Separating Collaboration from the Collaboration ToolsSearch for the term “collaboration” in Google or Bing and you get more than 90 million hits. Wikipedia lists more than 120 software products claiming to support collaboration in one way or another. Have we become collaboration, or more specifically, collaboration technology obsessed?

Collaboration has been around for millennia. Webster tells us that to collaborate is merely to “to work with another person or group in order to achieve or do something.” What could be simpler or more straightforward than that? Why should it be so much in today’s spotlight?

On the surface it seems we’re making collaboration into something very complex and tightly bound up with the latest technology trends. Our view of what collaboration should be and how we should enable and support it appears to be increasingly shaped by the technology tools available to us.

Collaboration: Getting Some Perspective on Working Together

A little research into the current state of collaboration appears to support this view and uncovers an extensive series of advantages we are told we can enjoy, presumably through the acquisition and use of collaboration software.

This is nothing new. How we have viewed, and practiced collaboration has always been shaped by the tools available. The telephone provided, for the first time, an opportunity for multiple people to work together, in more or less real time, without being co-located. Beginning my career in the 1960s before the advent of today’s hyper-connectivity, with a firm whose statewide offices supported teams working together on major computer systems under tight and unforgiving schedules, I can’t imagine our having been even remotely effective without being able to pick up the phone and get the team together, if only in voice mode.

Collaboration back then was viewed more as art than science or technology, and we may have been the better for it. Absent the focus on technology, people had to be capable and willing to work together; willing to allow sometimes unseen team leaders to set the tone and lead the effort; willing to submerge their own desires for stardom; and willing to find ways of working that fit the team’s needs; strengths, weaknesses and idiosyncrasies included. These were, and are, all characteristics of human ability, and they are likely to spell success or failure regardless of the available technology.

The Growth of Collaboration as Technology

With the advent of high speed communications, exponential growth of computer power and the other components of today’s connected world, collaboration appears to be finding itself redefined from a critical workplace skill to a set of tools and the techniques for using them. Today’s definition of collaboration often starts with the nature of the technology that claims to support it, even giving individual names to functions provided by software (and demonstrable by its vendors.) Often times the selection and installation of collaboration tools is as far as things get. This is based on the assumption that “if you automate it, they will do it… correctly.”

Even the disadvantages normally associated with collaboration -- group think, ambiguity in roles and decision making problems to name a few -- appear to be as tied to the technology-based execution of collaboration as to the process itself. This perception of “collaboration as a software based process” may put us at risk of losing the process as we search for just the right tool and, conversely, delude us into thinking we are collaborating successfully if we are using the tools efficiently. Neither is likely to make organizations more effective.

Creatures of Habit … in the Workplace Too

There’s another side to the techno-centric view of collaboration; more subtle and less aggressively studied, but potentially just as important. We bring some assumptions with this view, including the idea that people can collaborate just as well dispersed as from the same office. While that may or may not be true, it certainly pushes workers and their efforts toward technology that enables links among dispersed groups, and it makes their connectedness habits important in how and how well they participate. After all, people often spend hours each day on Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn and other connected sites, sometimes opting for electronic friendships as much as those of a more personal nature. Among younger workers, connectedness junkies are probably close to if not a majority.

Employers, facing workers’ growing propensity to import their personal habits and tools into the workplace, often ban use of smart phones and tablets at work, -- especially in meetings -- hoping to hold onto at least some of the work hours that employees, left to their own designs, commit to their virtual existences. Instead of checking -- and thinking about -- their personal messages and pages, workers’ bosses want them to use the expensive collaboration systems the company has purchased to help them work together.

Keeping personal devices away from and monitoring usage of company workstations can help, but how does the company keep the habits spawned by personal social media use from shaping employees’ workplace use of collaboration technology that looks and acts much the same? The answer is likely that “they can’t.” Workers, especially younger ones, are busy on their own time developing an array of marginally bad habits, and are not likely to leave these at the door when they come to work. While it may be argued that connectedness and its technology has a number of positive impacts on society, it may also be true that the bad habits attendant to the new connected world tend to make people less likely to collaborate successfully at work, especially when the collaboration tools look and feel much like their personal social media apps.

Getting Back to the Basics of Working Together

The answer to this may be to take a step backward. If we can get our definition of collaboration back to its basic components -- working together to achieve a goal or compatible goals -- we may be able to focus on the personal traits and habits most likely to make collaboration possible. This will, of course, involve at least some de-emphasis of the technology-centric approach to collaboration -- something the software industry won’t be pleased with.

Along with this change of emphasis, we may also be able to begin seeking and selecting workers with personal traits most likely to make them successful in team and collaborative settings. That we have strayed from this functional view of employee success can be seen in a quick scan of job listings on employment sites; most of them, even for non technical positions, cite facility with specific software tools as key “must haves” for success. While not a bad thing in itself, a focus on software facility can mask other, more important if less discrete traits when evaluating prospective new hires or promotion decisions.

Whether we find it convenient or not, collaboration is and always will be a human function that can be successful regardless of the level of technology involved. It will also, however, likely fail if the technology in place becomes the primary driver of our collaborative efforts.

Title image by surawach5 (Shutterstock)

Editor's Note: Read more from Barry in Will Technology Be Our Master or Aid?