Choosing Collaboration Software, Its Not a Technology Problem

yahoo groups no reflectionOne thing that I love about my job is that I’m on the lead end of some interesting projects.   Most of what I do, fails at first, but that rarely prevent me from having fun deciding doing it.

The main problem with these projects, especially at the beginning and tail ends of them is communications.  I started my career in the early 90s using three electronic communications tools, something to write documents in, something to enter numbers in and email.  Even 20 years later, I am still using Word, Excel, and email as the main methods of electronic communications.

Now the world has more tools, but few have replaced these time tested methods.   Now I’m looking into collaboration software and ways to integrate it into my division’s workflows. Now, collaboration software is nothing but a fancy term for software akin to Facebook at Work.  In the past, I have used a great many of these tools such as Yahoo Groups, Google Drive, Ning, Chatter, and even when I had to Microsoft SharePoint.

Most failed to work. The reasons are generally not technical but social.  Emailing a Word document is so damn easy.  If your going to attempt some like this at work or to get your friends involved in a community, remember these lessons:

  1. People over technology.  Generally group projects fail because the technology choice overrides how to get people to actually use the new tool.  Technology is rather unimportant so take a day or two and window shop for a product that is good enough and not perfect.  Spend the rest of the time harassing users into actually using the tool.
  2. People like to be told what to do.  This is why email is so awesome.  A user doesn’t need to do anything except fire up Outlook and wait for a report to come rolling in.  The problem with collaboration tools is that is requires effort on the part of the user to actually go out and look up the information (know as pull.)  People would rather have it pushed to them, even if the information is irrelevant and deleted it without being read.  To get around that, you need to make it the go to place to do their job, like a fashionable clubbing spot.  (I sometimes do this by shutting down the old tool, but that is playing dirty.)  Just be ready to field the inevitable complaints.
  3. People rather lurk than work.  Unless it is a small tightly knit community, you will have 9 lurkers for every one person enthusiastic enough to post.  Scale is the key.  Get as many people online as quickly as possible since few people want to be first poster.  Choose seeders if possible, especially managers or others with high status.  This will help kick start the community.
  4. People rarely see the need for new technology, until it becomes old technology.  A recent case in point is smartphones.  Dozens of people I spoke with never could figure out a reason they needed one.  Now most can’t put them down even when your talking with them.  Any communications software from chatter to IM to texting goes against the tried and true email.  You need to break people away by offering better content and relentless train to cut down on the learning curve.