Is Collaboration Is Dead After All? Yes, Time to do Something Better

Collaboration software won the world and lost. How can it be we are here now? The answers reveal much about what business wants, how vendors sabotaged themselves and why collaboration still hasn’t delivered the promise.

Photo by Andrew Neel on Pexels.com

The Last Thing You Need.

A recent post by Carrie Basham Marshall, a leading future of work practitioner and founder of both a technology platform and a leading consultancy, announcing her move into ranching highlighted a frustration widely shared in collaboration practitioners:

But digital transformation in its current state no longer feels innovative – it’s a bit of a Groundhog Day industry right now, still offering the identical community and collaboration-related promises that we made more than a decade ago. It’s also too vendor-centric, which makes employee behavior change even harder. I’m still a huge believer in transparency, the digital workplace, and the employee experience. I’m also in search of something new and deeply meaningful.

Carrie Basham Marshall

I quote Carrie at length because her words hit home. In recent years, I have heard similar sentiments from clients, consultants and vendors alike. I recently found myself answering questions with a talk I delivered in 2011 and a post I wrote in 2013. We can talk about new features but mostly the vendors are in a cycle of copying each others features or copying the features of consumer social in an effort for relevance. Some vendors have given up discussing collaboration and social networking and focus almost entirely on employee communications. Hybrid work may mean everyone now has the technology likely through a major vendor stack or in opposition to it. Few are getting more than entry level value.

The technology is hardly new. We’ve been going around this technology block for a while. Jive was founded in 2001 and now have vanished into private equity hell. Yammer was founded in 2008. Slack was founded in 2009. Workplace from Meta the once new kid on the block was announced in 2015. Microsoft Teams was launched November 2016. Over the last 20 something years, a raft of other collaboration solutions have lit up the sky and either burnt out or scaled back to a niche. I’m sure there’s yet another Google product coming.

If you take nothing else away from this post, remember this:

Technology is not the issue. A better product isn’t the answer. Features won’t get you home. A collaboration system is the last thing you need.

What Went Wrong

Work is a wicked problem — a snarl of dilemmas, not a list of initiatives — and the whole world and all its actors are fighting to control it, bend it, contain it: in short, to own it.

Stowe Boyd, on Twitter

Stowe Boyd in his typical incisive fashion nails the first issue with much of the last decade of collaboration. The consultants and change agents were focused on the potential to create a new way of working based in agility, transparency, freedom and creativity. Organisations and their managers right down to the frontline were focused on extending models of power and leveraging the technology to improve employee engagement without real change. Employees wanted some improvement in their work, better information and better help, but they weren’t seeking the revolution of the advocates, mostly they wanted work to be rewarding, productive and safe.

The second issue flows from the first. With so many diverse interests at play, we could never nail a consistent metaphor for the activity that these tools were helping to improve. Were we focused on social networking, collaboration, employee communications, employee engagement, community, employee experience, innovation, or something else? The answer of all of the above doesn’t fit in the reductive simplistic management model in place around the world. No wonder people had so much trouble with ‘what to use when.’ Kai Riemer nailed this issue back at the beginning of this technology when he highlighted that it was an infrastructure that’s use was open to its users and demanded sense-making. That we are still grappling with that sense over a decade later is a major issue.

Infrastructures don’t have a well-defined purpose. Infrastructures are largely undefined, general purpose, but they open up a realm of new possibilities. They are unpredictable!

Kai Riemer, Tool or Infrastructure

With all the above in play, it became easier for vendors to focus on the technology and its features. Many embraced the sense-making and the adoption support required to help employees to understand and leverage the work. Other vendors made the lack of a need for such support marketing features even though it was an illusion. Over time, it became clear that one needed to invest in adoption at launch. Fewer clients lined up to support their investment in new technology with ongoing support. The benchmark of adoption became employees on a tool with some level of activity, not the potential to work better or more valuably. In a confusion of goals, the simplest metric dominates.

Last and perhaps most devastating of all, too much of the adoption work became about what to do to employees to encourage use of the tool – what to take away, what to force into the platform, how to create incentives from cupcakes to competitions to regular video updates from the boss. This top-down focus on doing-to-others meant so many organisations missed the peer-based bottom up doing-with-others that represented the exponential potential of value. Community which is hard and long-term was swapped for the short fix of launches, gamification and measurement. Employees arrived on the new tool without any sense it was for them to get value and asked “do I have to use this too?”. Managers invested significantly to get all their employees on the platform and went “is that all there is?” No wonder the next platform launch always looked tempting.

Please note, there’s no new revelation in these three issues. They have been discussed individually and collectively for a long while. What has changed as adoption of the platforms become universal post-Covid is that the answer to these was not going to magically appear when we had adoption or the tool to beat all tools was launched. Those who have been saying for a decade that we need to do better now have the evidence to back it up.

Where Now?

The challenges of the last decade highlight a few paths to a better future:

  1. Focus on strategic value. Don’t focus on some universal use case, metric or goal. Focus on the value you need in your circumstances whether you are an employee, a manager, a team, or a whole organisation. Leverage these platforms to meet your work goals and create better ways to work.
  2. Focus on people, not technology. There is no feature that will solve any problem. There is no feature that holds you back from creating the value of your people working together in better ways. There will be annoyances but there are always workarounds and people are ultimately forgiving if you create the value in 1
  3. Scaffold the work. There are so many different kinds of community, so many different patterns of work in an organisation and so many employee goals and benefits. Put in place the scaffolding on which people can build their collaborations and their communities. That scaffolding includes purpose, goals, strategic alignment, context and relevance. Hint: It might also involve fostering connection, sharing, problem solving and innovation. Don’t try to prescribe who, how or where. Vibrant communities will always surprise you.
  4. Back your employees: Your employees are better, more committed and more capable than you think. Give them a chance to show you what they can do. Manage exceptions as exceptions not the foundation of new policies and constraints. Trust flows from trust and one of the critical elements to success in collaboration is mutual trust.
  5. Begin and end with everyday work. Video is exciting. Events are exciting. Campaigns, features, incentives and more can help educate employees but begin and end your work by improving everyday work. Make that better and your efforts have ongoing value to the grassroots in the organisation.

The challenge of this approach is that each client situation is different, each team has a different set of goals, needs and value. Projects can’t be rolled out following a standard pattern and to a fixed timetable. Simple measures of success fall away for customised outcomes. Most importantly of all vendors can’t promise the easy and the shiny and hope that it is enough. The work from vendors of scaffolding diverse patterns of work and supporting a cacophany of sense-making is hard, but the value creation is extraordinary. The first vendors who chose and support this path for their clients will see outsized returns and win the ongoing support of the tired collaboration advocates.

P.S. If you have got this far and magically believe that better community management tools, better integrations, DAOs, the metaverse, or some other next generation technology solution is about to solve all the above issues, please read again carefully from the start.

7 thoughts on “Is Collaboration Is Dead After All? Yes, Time to do Something Better

  1. The key lesson I have learned through my 25+ years of organizational consulting is that: Sociology >> Technology in organizations (>> is “much greater/important than”). Right now I am working on a collaboration project and there is NO talk of “tools”… relationships first. Know the Net, Knit the Net.

    1. Thanks Valdis. A key takeaway and thanks for sharing your insights. Love ‘Know the Net. Knit the Net.’ because it reflects a people focus.

  2. Good morning, Simon. I feel slightly out of breath reading your post trying to get my head around what’s in play. If we strip things back to the bare bones of what is being pointed at, I assume it’s either premised on a more productive workforce or people who are more engaged? Of course, I’m being overly simplistic, but if technology is an exemplar of anything, and I can say this now that I’ve lived through so many workplace changes, it’s to serve the wrong cohort (i.e. the vendors) which your post makes clear. Not that I’m in the driving seat of anything these days — I’m just a reluctant, jobbing solicitor — but I’d start by asking everyone what they expect from their work? Is it (as so often seems the case) a means to a financial end or something more spirit-full? If the latter, do they see technology playing any part in delivering something where their souls are aligned with their work? I’ve my doubts tbh. Take care, Julian

  3. Hey Simon, ripper article my man! I think a lot of this can be summarised by the simple observation that actually the majority of organisations could not give a toss about effective collaboration, a great employee experience or true efficiency and effectiveness.

    Sad state of afairs but i genuinely think it’s true that most orgs are simply status quo machines full of people with no genuine shared sense of purpose – instead they are gathering places for individuals wanting to scrape through life in a capitalist society as best as possible… Jeez this sounds a lot harsher than actually intended!

    So for the majority of people like us genuinely trying to build a better world of work, whether in-house or as a consultant or for a vendor, you are far more likely to be trying to convert someone to a brave new world that they just do not care about, despite their potential proclamations to the contrary.

    Surely the only real answer to it all has indeed been provided by Carrie – let’s get back to the land and grow some tasty stuff 😉

  4. Very clear and useful perspective on how things have unfolded over the past decade. The emphasis on installing technology and tools was noticed a decade or so ago by many in this space, with the accompanying very general call-to-action of “it’s all about culture, and culture is hard”. OK, that was sorted, now on with the digital transformation. Ha ha.

    Welp, it’s still about arriving at better understandings of people and how they will and won’t work together, and the whys and wherefores of that key issue.

    Thanks for reminding us so crisply and clearly !!

  5. So I think I hear you saying that tools can HELP you solve for collaboration and other problems, but only when people and relationships remain the focus of the work. And that kind of work is really hard to do.

    If I’m reading it right, this would match with my experience. Tools can be useful, and can make some things easier or harder. But ultimately, I have seen that people will be patient with a tool if you work with them and they can see how using it anyway (when it doesn’t work like they want) can facilitate an end goal. And having people in the business deliver those solutions to their stakeholders instead of the platform owner deliver them (people focused!) is always so much better!

    Much as I wish I could follow in Carrie’s footsteps, I fear my body wouldn’t hold out for long with that level of physical work. So I’ll keep trucking trying to do the mental gymnastics required to help people work better together.

    1. Thank Tracy. We are well aligned that that is the valuable work. I agree that focusing on goals and people leads to a big difference in success.

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