Blog post

The Collaboration Spaces vs. Communication Channels Argument Continues

By Craig Roth | October 20, 2010 | 3 Comments


Ever have one of those arguments at work that never seems to end?  People leave the company and pick up right where they left off years later.  The role of social computing in communication and collaboration is one of those arguments and two alumni of my Collaboration and Content team, now at Cisco and Microsoft, are still at it. 

The dispute started at Burton Group, where Mike Gotta and Peter O’Kelly worked with me on the Collaboration and Content Strategies team.  The core of a good analyst firm is a culture that fosters debate and hashing out of ideas.  The papers and presentations our clients see are just the tip of the iceberg.  We had (and continue to have at Gartner) a great thinktank culture. 

The issue at hand has not changed since 2006, but it has become more pressing since social has taken off exponentially since then.  Mike Gotta’s post “Pushing The Reset Button On How We Look At ‘Collaboration’” summarizes his point against a strict separation of communication and collaboration well:

The narrow focus on workspaces left a tremendous amount of whitespace in organizations where people still needed to informally interact, communicate, share information, collaborate – but in ways where an activity-centric “sense of place” was either unnecessary or too structured.

The way I look at “Collaboration 1.0” and “Collaboration 2.0” is the shift in focus from directed participation (represented by workspaces) to emergent participation (represented by communities and social networking).

Peter O’Kelly’s post “Cisco Community Central: Enterprise Social Software : Pushing The Reset Button On How We Look At ‘Collaboration’” upholds his view (still represented by our root template for collaboration and content) that the 2×2 model is still sufficient to cover community efforts.  It was always assumed that activities could move between boxes.  As Peter states

Activity tends to cycle among the different synchronous and asynchronous channels and workspaces.

So, one option is to expand the view of what collaboration is to include community activity as well as directed participation.  I also see another option: that rather than tying social strictly to collaboration, it exists as a neutral spot between collaboration and communication.  This would be a “third place” where spaces and channels are blended and can spawn more communication or collaboration: communities. 

Mike is correct in saying that social is emergent participation.  The way I see it though, this emergent participation spawns communication and collaboration. So Peter is right in stressing the way activities move between communication, collaboration, and (I would add) social. 

Consider that people join or leave communities at will and post topics without an end goal in mind, but are certainly pleased when they motivate the community into action, either by launching a directed collaboration effort (“lets start a project to fix the problem this posting is about”) or communication between members.  Like stem cells, these messages live and build until needed for a purpose and can then change to become collaboration or communication when the time comes.  For anything to really happen, the messages must transform.  They must be received as communications or result in collaboration.

Another interesting aspect of communities is that aside from being a “third place” above spaces and channels – is that they blur the line between synchronous and asynchronous tools as well (shown in Peter’s diagram).  Networking has become fast and ubiquitous enough that tools such as Twitter, Yammer, and e-mail (particularly with toasts turned on) can launch back-and-forth conversations that are as real-time as instant messaging.

This dispute also brings up a tooling discussion: which tool is best to use, should you cajole people into not using e-mail for collaboration, are vendors being too siloed in how they build tools.  I’ll leave that to another post.  There’s enough to bite off just with the “where does social fit in with communication and collaboration?” issue.

What do you think?

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  • Mike Gotta says:

    Hi Craig,

    Yep – some debates (like the Red Sox and Yankees) can go on and on!

    The key points I was making is that if we continue to look at “collaboration” through the tooling of collaboration, we will always draw incorrect assumptions regarding “collaboration” from the view of its participants. Collaboration is not about the tools. The other key point is that communication is intrinsic to collaboration.

    To Peter’s point – his diagram remains very much a tooling model. And as a technology lens (or taxonomy), it’s reasonably correct. If you equate collaboration as a tooling decision – then my posts will not change many people’s minds. However, if you have struggled with collaboration strategies over the years and continue to see inconsistent results – then you might want to consider my posts as taking a “fresh look” at the topic.

    Rather than take a bottom-up technology view on collaboration and push tooling as the proper means to participate and contribute in collaborative contexts (as a tooling taxonomy does), I swiveled the model around. Moving technology to the background makes sense. A people-centric view of collaboration encourages you to understand the contexts and situations where people work together.

    “We” (as an industry) need to shift the emphasis of collaboration strategies away from the very limiting tool discussion to a focus on design, user experience (individual and collective), and relationships, to enable collaboration within whatever environment collaboration occurs. Collaboration can be verbal and visual depending on the context and situation. We need to not treat communication as being outside collaboration models. To do so means we are closing our eyes to a very compelling way that people work together.

  • Thanks for sharing your perspective, Craig, and for the follow-up comments, Mike.

    I wouldn’t call it an argument — more of an ongoing debate about different frameworks/models for addressing topics at the intersection of communication, collaboration, and information management.

    I agree with Mike that my framework is somewhat tool-centric, and that it’s not exhaustive, e.g., for addressing some of the more “E2.0” social dynamics. I have found it to be robustly useful in a wide variety of domains, however, and I don’t think it’s excessively “narrow,” as Mike implied in his Cisco blog post.

    I also don’t think “social” stuff is discontinuous; e.g., as I noted in my post, blogs are simply async communication channels, and wikis are async workspaces.

    It’s useful to explore emergent participation and and relationship-centric collaboration (along with observable work and other recent collabortion-related topics), but that doesn’t mean everything that came before spontaneously became less useful.

  • Craig Roth says:

    The team’s back together again!

    Yeah, “argument” is too strong. Debate is the word I would have used if I’d thought of it.

    To Peter’s point, our reference architecture templates are indeed meant to describe a conceptual architecture for technology. User patterns may be useful, but that would be a different diagram.

    To use this posting and the 2 comments as an example, this is what I mean when I say that posting a social message (like this blog post) is like a stem cell. I didn’t know exactly what would happen with it – no plan or structure in mind. I could have posted it, some people would read it, and gotten no comments, so it would have been a 1:many, one-way blast. In this case it spawned a few comments and an email to me from Mike. It may spawn a collaborative effort on my team to update the template in question – purposeful, goal-oriented, and limited group.

    Although I can see where Peter could say that reiterates the view that movement between quadrants is fluid. Or Mike’s that collaboration can now include communication. Quite a conundrum …