What does collaboration software mean to you?

Dec. 10, 2015

When introducing Enswarm, I used to tell people that we aim to “advance human collaboration using digital tools”. However, this phrase always got the same reaction – eyes glazing over – it just wasn’t grabbing people’s attention. So as well as adapting my elevator pitch, this got me thinking: collaboration is essential to achieve anything meaningful, so why is no one interested?

After a lot of feedback and thinking about this, I have concluded that people are turned off by the word collaboration because it is widely overused. I believe it has turned into a buzzword that de-values its importance.

Due to the term collaboration becoming so broad I have taken it upon myself to try and classify different categories of collaboration software so that I can better explain to people exactly what we’re trying to achieve.

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

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

My first point of call was Wikipedia and the articles on there quickly led me to definitions of “Collaborative Work Systems” and “Collaborative Working Environments” but it all seemed a bit behind the curve.

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
  • Blogging where entries are categorised 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

Thinking and Doing

In my classification, “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 of “doing” are e-mail, file sharing, and chat capabilities that are increasingly being packaged into bespoke work-focused, social toolsets.

These examples are all 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 such as work-focused social media.

Because of the fundamental sharing and communicating nature of this type of software I refer to these as tools for “Primary Collaboration” and they 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 push 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 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 and Decision Making

Innovation Planning and 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 conduct innovation activities. However, research consistently shows the benefits of broader involvement in innovation activities, be that from within an organisation or externally.

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.

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. In our example, Collaborative Planning activities are associated with the optimisation of how the manufacturing process will be or is being conducted.

Collaborative Decision-Making software is starting to be used by teams to help them improve their decision-making. Decisions can be made in a variety of different ways depending upon the situation faced and the time available.

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. 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.

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.

Let me know what you think about my classification of collaboration software.