It’s the year 2014, and we are trying to do today's jobs with yesterday's tools.
As we move into a new way of work -- one based on more fluid and looser connections, grounded in freethinking, humanist and scientific approaches to the social contract -- it's becoming clear that the traditional model of "collaboration tools" is based around outmoded structures of control rather than the shape of our work today, or the nature of networked sociality. We need a different take on the tools we are using to get work done, one based on open cooperation at the core of our work instead of closed collaboration running alongside it.
I lifted the line "today’s jobs with yesterday’s tools" from Marshall McLuhan, who said, "Anxiety occurs when people try to do today’s jobs with yesterday’s tools."
And that’s exactly where we are. The heartburn around social business and collaboration tools is really a reflection of that anxiety, from using tools mismatched to our time.
You Can't Teach Old Tools New Tricks
I firmly believe that so-called collaborative tools are based on the architectural foundations that defined Groupware starting in the ‘90s, and they reflect the shape and structure of work and organizations from that time. Even then those premises might not have been right, but they are certainly out of date now.
The fundamental aspect of these collaboration tools isn’t sharing, but control. Information contexts for projects, groups and departments in which information was placed for sharing within -- and only within -- those contexts. Generally speaking, participants need to be invited to join these contexts, and then all members have symmetric relationships to the other context members and information being managed there. It’s about concealment, not open sharing. And it does not reflect the social networks that people spontaneously form when they work and live together: it’s about top-down, hierarchically structured organizations.
We are moving into a time where even the flattened hierarchies of the ‘00s are collapsing. We are moving into a time of hyper lean organizations, with unprecedented reductions in management overhead, and therefore the architecture of collaboration is outdated.
Perhaps most important is one fact that isn't immediately obvious when looking at collaboration tools: their tool architecture features were devised when using such tools was an occasional activity, like reading and writing email. However, in today’s economy, people are always on, and our work tools sit at the center of our work, where we are always engaged. Paradoxically, it is this place -- where we see the greatest flow of messages and information -- that comes to feel like the "still point of a turning world," to borrow from T.S. Eliot.