oldtools,newtricks.jpgIt’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 Even then those premises might not have been right, but they are certainly out of date now.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organizations, with unprecedented reductions in management overhead, and therefore the architecture of collaboration is outdated.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.

In recent years, enterprise social networks have been developed that attempt to fuse the cooperative following and interaction a la Twitter with the collaborative controls of older work tools, and they haven’t led to some new explosion of productivity. And I think that is because they fail to take into account the shape of our work today, or the nature of networked sociality. A different take on social tools is needed, one based more on open cooperation at the core of our work instead of closed collaboration running alongside our work.

Time to Retire Collaboration

The term "collaboration" has been so stretched by its use in dozens of very different apps and disciplines that we should retire the term, and a bunch of the tired thinking that is bound up with it. What does it mean, anyway? "Working together." So let’s just call them "work tools," and if we want to focus on the technology side, "work tech."

Consider the old school notions of business process, where the entire chain of work activities is mapped out by experts looking across many disciplines, with all the rules baked in, and everyone must be taught how to perform their roles and what degree of flex is allowed within the painted lines: that notion is being fractured. Things are changing too fast to devise a collection of end-to-end, top-down, totally designed business processes. Besides, anything that can be programmed is being handed off to algorithms, and the rest is left to humans to invent. Today, people are not blindly following rote instructions, but instead they reapply general principles to specific situations: they are not blindly stamping out license plates, or following a script.

The future of "process" in this new world of work is a general understanding of how work might be passed around, and which applications might be employed at different parts of a value chain. So the process involves people deciding how to do things after looking at guidelines. This decision making may involve tools cobbled together, through connections managed by infrastructure that may work like IFTTT (If This Then That), a service that supports transferring information from one app's API to another’s. In this way a company has structured the first stage of job applications as a file containing a resume being placed in a specific Dropbox folder, which initiates the creation of a task in Trello, and the automatic placement into the company’s Job Applications task list. What happens downstream of that would be up to the person who pulled that task to work on it. So instead of a big, totally defined and inflexible process we see a loose collection of smaller activities cascading along, with the eventual outcome not ordained by well defined rules, but instead determined by the individual decisions of those doing the work.

This change is already showing up in the most advanced technology firms, where lean approaches to software development have reflected back into thinking about lean organizations in general. For example, Asana’s "leanership" has built an organization of peers, not just a flat hierarchy. And similar changes are going on at Yammer, GitHub, Medium and other leading tech firms. That is where we will see the rise of cooperative work tech at the core of the new way of work.

Title image by Yongcharoen (Shutterstock) 

Editor's Note: Read more from Stowe in Curation in the Enterprise: Imagining Increased Social Scale