As social business software proliferates confusion over communication, coordination and collaboration prevents us from realizing the full power and benefits of each. In this post I’ll shed light on the meaning of these terms and provide you with a model that will help you make sound choices around various software platforms you can use for each.
Communication: a means of or the act of exchanging information. In this definition I’m thinking primarily of Searle’s speech act theory. Any software platform that claims to offer ‘Unified Communication’ is focused here.
Task Coordination: a recursive decomposition of a problem into smaller problems (tasks), the distribution of these tasks to workers, the completion of the tasks, the integration of results, and the confirmation of desired results. Think ‘project management’ or “Application Lifecycle Management” software.
Collaboration: Paraphrasing Wikipedia, collaboration is a recursive process where two or more people or organizations work together in an intersection of common goals by sharing knowledge, learning and building consensus. Collaboration requires an understanding of the goal, clearly defined rules of engagement, an understanding of available resources, a means to manage resources, a means to keep track of progress towards the goal and voluntary participation. A key element of collaboration in human groups is that it is based on a small number of actors, typically 2 to 8.
Conteneo provides engines that power collaboration. Unified Communication and ALM software vendors often claim to power collaboration, but they don’t, which is why there is so much confusion in the marketplace. I suspect this is because they secretly aspire to be collaboration platforms, instead of being comfortable with their role in the enterprise software marketplace.
As an aside, I’ll note that the definition of a collaborative act is the same definition of a multiplayer, cooperative serious game, which is why games are the ideal collaboration tool.
These might seem like slippery, hard to understand concepts until you consider specific problems in organizational life.
Let’s consider a common challenge: prioritizing a project portfolio in a moderately sized organization – say 30+ people prioritizing 22 projects in 2+ locations. You might use a Unified Communications-vendor (WebEx, GoToMeeting, BlueJeans, etc.) to present the portfolio, provide a forum for questions and answers, or otherwise enable broad discussions about the merits of specific projects, but “communication” is NOT a tool for actually choosing which projects to engage.
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- The goal isn’t clear (discuss or decide?). There are no rules of engagement (oh – the blowhard is just dominating the meeting).
- The resources are not understood (what’s the budget? Can we get more?).
- The means to manage the resources or to allocate them&em;the rules of engagement&em;are unknown.
I could list more problems, but why bother? We know that these meetings are so terrible that we do it only when forced. Which kinda kills that whole voluntary participation meme. So, ‘communication’ as means to ‘solving the problem of prioritizing a project portfolio’ isn’t an option.
The problem of prioritizing a project portfolio can be approached as project, so it is tempting to think of this as a coordination problem. And, the larger the portfolio, the more it should be managed like a project. You could, and probably would, create tasks in our ALM / project management tool like: ‘define the portfolio to prioritize’ or ‘schedule budget review meeting’.
But the actual act of prioritizing the portfolio is still not supported, so the ALM vendors can’t help us solve the real problem, and indeed, too many ‘tasks’ serve to obscure the actual work of prioritization.
What about a survey? Well, you could use a survey to solicit the priorities of the group and then watch in dismay the group ignore their own results once they start the real negotiations and discussions over the results of the survey. So, surveys won’t work, because they simply defer the (ideally structured) negotiations and discussions that are essential to prioritizing the portfolio.
The best way to accomplish the actual work of prioritizing the portfolio is to make it a collaborative activity. Fortunately, Conteneo offers a solution to this: Decision Engine (aka Buy a Feature – Buy a Project).
Now that we have the right framework (collaborative prioritization) and the right online platform (Decision Engine) we can tackle the right structure. Remember that group of 30 (or 50, or 100, or 300) people who wasted their time an online meeting? We’re going to instead organize these people in groups of 5 to 8 people, because real collaboration occurs in small groups. Each group will engage in a single forum, and then we’ll let Decision Engine analyze the results across the groups to help us identify the priorities.
Just to be clear, of course we need communication and coordination. Indeed, you can’t have collaboration without communication and coordination. The danger is that WAY too many organizations are struggling to solve their hardest problems because they continue to confuse communication, coordination and collaboration.