Collaboration once happened around the campfire. Then the granary. Then in barns. Then in coffee houses. Then in meeting rooms. But today, the bulk of work-related collaboration takes place on the internet, using a wide variety of different tools and services
In many ways, these tools allow us to work more efficiently and effectively than ever before. Using Google Drive we can edit documents in real-time with people halfway around the world. Using Slack we can get a discussion going on a topic even when not everyone is available to talk at the same time. Using Trello we can keep track of a project’s many moving parts and assign tasks to different people with ease. There are hundreds more examples.
Without tools like this, many modern companies would cease to function. Yet there’s also an argument to be made that digital collaboration can actually make the final product worse.
Why? Because it’s so easy. It’s trivial to rope in 30 people for an opinion on something when three would have done the job. That often creates a ‘too many cooks‘ scenario where it becomes much harder to build consensus on a decision because there are too many personal interests at play. Meanwhile, the time savings from collaborating digitally get wiped out by the time spent on reaching agreement.
It’s also easy to mistake time spent collaborating for time spent working. Online technology publication Motherboard recently declared it was taking a ‘break from Slack’, cutting its reporters off from the chatrooms that they used to pitch story ideas, ask for edits, share interesting links and vote on headlines.
“Writers and editors need unbroken blocks of time to work. Slack makes that difficult,” wrote the site’s Adrianne Jeffries. After a week of going cold turkey, the site’s editors discussed the results. “Most staffers felt more productive and felt some relief from the distraction of Slack,” Jeffries wrote. “However, remote workers and our UK and Canada offices felt more isolated.
The distractions enabled by digital collaboration tools may be overstated. In 2011, Gigaom writer Jessica Stillman wrote that this is a paranoia that derives merely from the insecurity that is born of working over the web, and that we demand more reassurance and attention from remote colleagues than we would ever expect face to face.
So perhaps digital tools aren’t killing collaboration, especially as a new generation that has grown up with these tools enters the workforce with radically different proficiencies and expectations to their older colleagues. Instead we just need to figure out what works best for different tasks, keeping a close eye on how many cooks are being invited into the kitchen. For some situations, a team-wide Slack discussion is a great solution. For others, a quick email to two people will suffice.
In short, getting your teams to use their digital tools effectively is the key. Online collaboration may not be the holy grail, but it’s still a remarkably handy thing to have around.