Why people don’t use collaboration tools

This is a guest post by Shawn Callahan – Founder of Anecdote, a management consulting firm that uses its expertise in story to inspire enduring change.

David Pollard offered for anyone on the net to join him in a joint collaboration project using Writely. The topic: Why are conversation and collaboration tools so underused?

Dave lists 7 reasons and I jumped in with a number of other points answering a set of questions Dave posed. Interestingly only a few people got involved and the discussion hasn’t progressed much over the last few weeks. Hmmm, perhaps collaboration requires a strong need to work together.

Here’s Dave’s list:

  • Most people are still unfamiliar with the tools in the middle and right columns.
  • Many of these tools are unintuitive and hence not easy to learn to use.
  • The way you have to use these tools is not the way most people converse and collaborate, i.e. they’re awkward.
  • Most people have poor listening, communication and collaboration skills, and these tools don’t solve (and can exacerbate) this underlying problem of ineffective interpersonal skills.
  • The training materials for these tools don’t match the way most of us learn and discover (i.e. by doing, by watching others, and iteratively by trial and error).
  • Often the people we most want to converse or collaborate with aren’t online.
  • Often we don’t even know who the right people are to converse or collaborate with, so we need to go through a process of discovering who those people are first, which these tools cannot yet effectively help us with; once we’ve discovered who the right people are, we’re likely already talking with them using the ubiquitous tools in the left column above.
  • We are not accustomed to learning with others. Traditional schooling rewards individual effort (e.g. you take the test by yourself).

Here are my additions and some answers to specific questions posed by Dave:

When faced with the choice of learning new technology and chatting to colleagues on the phone and email to get a job done, if it can be done with what they already know they will go with that;

Collaboration tools work best when your collaborators are geographically distributed and in other time zones and I wonder how many teams have that as a situation? Sure, globalisation is spreading and small, nimble operators are connecting using these tools, but how many large corporations are active users? I know IBM is and I would imagine technology firms would be at the vanguard. I was surprised however when PriceWaterhouseCoopers consultants arrived in IBM because they were unfamiliar with collaboration tools and disinterested in using them.

It works best when all the collaborators are equally enthusiastic and capable in using the tool. It just takes a handful of influential members of a team to stop using the tool for the tool to be abandoned.

The majority of people in organisations are baby boomers (I’m not sure this is true) and haven’t been brought up in an environment using collaboration tools. I was in a pub the other day meeting our complexity group and I overheard a small group of people in their 20s and 30s talking about their MySpace interactions. These people already know how to use the tools and will expect them in the workplace.

To answer to Dave’s question: “Is the answer making the tools better? If so, how? If not, what is the answer?”

I think we need to make tools that operate in ways we are familiar using. People are all learning to use browsers so our tools should be browser based. I think we should stop encouraging people to use a new tool and just send them a URL and say, we are going to share our documents here, feel free to update the calendar and let people go for it. By saying it’s a new tool that will make your life better people will put up the shutters; “I’m too busy to learn something new.” Yet learning something new is fun

To answer to Dave’s question: “Given time, do you think people will eventually learn to use these tools, despite their shortcomings? Which tools, current or envisioned, will be the winners, the killer apps for online-enabled conversation and collaboration, and why?”

Content volume kills collaboration tools. I’ve used Lotus Teamrooms, Groove, Basecamp and in each case when the volume of the content becomes unwieldy the users stop using. Considerable effort is required to clean out the material, archive it, highlight what’s important and bring to people’s attention the key things to notice. At the moment I favour web-based tools like Basecamp because of their keep it simple philosophy and the fact it’s browser-based.

To answer to Dave’s question: “What one simple thing should we do/learn to most effectively enable people to become better conversationalists, and how would we do this?”

In addition to listening I think knowing how to craft and ask good questions which encourage people to converse is essential. I like asking questions that elicit stories such as “What happened?” or “When was the team at its best?”

To answer to Dave’s question: “What one simple thing should we do/learn to most effectively enable people to become better collaborators, and how would we do this?”

Focus on the practice of collaboration and only introduce tools when the need arises. For example, a research group might think of new ways to harness energy from heat is a promising research project. They start off chatting on the phone, sending emails to one another and then someone says: “It would be good if we could track the versions on this document we are creating.” That’s the point a tool could be introduced. I would run a poster campaign in an organisation with the title “Avoid using collaboration tools for as long as possible” and then use the rest of the poster to describe the signs the team should look out for to introduce effective tools. Put practice and process before tools.

What are your experiences with collaboration tools? Leave a comment to share your insights.

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About Shawn Callahan

Shawn is a pioneer in the application of story methods to business and has helped some of the world’s top companies, including IBM, Shell, AMP and KPMG, to inspire lasting change and make sure their company values really stick. He regularly publishes his world-leading ideas on anecdote.com.au, one of Australia’s most visited blogs.
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7 Responses to Why people don’t use collaboration tools

  1. @davmundy says:

    I couldn’t agree more with this statement. “I think we need to make tools that operate in ways we are familiar with” The adoption of collaborative tools depends on our ability to engineer simple applications that are easy to use and solve real and specific problems. By starting with an interface similar to what people are already familiar with, say outlook or excel, engagement will follow. (if and when there is a clear and specific value proposition for the user.)

    I have to disagree with this statement. “Content volume kills collaboration tools.” While I agree that in many cases it does, I believe the right tool makes it easy to quickly organize, archive and / or highlight the most important information preventing users from the dread of information overload.

  2. Thanks for your comment Dave. I agree that things have changed a lot since I first wrote this post. Being overwhelmed with content I feel is still a problem. For example the apple app store is a killer to find things in. On the other hand filtering, ranking, tagging all help. What for you are the tools/sites that do it well? Where do you think some of the gaps are?

  3. Very interesting piece – and some excellent points and comments.

    My build and response is based on my work in partnerships and collaboration (both agency and client side) and my thinking now mirrors the thoughts of philosopher Theodore Zeldin; "technology does not automatically improve the quality of communication or behaviour".

    In some cases – it clearly can. But one only has to look at poor use of phone, email, social media to and poor websites to see that Theodore reminds us of a simple truth…

    The issue with collaboration tools is that they can magnify and compound the essential issue that too many people in marketing, advertising and sales have been educated to have lots of knowledge and confidence – but lack genuine collaboration skills – which are soft skills concerning empathy, conversation and understanding. Its like teaching complex football and rugby tactics to people who do not have basic fitness or knowledge of the game. The collaboration tools are either over cooked or used by only those who like the technology, rather than recognise the fundamental issue – the need to work with the ideas and needs of others, rather than our own agendas.

    Whenever I have used collaboration tools, it reminds me of 'complexity and paradox'. The software or 'change programme' is introduced to breakdown barriers and improve efficiency and quality but the process of introducing the new process or software actually creates further complexity and a lack of focus on customer needs. Too often, the threads and folders of collaboration software are more about self promotion, rather than sharing insights and posing interesting questions…

    Research (GE Innovation Barometer, CapGemini etc.) consistently shows that CEO's and CMO's see partnerships and collaboration as the foundation for innovation – yet most individuals and organisations lack the skills to collaborate.

    My work has been focused on collaboration training – for marketers, sales and innovators and business developers. Technical and creative skills are needed but my premise, to paraphrase Charles Darwin is that it is 'those that can collaborate most effectively who will prosper'. We have developed our 'Cafe Workshop' – that helps marketers rediscover their collaborative mojo – the ability to be curious, explore a concept and the ideas of others and add to the information and knowledge rather than leap to conclusions. At its heart is the concept of conversation. Something we all do every day but have very little training in. We learn to present, sell, negotiate and deliver. But we do not not often get time to learn how to build a good conversation..

    If you're interested, you can see more at my sites and blog;

    A piece about cafe techniques, here – http://goo.gl/nG8mR

    And an article about purposeful conversation, here – http://goo.gl/Cjtvf



    Andrew Armour http://www.benchstone.co.uk/Home/ http://andrewarmour.com/

  4. I like and agree with:
    – Content volume kills collaboration tools
    – Encourage people to converse
    – Focus on the practice of collaboration and only introduce tools when the need arises
    Regards, Stephen @ http://www.pmlessonslearned.info/

  5. Thanks for your thoughtful comments Andrew. One thing I didn't say in my post but could be the key factor why many collaboration tools just don't get used is that they rely on the written word (like blog comments). There is such a big gap between how we communicate literally and how we do it orally.

  6. Thanks for your comments Stephen. Have you seen examples when these factors have worked particularly well?

  7. Interesting point re the written word and the 'project management' type mechanics for what are often termed 'collaboration tools'. Posting and sharing data, files and information is not collaboration, it is posting and sharing of data, files and information.

    Technology can assist with information sharing but true collaboration is a much more iterative, discursive and conversational. So much is reliant upon the behaviours and attitudes of those involved – and that comes down to soft 'EQ' skills, maturity and an ability to be curious. Morten T Hansen in his excellent book 'Collaboration' highlights the need for T-Shaped people, those that possess both a depth of knowledge and skill PLUS an ability to network across the business and outside of it, to connect with other ideas and people.

    I've written a piece about Hansen and his look at Collaboration – here; http://goo.gl/c0w6n .



    Andrew Armour

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