The Socialization of Collaboration

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 e-mail, portal and team technologies with advanced attention- and activity-based management tools.

Attention management is a new term that describes ways to help individuals manage the demands put on them through communication and collaboration tools. Studies of e-mail use indicate that it quickly became overwhelming and show a correlation between employees' sense of e-mail overload and the number of conversations being juggled in parallel. People are managing many disparate activities at once in their e-mail without support for time and attention management.

IBM Research is developing prototypes that focus on attention management. One project examines new designs for adding structure to the e-mail in-box for the activities being worked on or managed in e-mail. The technology, for example, will visually identify messages that are from the same person or that are part of an e-mail string to make it easier for users to find the information they need and react appropriately to it. It can also scan e-mails for possible appointments to help users add information to their calendars and better manage them.

IBM is also researching how portals can be used behind the scenes to monitor sources of information or applications to determine when they may need attention from an employee. By prioritizing attention demands and delivering notifications, portals can help employees focus their attention on the task at hand until it's needed elsewhere.

For the IT staff, the emergence of new communications media has resulted in a major increase in the volume of data, producing significant challenges in managing documents that contain important corporate knowledge. While file systems are used regularly, researchers have found that people have more success finding attachments in e-mail than in file systems, since e-mails contain clues remembered from the context of the conversation surrounding that document.

The use of team spaces gets information out of private e-mail and into a common space that makes it more likely to become a corporate asset and more appropriately managed by the IT staff. Yet in order for employees to use team spaces regularly enough, the spaces must be as easy to use as e-mail or provide more benefits to the individual or team. Team technology should be activity-based in that it captures all project-related materials, regardless of form. It should also preserve and connect team discussions and mental markers to documents to help support the needs of effective team collaboration that should take place outside of e-mail.

The "activity" has emerged as the basic building block for supporting effective work processes. IT organizations can draw on a variety of technologies that have a well-understood impact on communication and organizational structure. These technologies can help support activity-based work and empower individuals while enabling teams and corporate entities to speak with a single voice. Meeting this set of complementary communications requirements is a challenge, and the organization must assure that IT policies can support desired work practices such as the spontaneous creation of discussion forums. This will require more flexible IT administration policies and a new supporting infrastructure.

Copyright © 2004 IDG Communications, Inc.

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