time lapse photograph of car headlights driving through a tunnel
PHOTO: Marc Sendra Martorell

In the physical world, beyond a certain point, speed becomes perilous and destructive. One crazy driver can wreak havoc. The greater the speed, the worse the crash. Thus, much of our road infrastructure is concerned with managing speed.

We have created a digital world where so much has got faster and faster. And yet we pay very little attention to managing digital speed. The implications of road rage are clear. Yet, we have vastly more digital rage, as digital allows us to communicate at speeds and scales that were previously unimaginable. Our thoughts become digital actions in a flash and can create flash floods of misunderstanding, anger and retribution.

We’ve been given this wonderful high-powered network and all these fancy tools, and so many are putting the boot down in our digital Ferraris. “Productivity and collaboration are two sides of the same coin,” Kevin Kwok writes. Kwok believes the objective of tools such as Slack and Dropbox is to become the central nervous system for organizations, but that they have not achieved that objective.

Let’s say Slack was a toolkit for building houses. It’s not enough. You still need the right mix of skills. You still need to decide what type of houses you need and when and where and at what price. You still need planning permission, etc. You can’t just throw a bunch of smart people a toolkit and tell them to go collaborate.

Years ago, I had a conversation with an executive who was about to retire. He told me that when he was being appointed as a manager for the first time, he was sent on a course called “Managing your filing cabinet.” When the organization introduced computers, they stopped giving that course. He worried about how employees were going to be able to manage hundreds of ‘filing cabinets’ on their computers without any training or guidance.

Collaboration is an essential skill of the digital economy. And yet, in my experience, how to collaborate productively is hardly ever thought about either in universities or in the workplace. You’re just expected to know. But people don’t always know, because while non-productive collaboration is a no-brainer, productive collaboration is really hard. It requires a whole range of communication, organizational and social skills.

Learning to write simply and clearly is not easy. Learn to speak effectively in remote meetings is not easy. Learning to organize files and other digital stuff in a way that they will be easy to find later by yourself and by your colleagues is not easy. Learning to work in multidisciplinary, culturally diverse teams is not easy.

A fool with a tool is still a fool, as the saying goes. Organizations have been willing fools to the Technology God. For decades, they have bought the idea that all you need is this brand-new digital tool. As they watched a constant stream of catastrophic IT implementations, they never learned. As they wondered why global productivity had slowed so dramatically, they never asked if maybe just buying the cool new tool was not in fact part of the problem.

Collaboration is like water. It’s wonderful. It’s life giving. But you can drown in it. When you speed up collaboration, communication and content creation, you get to a point beyond which serious floods and crashes become inevitable. Just like everything else, we need to manage speed, we need to manage collaboration.