can solve a problem. Rather, it is the tacit admission that others’ knowledge, IP, experience, culture, willingness and skills need to be included in the mix.

Technologies have the capacity to shape human behaviour. But it is not always clear in advance what that can look like. People adapt to and adopt technologies to suit their own needs and values. So, with the current proliferation of so-called collaboration tools, managers, especially senior managers, need to know how much return on investment they will get.  If the real focus is on solving problems, then collecting a plethora of tools may indicate that there are deeper issues in the business; such as, poorly defined problems in need of attention or, more commonly, managers unwilling to come to terms with vulnerabilities that can be exposed in the collaboration process.

The simple picture here is this: the difference between good business collaboration and a ‘working together’ model which we just call collaboration, is not a technology tool, however helpful it may be. The difference is attitude. A group of talented, open minded, confident yet humble professionals determined to solve a problem and create new value, can achieve results sitting together in a local coffee shop with nothing but fully engaged minds and trust.

Ensuring such attitude is the starting point.