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The Socialization of Collaboration

By Irene Greif, IBM Fellow
August 25, 2004 12:00 PM ET

Computerworld - For thousands of years, people conducted business communications in the same way -- through face-to-face meetings. The communications innovations of the past century, therefore, have had interesting side effects on the way people work, individually and in teams.
Each new communications medium introduces new standards related to the quality and speed of communication, new etiquette governing use and new ways of conducting business. Recent technological advancements, such as e-mail, Web conferencing and instant messaging, have helped push the speed of business, heighten competitiveness and transform the nature of communication.

E-mail and instant messaging. E-mail and instant messaging have empowered the individual and reduced the dependence on social hierarchies. E-mail has supplanted the operating style of formally passing information up and down organizational lines. It supports informal social links among individuals that are critical to good decision-making and a key ingredient for fostering innovation.
As much as individuals value e-mail, many tasks require a more immediate focus. As a result, chat technologies have infiltrated the business world, and instant messaging has become an integral part of how people work. As people blend the way they work across e-mail and instant messaging, the distinction between the two is mostly about interruptions and responsiveness. The sender of an instant message gets his answer faster, but the receiver may perceive it as a disturbance.

Portal and workflow technology. In contrast to e-mail and instant messaging, portal and workflow technologies favor the top-down driving of corporate messages and processes. Portals are the starting point for most corporate-initiated workflows that streamline business processes, and individuals within organizations have widely accepted these forms-based workflows.

Team technologies. Teams sit midway between the individual and the enterprise. When utilized well, team software is capable of generating large productivity gains, yet most companies have felt more impact from e-mail and portal technologies. Perhaps this lagging effect resulted from high expectations surrounding the technology. While the influence of e-mail on the organization evolved over time, most users of team technologies expect them to cause organizational change from the outset. The technology has to be better than e-mail for all users involved, or a "critical mass" of participation won't be reached.

The Side Effects of Advanced Communications
Increased online communication can translate into problems for both knowledge workers (such as increased demands on employees' attention) and IT departments (such as unmanaged information storage). To help alleviate these side effects for all involved, organizations should focus on the convergence of the individual, corporate and team perspectives as a guideline for strategic IT investment. The new workplace should integrate services from

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