Can technology help us to work more effectively together? Certainly, it has had a major impact in enabling the exchange of messages, images, and data (through basic communications). And recent years have seen the problems of virtual teaming reduced by improving sequencing (e.g., through shared calendars) and providing richer environments (e.g., moving from email and phone conversations to shared virtual worlds and videoconferencing).
But there are still many barriers to collaboration in terms of cultural differences, a loss of nuances, variations in language (and jargon), and a lack of context. Failures in sharing knowledge, credibility, trust, experience, attitudes, and values can also get in the way. This is especially evident when team members are not co-located, but collaboration breakdowns that result in confusion, misunderstanding, and animosity can be a big part of joint projects even when people work face-to-face.
Successful collaboration becomes more and more important as the problems and opportunities we face become more complex. Developing and implementing the best solutions depends on bringing together people with different skills, perspectives, capabilities, knowledge, and experience – often with no history of working together. While there are rare instances of people accomplishing much by going it alone, pushing into new areas usually requires a team capable of the dynamic and open exchange of ideas and the means to build on and realize innovative plans. When people bring a variety of talents together and work in concert, synergies are found and better approaches, higher quality products, and breakthrough concepts emerge.
Beyond the basics (such as access to information), key requirements for effective collaboration include:
- common ground (understanding, shared concepts, values, culture, and etiquette);
- effective capture and dissemination of real-time data decisions, and tasks;
- means for interpretation and contextualization;
- detection of anomalies;
- appropriate opportunity (sharing resources and expertise in a fair way);
- visibility across the team for truly different opinions, ideas, and recommendations;
- mechanisms to optimize, prioritize and focus attention;
- processes for analysis, agreement, and validation of team comprehension.
In addition, passion, motivation, and enthusiasm need to be supported.
Of course, a trained, talented leader can intervene to help team members smooth over difficulties, encourage best efforts, and keep a project running well with minimal technology in place. Also, without much investment in IT, team members can train, take part in exercises, follow rules, and engage socially to build bonds that will raise the quality (and individual benefits) of their work. In fact, personal involvement, formal structure, and rules are all essential elements.
But technology also can play an important role in accessing the value of teams. This can extend from simply using pictures of team members during conference calls (which focuses attention and engenders trust) to sharing a wall-sized map with real-time updates and controls to make decisions on resource allocation during an emergency. I’ll explore some of the technology options for facilitating collaboration in future posts.