Can Collaboration Save our Economy?

Thumbnail image for Thumbnail image for davidstrom.jpgBy David Strom
The economic news is depressing, and yet I want to see opportunity where others see looming disaster. And I think one way we can try to make things better is become more productive and do a better job collaborating with each other. Think of it as a no-cost stimulus package that even the Republicans can love.
Remember when the PC was first introduced, everyone thought it was such a great personal productivity tool? Sadly, the more powerful that PCs have become, the harder it is to use them to collaborate. This is because we get used to using them as our personal machines, and most of us don’t like sharing our computers, let alone our work products from them.
The primary collaboration tool today is still what it was ten years ago: I send you an email attachment with a Word or Excel file. You make changes and then email the file back for me to look at. This is really serial collaboration, because we alternate working on the same file. While this model is okay for two people, when you have a whole group that is trying to add their thoughts it gets very messy, to say the least. Also, one person can hold up the entire process and then the rest of the group has to wait until that person has finished their revisions. And if we don’t agree, we pretty much have to start the process from scratch. A friend of mine is ghost writing a book for two of his bosses. I can’t imagine what his editing cycle is going to be like under this model.
It is time to realize that serial email-style collaboration is so last year. Consider these trends:

First, the Internet is now ubiquitous and most of us are comfortable using it to connect to our partners, supplies, customers, and colleagues. It has also made email more powerful, and most of us have become addicted to checking our email several times a day and even during off hours too. Some of us have to check email so frequently that we start to get a bit jittery when we are offline for a few hours, let alone when we want to take a week off on some deserted beach where there isn’t any connectivity.
Contrast this with Lotus Notes, which has been around for about 20 years and supposed to be the be-all and end-all collaborative tool, or Microsoft’s SharePoint, which is more recent. Both Notes and Sharepoint require everyone to run it, and develop to its own programming interfaces. That seems so quaint and outmoded now. And both are very quirky to install and deploy, which makes them less desirable too.
Second, email is a great notification system and a great way to organize your to-do list. You don’t have to use it as the transportation system for sending documents around, though. As an example, you can set up a blog to automatically notify via email when someone posts a comment to a particular page, so people can participate in a discussion thread but don’t have to continually return to that page to find out what has been posted.
Third, free or low-cost Internet applications have come of age, such as Google Docs, Google Calendar, Trackvia, Tripit, Timedriver, Hourtown and Setmeeting. All of these don’t require any software to download, don’t have a lot of upfront training or even any dough to use, which means that people can experiment with them and see if they will be suitable for their needs. All of these products can offload some of the tasks that we are used to doing on email and make us more productive in scheduling meetings, sharing work product, and arranging our time. Look for a story from me in the New York Times next month on this topic.
Fourth, instant messaging has become more useful for connecting remote work teams together and can be used as another notification system that is more immediate and more potent in terms of bringing people together. Some firms are beginning to use the built-in IM features of Facebook and Twitter for this purpose too. Again, this takes some load away from looking at your inbox for starting a particular task or trying to get a colleague’s attention.
Finally, there are other tools for two-person collaboration that will work better in real time, such as LogMeIn or GoToMyPC, that allow two people to actually see each other’s computer screen while they are talking on the phone. My podcasting partner Paul Gillin likes, which allows teams of 25 to share the same desktop, no matter if they are on Linux, Mac or Windows.
We still have a long way to go when it comes to collaborating effectively, and I since we are talking about sharing do share your own stories with my audience and post to this entry on I will have more to say on this topic for a keynote speech that I am giving in Philadelphia in April for the American Hardware Manufacturer’s Association. If you want me to come talk to your organization, you can send me email, or better yet, just call me on the phone.