hive mind in action
PHOTO: Enrique Vidal Flores

I've followed the evolution of collaboration over the last 30 years as an industry analyst and I have this to say: there hasn't been much progress in that time period. 

Yes, there's now widespread recognition among company CEOs that collaboration is critical to productivity, which wasn't the case 30 years ago. And sure, there have been many technical refinements, greater efficiency and our organizations are not as siloed as they once were. Collaboration has lead to many changes, not the least of which is global working, mobile working, the gig economy, online dating and possibly even the internet. 

But that was the easy (or easier) part. What we haven't seen is much change in the ability of people to relate to each other, although we can see generational affinities for different collaboration technologies: Baby Boomers for email, millennials for text/chat, etc. There hasn't been much change in organizational structures, except maybe some flattening.

The theory is, by changing the communication channels within an organization, the structure of the organization itself should change. This fact in itself is evidence that collaboration has not had the effect on the organizations we all thought it would have. 

My original definition for collaboration was always behaviorally based: "the continued complex interactions between two or more people, for a specific purpose or goal." But a critical change in the last few years caused me to revise my definition of collaboration to include interactions with machines (AI).

Many factors can affect the evolution of collaboration. Let's look at a few that are currently pushing it forward.

3 Trends Starting to Change Collaboration

1.  Drive towards client server applications over standalone apps

This trend implies standardization and interoperability. But the web was not made by one company, or even the research from one university. It was people working together to make a worldwide standard. Companies have no incentive to provide a standard, unless they are first to market and can thereby make themselves a de facto standard such as Adobe, Google and Microsoft. 

Tim Berners-Lee, the inventor of the world wide web, recently launched a startup called inrupt (as opposed to disrupting) that is trying to bring control of online data back to the individual. The company is based on the Solid decentralized web platform Berners-Lee developed with people from MIT. The initial application looks like a mashup of Google Drive, MS Outlook, Slack, Spotify and WhatsApp. I think part of his vision is not only our ability to own our data, but also to provide an open collaboration platform.

Related Article: Tim Berners-Lee Has a Plan to Reinvent the Web

2. Advances in AI expand our collaboration circles

For many years, man has created tools in his own image. The spear, the bow, the gun are all extensions of our arms. The computer is an extension of our brains. Starting around 40 years ago, we started creating expert systems, neural networks, machine learning, bots, etc.  

All of these newer technologies are supposed to make us smarter, give us freedom from boring and repetitive tasks, make our processes more efficient, and improve our productivity. The plan was for this evolution to continually increase velocity until we reached the singularity — the point when the machines are smart enough to make and program themselves. Some see this as the end of man (See Terminator 1,2 and 3), and others see it as our salvation. 

Either way, these forms of AI, these helpers, are here to stay, and they are just one more thing we have to interact with collaboratively. In addition, because AI tools today are smart in very specific areas, they can also help us collaborate. A variety of bots are already available (VCV, Text Recruit, MyAlly, AllyO, Xor.ai ) that can find candidates, schedule meetings/interviews, even sit in as expert recruiters. We have to communicate and collaborate with these non-human entities, and look towards them to help us be more efficient and effective. They may even help us to change and optimize our organizational structures.

Related Article: 3 Collaboration Skills You Need for Today and Tomorrow

3. Workforce change and management

Collaboration technologies have clearly supported the evolution of the workplace. The workplace today is more global, uses more contractors and freelancers, supports workers on the go, and more. You'll find many reports and white papers — often supported by the vendors in the collaboration space — that claim that collaboration tools can make you 20 to 30 percent more productive, but collaboration is not all about technology. In my view technology is only 10 percent of the solution, people make up 40 percent, process another 40 percent, and place or physical workspace, the final 10 percent.

Augmented reality and virtual reality can be powerful tools for learning and implementation. They are also a great enhancement to meetings and other collaboration-based processes. But as stated above, the big improvement really needs to be about people, and how today’s workforce is managed. 

Since the industrial revolution, the workforce has been managed by headcount. It controls budget, resources, logistics, operations and even personal status. But in spite of all the technology and tools we have, no manager I've spoken with who runs a department of 50 or more could tell you in detail what each person does, how much time they spend on it, and the overall value it provides to the company.

There are also very few tools that help provide predictive analytics or metrics. For example: If I have five less people in my department, how will that effect productivity and the value to the company my department produces? In some cases it may not cause any change. Maybe some of what those people did could be replaced by automation, the rest of the time possibly was just wasted time, so losing that headcount may actually cause an increase in value of your department to the organization. In addition, letting people do more to manage themselves since they — through technology — have access to so much more information not only fits well with a large chunk of the current workforce (millennials), it also reduces management overhead.

Related Article: How Do We Measure the Value of the Digital Workplace?

Collaboration Is Ready for Its Close-Up

It's time we take a closer look at collaboration and stop focusing on the easy issues that technology can solve. Instead we should devote the time to look into people and process, and the metrics or predictive analytics that can give them critical feedback. Our goal should be to have a workforce that not only collaborates well over time and space, but also has management and workers providing their highest value work to the organization most of the time. It gives everyone working a greater hand in their careers, in working for social issues they believe in, and feeling more satisfied and engaged with their work.