A new article in the Harvard Business Review by Alexandra Samuel makes the interesting point that online collaboration should be understood and approached not merely as a substitute for face-to-face collaboration. It actually represents a distinct mode of working, in and of itself, which is better suited to certain tasks and projects than collaborating in person.
Samuel identifies three major ways in which online collaboration provides unique benefits to the work process by helping work groups: (i) overcome time constraints, (ii) overcome distance constraints, and (iii) by introducing new modes of communication. In each case, according to Samuel, a working group responsible for addressing a particular matter can actually improve its performance and functionality by using the appropriate online collaboration tool to help overcome these limitations.
In a sense, this is nothing earth-shaking but just common sense, particularly for those of us working virtually or as part of a firm or organization spread across the globe. Online collaboration lets us do things we otherwise wouldn’t be able to do with colleagues who are working remotely. But the real point that Samuel seems to be making is that these benefits can be realized even within a company or work group sharing a common location. By using the right online collaboration tools colleagues working in the same location can establish a much more rapid work-production cycle, facilitating communication on an issue or problem in between meetings, so the team can continue internal discussion and problem solving on a more continuous basis.
Another aspect to this includes what is sometimes referred to as working out loud – yet another buzz phrase that the digerati have been using the last few years to describe the process of doing and talking about a task simultaneously. This is a process that is greatly facilitated by using an enterprise social network such as IBM Connections, Chatter, Jive or Yammer, so we can keep an open line of communication with remote colleagues throughout the day.
For those of us who are inclined to peace and quiet so we can concentrate while we write or work, this may not sound like such an appealing thing. Certainly many lawyers I know much prefer tackling a brief or draft agreement in their office with the door closed, with as little interruption as possible. But the fact is that even for us old-fashioned types, who relish peace and quiet, there are definitely times and certain tasks we face where keeping an open line of communication with colleagues provides significant value by enabling us to kibitz while addressing a common task. For example, my partner and I may be on a conference call with a client and at the same time we may have a private online chat going on Chatter, so we can maintain both a 2-way and 3-way conversation at the same time.
Online collaboration tools thus provide us with the chance to work in ways that simply weren’t possible a decade ago. These new ways of working may not be smarter and faster for all of us, or well suited to all of our tasks. But it is incumbent on each of us to find ways to integrate these tools and techniques into our daily routines in order to help us work more effectively with our colleagues, wherever they may be located, when they are appropriate to the tasks at hand.