Blog: Collaboration vs. Communication

June 1, 2009
By H. Mosher

Christopher Dorobek waxes nostalgic about his first e-mail account and how he didn't get it at first in this month's Incoming column, "The First Step Toward Collaboration Is to Stop E-Mailing." And he wasn't the only one, he writes:

As shocking as it may seem now, all types of questions arose in agencies about whether e-mail was necessary. The General Services Administration (GSA), under then-administrator David J. Barram, was one of the first agencies to ensure that each person in the organization had e-mail-on Flag Day 1996. The GSA press release headline read, "GSA Employees Join Super Information Highway through Intranet."

Barram's quote in the release, dated June 14, 1996, states that, "Using this tool called Internet, companies, governments and individuals around the world are inventing exciting new ways to do their work, improve service to their customers, and communicate with each other," Barram said today. "I believe that use of the Internet will be a key competitiveness factor for GSA in the coming years and that GSA employees must begin to learn how this new resource can change the way we do business."

Amusing as hindsight can be, Dorobek makes an excellent point when he says that e-mail really did revolutionize the way we communicate, but hasn't done much toward the effort to collaborate. But since we've gotten in the habit of using e-mail to collaborate, for lack of better tools in the '90s, we're still using e-mail to collaborate even though better tools are out there. He continues:

My challenge to users is to think before sending an e-mail and ask the simple question: "Is this the best tool for what I am trying to accomplish?" In many cases, much better options are available. Blogs can be used for speaking to large groups of people, but they also create a place where a conversation can happen around topics. Wikis are collaborative workplaces where people can share information and ideas. And other capabilities are popping up every day.

Better tools for collaboration are available. It is time to thank e-mail and move on.

Indeed! Blogs, and wikis, and social bookmarking, and... what else? What we're curious about here in SIGNAL's offices are which tools are most effective in facilitating collaboration? It seems like new ones spring up every day, but this could be a valuable conversation in helping managers understand new collaboration tools.

Share Your Thoughts:

Aloha, Helen! Great post. Breaking the email habit is VERY hard for folks to do and I think you give us a great start here by highlighting Dorobek's challenge. My colleague and content manager, Jamie Champagne, is perpetually asking people to ask the question "why?" before posting, sharing and collaborating. Can we do this in a different way? Use a different tool?

In the Navy and actually in the Joint world we see a significant increase in the use of Defense Connect Online (DCO) as a way to have synchronous meetings, share files and talk to one another using voice and video in some cases across large geographic distances, between big-piped shore-based commands and units with more limited connectivity. Wikis and blogs are also part of our new standard as are services like Twitter and Yammer.

Looking forward to your future posts!

Jamie Hatch
Knowledge Management Officer
for the Commander, U.S. Pacific Fleet

Good morning Helen! You have captured the very essence of one of our internal goals at the company I currently work for! We are actively testing a few tools such as an in-house Twitter-like notification system (we call it a journal). We also use ActiveCollab for project wide notification.

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Nice post. Looks like I need to catchup on some of the older entries.

I do think it's important to distinguish the two (communication & collaboration), as separate objectives. Many like to use those terms as synonymous when describing tools. I guess those two terms can mean different things to people.

Blogs in my opinion are the best form of communication to replace email in the context above. For example, often I need to let my Department (a few hundred employees) know about new IT policys or information. The traditional method is to email "all". The problem is I don't know who really cares about this information I'm sending. The ones that do care may send an email back with follow up comment or question. So now what? Email them individually (one benefits), email "all" again (filling people with rage as I blow up their mailbox)? Rather then deal with this problem, I post the information on a blog, then email out a link to "all". This way you inform everyone, and invite the ones that care to participate. The post also is crawled by our internal google search appliance to bring in those outside the dept searching the topic.

The use of Twitter and Yammer can be used to link people to posts.

For collaboration, there's no better place then on a wiki. Generally the only time I use a wiki is for creating some sort of documentation. Start a wiki page and hope that others will contribute, sometimes you can delegate sections instead.

DCO is nice to use for all the reasons Jamie mentioned, but the main reason I like DCO is because it uses open standards for its IM\Chat (Jabber XMPP). This means that I can use whatever program I want to connect to it (OS agnostic). DCO has low barriers for particpation. You can invite anyone with a URL, and they can jump in even if they don't have an account as a guest. The fact that its all flashed based means that it works on 99% of the computers on the planet.

Good relationships promote effective collaboration. Spend time together in work and play to build relationships that make it easier to collaborate during work or incident response.

The following actions provide organizations the ability to improve their use of existing collaboration tools.

- Identify collaboration systems your organization already owns or uses. Rank these by the amount of use and types of use.
- Identify organizations or entities you will interact with during disaster response and recovery.
- Select systems or capabilities that allow your organization to perform its primary mission and facilitate integration with organizations that will support you or that you will support during incident response.
- Facilitate creation of appropriate profiles and encourage users to upload avatars. Avatars and profiles create a personality for the user that enhances/reinforces existing relationships while providing a basic foundation for developing new relationships with social media tools.
- Incorporate use of underused or unused features into daily operations so the training curve is shorter during incident response.
- Where possible, use open source and low cost tools to make integration with other organizations easier.

Most organizations already have collaboration tools. They seldom use all of capabilities the tool provides. Use the above to make better use of existing tools. For collaboration outside your organization, consider the following.

For incident response, I am exploring the use of Frontline SMS http://www.frontlinesms.com/what/, a tool that can be used anywhere there is access to SMS networks. The tool is available and affordable for most organizations.

For information dissemination, I would use tools like Twitter and Facebook in combination with photo and video uploading sites to provide delivery of relevant information or education content. Keep the messages clear, focused, and easy to use/consume. Make it easy for users to enter into a dialogue with you or your organization.

Following on Preston's post, most Defense organization already have (own) web 2.0 capabilites at there disposal. Examples such as SharePoint, widely used for tactcial joint and coalition collaboration, is well suited for the strategic, home-based force. In that scenario, using Microsoft Office (home of Outlook communication/ schedule) that has close integration with SharePoint, offers the opportunity to "ramp" the slow 2.0 adoption set by using the Office environment they are familar and use everyday.

Great posts, I always love the communication vs. collaboration dialogue!

Lets not forget though collaboration was around far before Web 2.0. "Web 2.0" tools are just that tools, and although they may help facilitate collaboration, they in themselves have nothing to do with collaboration. Twitter and Facebook for instance help with communication, but unless there is a defined outcome, they only assist in communication. Let's look at two definitions of collaboration. Websters and Wikipedia.

Websters - "to work jointly with others or together especially in an intellectual endeavor"
Wikipedia - "Collaboration is a recursive process where two or more people or organizations work together in an intersection of common goals - for example, an intellectual endeavor that is creative in nature-by sharing knowledge, learning and building consensus."

Although the Wikipedia definition is obviously referenced from the Webster's definition, the operative words are "jointly", "consensus" and "endeavor".

Sharepoint and most other "collaboration tools" are not collaboration tools alone, they are data repositories, that allow the sharing of knowledge, but sharing of knowledge is not collaboration. These tools are not collaboration tools, until there is an organizational (informal or formal, tacit or codified) process of use in implementing these tools to jointly and consensually work together on an endeavor.

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