Earlier this week, I had the pleasure of participating in a panel webinar focused on The Future of Business Communication, which involved an interesting discussion on the way we use technology to collaborate, as well as the inevitable critique of email. One comment which particularly stuck with me, made by my co-panellist Belinda Gannaway, was about recognising the difference between communication and collaboration. As an analyst focused on collaboration, it’s something that has always had significance for me as I endeavour to draw the line between technologies that I deem collaborative versus those which are purely enabling communication – and it’s a very difficult distinction to make in the context of tools.
As BroadVision’s Richard Hughes acknowledged, it’s a distinction that many vendors fail to make, using the terms almost interchangeably as they talk about the advantages that their products bring to users. But they are definitely two different things, though certainly related. For example, in order to collaborate, I almost certainly need to communicate with other people in some way, though just by communicating I am not necessarily collaborating.
Twitter is a great example of this, and highlights the additional challenge that comes with the introduction of social technologies. Though it is described as a “social” tool, and has been emulated extensively by enterprise collaboration vendors aiming to bring a new dimension to enterprise collaboration, the format is not particularly geared towards collaboration, or even conversation. Fundamentally it's a broadcast mechanism; it's about stating your thoughts or views to a large audience. True, the ability to interact has gradually built up around that, through replies and direct messaging, for example. But it’s very hard to track a conversation that takes place there, unless you are watching it in real time (and often not even then). My point here is while there is some support for communication via Twitter, collaboration is much harder. Staying with the consumer tools analysis, Facebook’s functionality better supports ongoing interaction through its handling of comments threads, but again, this is still just communication, not necessarily collaboration.
The key to collaboration is not the technology that you use – although of course some tools will support your efforts more effectively than others – rather it’s the purpose. What are you trying to achieve? What are you communicating about, what goal lies beneath your need to collaborate? Maybe this is simply a question of semantics, but I think it’s important to clarify this distinction in order to separate the role of technology from the actual collaboration itself. This is important in driving adoption too; if you focus just on getting people to use a tool, without paying any attention to what they need to use it for, you will struggle as they fail to get the point of it. Adoption of collaboration tools – whether social or not – is dependent on individuals recognising the value of working in a collaborative way, and that has to be underpinned by a purpose.