Classifying Collaboration Software

Oct. 19, 2015

Collaboration is very important to my team and I as we design software to allow people to interact in exciting new ways. But as our start-up matures, the more I realise that how we explain our ideas is just as important as the ideas themselves, and I have an issue when using the word collaboration.

When introducing my start-up, I used to tell people that we aim to “advance human collaboration using digital tools”. When I said this however, I was dismayed to see peoples’ eyes glazing over; it just wasn’t grabbing their attention. So as well as adapting my elevator pitch, this got me thinking. Humans need to collaborate to achieve anything truly meaningful so why was I getting this reaction when trying to explain our business using this word?

After a decent amount of feedback and thinking about this, I have concluded that people are turned off by the word collaboration because they have heard it used so much. Any web search for ‘collaboration software’ shows that the term is used so broadly, I believe it has turned into a buzzword that de-values its importance.

Because collaboration is so critical for us, the word should have real meaning, and when it comes to software, I think that we require some added clarity. To help me in my future as a [hopefully hugely successful] Tech CEO I have therefore taken it upon myself to try to classify different categories of collaboration software so that I can better explain to people exactly what we’re trying to achieve.

When investigating a problem like this, my first point of call is to search Wikipedia (a specific type of collaboration software) to see what previous work has been done on the subject. The articles here quickly led me to definitions of “Collaborative Work Systems” and “Collaborative Working Environments” but it all seemed a bit behind the curve due to the current advances in related technology. Wikipedia’s summaries of academic work on the subject talks about all of the following being types of collaboration software:

  • E-mail
  • Instant messaging
  • Application sharing
  • Video conferencing
  • Collaborative workspace, document management and version control system
  • Task and workflow management
  • Wiki group or community effort to edit wiki pages (e.g. wiki pages describing concepts to enable a common understanding within a group or community)
  • Blogging where entries are categorized by groups or communities or other concepts supporting collaboration

 These tools are obviously very different, however, any web search for ‘collaboration software’ will list them together with no attempt to distinguish their function.

 Web technologies have now got to the stage where thousands of people can connect simultaneously to do work in the same digital location. This is leading to a new breed of business-focused tools that will continue to confuse us unless we start to classify what we are really talking about. That being the case, here is my proposal for the classification of collaboration software:

 Firstly, collaborative activities at work can crudely be broken down into two main categories: Thinking and Doing.

In my proposal, “doing” work is considered as being restricted to the primary output of an organisation. For example, a manufacturer would only classify “doing” work as those activities that are physically related to making their product. Software that allows people to organise themselves and communicate with each other more effectively whilst doing primary output work falls within this category. Examples are e-mail, file sharing, and chat capabilities that are increasingly being packaged into bespoke work focused, social toolsets.

When you think about the software in the last paragraph, they are all work focused digital versions of previously existing capabilities. In some cases they are digital versions of older work practices such as mail transitioning to e-mail. In other cases they are the replication of business-focused software that people have become used to using in their digital social lives. The example here is work focused social media, which can be considered the online equivalent of a group of people talking informally together.

Because of the fundamental nature of the sharing and communicating nature of this type of software I refer to these as tools for “Primary Collaboration”. Primary collaboration tools can then be further categorised into the following:

  • Remote communication
  • File and application sharing
  • Work focused social media

We could get by with primary collaboration tools but flatter organisational structures, global locations and a continuing drive for efficiency is driving change. There is a need for business process improvement and as web technology advances, designers are able to invent new ways for people to run their organisations.

In my classification, the activities associated with running an organisation fall into “thinking” about doing primary output work. In our manufacturing example this would include activities such as deciding what to make, designing it, developing the plan for how to manufacture it as well as all supporting activities required in the organisation such as Human Resources and the maintenance of equipment and infrastructure.

Where as primary collaboration tools can be used for thinking activities, there are exciting types of new software that allow people to collaborate in totally novel ways that have only been made possible because of the web. This is where, I believe, that there is the greatest need for increased classification in our collaboration tools so that we can understand quickly why specific software will be useful to us.

Over my career I have worked within a large number of complex organisational systems and have concluded that the vast majority of thinking based collaborative activities can be broken down into the following:

  • Innovation
  • Planning
  • Decision Making

In our manufacturing example we would see the organisation start to use different Collaborative Innovation software to think about the strategic direction that they should take, what they should make and how they could do it. In a hierarchical organisational structure, small groups traditionally conducted innovation activities. However, research consistently shows the benefits of broader involvement in innovation activities, be that from within an organisation or from outside. Connecting larger numbers of people in a compelling way to produce the most innovative results is a challenge that designers and start-ups like ours are tackling, and innovation will surely require further classification based on how it is being accomplished.

The types of collaboration software as classified by Joe Kay at Enswarm

The types of collaboration software as classified by Joe Kay at Enswarm

Collaborative Planning activities in organisations are fraught with complexity. Plans made at all levels have interconnected effects on other people, teams and aspects of the business. While some of these effects are intended and known, many are not and can de-rail plans. In our example, Collaborative Planning activities are associated with the optimisation of how the manufacturing process will be or is being conducted. Collaborative Portfolio, Programme and Project Management tools fall into this category as well as Risk Management Software that connect different teams to map implications.

 Finally, Collaborative Decision-Making software is starting to be used by teams to help them improve their decisions and to make them faster. Decisions can be made in a variety of different ways depending upon the situation faced and the time available. However, how to make decisions in the optimal way for various situations, is something that should be thought of and structured ahead of time and software can help to provide this structure. When there is time for a team to make or input into a decision, software can be used to structure a discussion specifically to enhance the group’s intelligence. Traditional decision meetings are littered with opportunities for people to bias each other, which leads to the downfall of organisations through bad decisions caused by groupthink.

 Whether we are doing primary work or thinking about how to do it, software does allow us to collaborate more effectively as humans. The web is allowing designers a blank sheet of paper to invent fundamentally new ways for us to interact. This will result in the need for this basic classification of collaboration to be expanded with further sub-categories. However, this classification is already proving a useful way for me to explain what I do and I hope that it will help others to do the same.