The solution to solve all solutions

About ten years ago I found myself running a team building session for a software development team that was building online telephone directories for a telecoms company. For those of you under 23 a telephone directory was a… oh, forget it.

It was a “sit and talk about how we work” type of session, rather one of those ones involving camouflage gear and a North Wales mountain range, and conversation had got around to the tools that were being used to communicate and collaborate across the team. They were split across a few sites, and so were early proponents of tools like Instant Messaging, but they also had file stores and audio conferences and email and source code repositories and quickly it was raised that individual team members didn’t uniformly know which tool to use for what when.

“Nah, everyone knows what we should be using.” claimed one of the less analytical members of the team. An hour-long debate ensued.

I have been reminded of this session as I’ve been looking at emerging platforms for collaboration as part of my research for #sharingorg. There is a common ideology underpinning modern tools, and it’s this: the problem for collaboration today is that there are too many software tools with which people can collaborate, so our solution is another software tool.

This is preposterous balderdash. And preposterous balderdash that has underpinned much of the business software world for the past 20 years. Generations of software versions were sold with “it’s better than the last one we sold you”. Now in the world of continuous software delivery, “our product is better than your product(s)” is the mantra again after a decade of monopoly categories.

But if you really believe that the barrier to your team collaborating more effectively is a plethora of software and that the answer to that is more software, well, prepare for disappointment.

I’ve no doubt that the introduction of a new software platform can offer a catalyst for business and behaviour change. But those things won’t happen by osmosis – if they did then surely the previous platforms wouldn’t be the problem?

If you’ve got a problem with collaboration there are probably barriers in the way of people working together. As Morten Hansen identified in his book Collaboration, those barriers might fall into one of four categories:

not invented here – people not going out to seek help from others
hoarding – people not offering to help or work with others
searching – not knowing who it is from whom you should seek help or what you are looking for
transfer – the inability for people to translate or adapt across organisational or professional barriers

If people aren’t working together, it will likely to be because of one (or indeed many) of the reasons above. Too much technology might well be an issue (Hansen particularly identifies it as a problem in the Searching category where information systems contribute to information overload). But crafting an project, particularly at scale, to address such challenges with technology it appears needs a particularly holistic approach. Or, indeed, potentially requires an approach that stops talking about solutions to problems entirely…

You can keep track of the #sharingorg project in this working document. If you are interested in contributing to the project or just want to find out more, just drop me a line.

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