Collaboration in a networked world

I'm currently at Supernova, where I attended a panel on 'Frontiers of Real Time Collaboration' (videos are the last two on this page, and there's a public Google Wave for the session). It gave me food for thought, not so much because of what was said - enough about Twitter, already! - but rather because of what wasn't said.

Finding effective ways to collaborate is a really interesting subject, and its one of those where I suspect everyone has a different view on what collaboration means. For me, collaboration is an umbrella term for a host of different activities, modes, relationships and states.

I find it helpful to think of collaboration as a pathway, starting with Discovery (realisation that there is a problem, finding people who want to solve it with you), then Coordination (identification and assignment of activities) and then Creation (of assets that are needed to do the job e.g. written documents).

But it gets much more complex when you consider the different modes of interaction between participants on this path. This might be defined by relationship (e.g. student / teacher), access (e.g. inside / outside firewall) or current mode (active / passive). By active and passive, I'm talking about the level of involvement at that moment - I might be having an IM chat with a fellow collaborator, or at the other end of the spectrum I might be out having a meal at a restaurant, safe in the knowledge that everything is being gathered in one place. I might not even be involved on the project yet - but when I join, I need to navigate the work done up to that point.

Incidentally, I think Google deserves a lot of credit for trying to address this active / passive challenge with Google Wave. Obviously, Wave has it's faults, predominantly in the user interface, but this is still real new frontier stuff, and I'm sorry that Anna-Christina Douglas of the Google Wave team didn't press home this major achievement in the panel yesterday.

Back to the collaboration pathway. There are literally hundreds of tools that address parts of this, from wikis to forums, from email to video chat, from Google Docs to instant messaging. They're generally free as in beer, and well established. By and large, I think most teams settle on the collection of tools that best fits whatever it is they're trying to achieve. So this raises a number of interesting questions:

- Isn't this enough? What could or should come next?
- Could technology be improved to support certain types of collaboration more effectively? Which areas need work?
- Does technology need to catch up with people, or do people need to catch up with technology?
- What about people who work for companies that restrict access to, or discourage participation using, free and public tools? Is it fair to ask them to rely on an intranet over which they have no control?
- How can technology augment and support activity that takes place in real life, face to face?

I'm starting to form the view that this is one frontier that doesn't need to move that quickly. A lot of the tools we have are more than adequate for our needs. Necessity is the mother of invention, which is probably why Google Wave is the first major innovation on this landscape for several years.

As for intranets, it's incumbant on large organisations to realise that they don't have a monopoly on necessary skills or good ideas. Those that succeed in the next decade will be those who can work just as effectively with those outside the firewall as those on inside - as well as providing effective tools for their staff to work together, of course!

I'm truly crap at articulating points such as those raised here in a public forum - for me, they take time to percolate - but one point I wish I'd made yesterday is that there is already an area where people have been collaborating very productively for over ten years - open source. I think that the tools these communities use (IRC, Forums, code versioning systems, IM) lend themselves nicely to the task at hand, but there is still plenty we can learn from these communities, particularly in the way that they self organise.

Yesterday's panel discussion focused quite heavily on Twitter, as being the 'real time' element in the discussion title. I like Twitter, but I think it can only play a small role in collaboration exercises - perhaps in the Discovery phase, but not in terms of Coordination and Creation. It's just not a tool with which you get things done, in a project collaboration sense.

Nice to get all of that out of my system!