Collaboration isn’t a Technology Problem

Collaboration is hard. Technology can improve how we collaborate, but effective collaboration isn’t purely — or even primarily—a technical challenge. In this first of two posts about collaboration, I’ll elaborate on the failure of approaching the problem from a purely technical perspective. In the follow-up, I’ll talk about how technology can help.

At best, technology is an optimizer.

Collaboration is a social and economic activity. To the extent that we’re rational, we collaborate out of a belief that the collective benefits exceed the costs — and that we’ll partake in those benefits individually.

Technology can increase the delivery of benefits, but more often it reduces costs. In some cases, that optimization fundamentally alters the economics of collaboration. For example, internet and mobile connectivity have transformed collaboration by drastically reducing the cost (in time and money) of communication.

But technology doesn’t change the utility function for which we optimize. In particular, reducing the cost of collaboration only matters if there’s a positive benefit. A less negative return on investment is still negative. And that’s not taking into account any new costs that technology creates.

Technology eliminates friction — for better or worse.

In most discussions of user experience, people describe friction — anything that slows the user down — as a bad thing. That’s particularly true when you’re running an ecommerce site: friction slows down the rate at which your customers part with their money.

But removing friction isn’t always good for collaboration. The same communication technology that enables people to access collaborators at a moment’s notice continuously interrupts us, making it impossible for us to focus. The problem is economic rather than technical: one person benefits, while others pay the cost. Unfortunately, we end up in a game of prisoner’s dilemma, where our individual attempts to optimize for personal benefit result in a high collective cost.

The problem is not so much technology as misuse of technology. Just because we can remove friction doesn’t mean that we have to. In fact, technology can help us create the right incentives — somethng I’ll discuss in the next post.

Knowledge sharing isn’t free.

In a healthy organization, people don’t set out to hoard information from one another. Rather, all employees hope to benefit from the organization’s collective knowledge. And more technology-inclined employees imagine something like a Wikipedia or Knowledge Graph within their organizations.

Unfortunately, knowledge sharing isn’t free. And technology isn’t the barrier. The bigger challenge is motivating employees to invest time in contributing their knowledge.

Why is it so hard to replicate Wikipedia’s success? Let’s look at the participating numbers. Only 0.5% of registered English Wikipedia users have contributed even a single edit in the past month. Luckily for Wikipedia, that’s still well over 100,000 contributors.

But imagine trying to maintain your corporate knowledge base with a participation rate of 1 in 200. Unless you have thousands of employees, it’s a non-starter. And even if you are that large, it’s unlikely that your small set of contributors will have full access to the organization’s collective knowledge.

Automatically ingesting the organization’s knowledge to create a knowledge graph may sounds like a most cost-effective alternative. But knowledge mining isn’t magic. Employees still have to contribute that knowledge, and a meaningful subset of them have to dedicate time and effort to cleaning and maintaining the knowledge graph.

Unless people see knowledge sharing as part of their day job — and are rewarded and recognized accordingly — no technology will overcome their lack of motivation to contribute.

Chat isn’t the answer.

Frustrated with information overload from email and the failure of knowledge management platforms, some companies have turned to group chat as a platform for collaboration.

The company getting the most attention in this space is Slack, which reduces enterprise collaboration to group chat with archiving and search. Slack has taken the enterprise by storm, reaching 2 million daily active users in less than 2 years. It’s a fun, beautifully designed product that everybody loves.

Well, not everybody. Jason Fried recently wrote an article that resonated with many of us, entitled “Is group chat making you sweat?”. Fried runs Basecamp, a collaboration tool that competes with Slack, so he’s not an impartial observer.

Nonetheless, he makes a strong case that group chat shouldn’t be the substrate for collaboration within an organization. He describes how continuous group chat leads to distraction, anxiety, and stress — and more broadly to a collective waste of attention. In other words, the costs exceed the benefits.

That’s not to say that there isn’t value in group chat, or that Slack isn’t a brilliantly executed platform for it. It’s just a reminder that no technology is a silver bullet.

Technology can’t solve a cultural challenge.

As I’ve hopefully convinced you by now, enterprise collaboration is not so much about technology as it is about culture. If people want to collaborate, than technology can be an enabler and optimizer. But technology on its own cannot create utility or align incentives.

But technology can help. Technology can reduce the costs of collaboration by improving the discoverability of information, people, and other resources. Technology can also help motivated people share knowledge more effectively. And cheap, instantaneous communication is an incredible tool — when it’s used appropriately.

In the next post, I present constructive suggestions on how to use current and evolving technology to improve collaboration.