One of the basic definitions of a “tool” is a device or practice that, once created or purchased, allows a user to accomplish more with the same output of labor. In the urban dictionary, a “tool” is described as a poseur (something or someone who pretends to be what they are not: affected or insincere).
Collaboration tools are a little of both.
Communication tools in general have always been marketed as enabling users to strengthen the bonds of a remote relationship. What is not said is that human beings have a limited relationship capacity sometimes referred to as a Dunbar number which lies between 100 and 230 (most use 150 as an average). This has led to many headlines trumpeting that more than 150 friends on Facebook is useless. I, like Betty White, would posit that one Facebook friend is useless while Cisco CTO Padmasree Warrior’s 1.3 million Twitter followers is a Nielsen rating, not collaboration. (To prove my point, Ms. Warrior “follows” just 214 on Twitter, falling within the Dunbar range.)
There’s also the other problem with all these extraneous relationships. The more there are the shallower they are. Don’t believe me? Fill a glass with water. Start dropping in marbles. What happens? The water starts spilling out, leaving you with less water. For relationships the water is the details. The more relationships; the less detail.
Think about relationships in the pre-telephone era. People knew everyone in their area very deeply. When people moved, older relationships were impossible to maintain in similar detail and were replaced by deep relationships formed in the new location. Enter the telephone, for most it was a local social-enablement tool but was hampered by high long-distance costs. But when the long distance cost barrier came down, people started blabbing to more distant relationships at the cost of local ones. When communications went mobile, minutes of solitude became gab-fests as people accelerated their fear being alone (monophobia). Texting, chat rooms, social networking and unlimited cellular data have lead-footed monophobia while simultaneously hampering the ability to live in the moment. How many of us have seen four people at a restaurant and all four are on a device communicating to someone not at the table? It’s social poseur-ing; just because the dance card is filled doesn’t mean you’re not going home alone.
One way the problem of shallow relationships has been “solved” is by search. Today we don’t have to know anything except how to find (Google/Yahoo!) the answer. The internet is like the party scene in The Devil Wears Prada where Miranda has her assistants whispering in her ear pertinent facts about approaching guests so it appears as though she gives a toss. The only upside I’m seeing is escaping the interminable boredom of friends’ holiday slide shows in favor of pretending to look/care on Facebook or Flickr.
Translate all this to the business world of today. While I would agree that moving from snail mail to overnight to fax to email has improved the speed of communication, the substance is largely unchanged. The RFP is still the RFP. But social networking I am dubious about. Having access to all the latest business tools for global collaboration, I must say it goes largely unused for its advertised purpose.
Chat? Yeah, sometimes. But more often someone’s bored and literally just wants to chat or better yet sends an IM to see if you’re free to talk on the phone.
Video? Not really. Mostly it’s taken the place of sending a PowerPoint deck with the speaker saying, “next slide.” Have done some video with remote customers but only when I have a minor role to play. If I’m really needed, I fly. Like the old slogan said, “When you care enough to send the very best,” you don’t phone it in.
Cisco has done a good job convincing some customers that video is the “very best.” Again, see “tool;” do more with the same effort. “Effort” being employees, “doing more” being the elimination of less productive travel time. Stop four people from traveling and you don’t have to pay for travel and hire another person.
Business social networking? A very annoying team sport filled with people who appear to have more time than I do. If you want to ask me a question, ask me, don’t post it. Sheesh! Want to know the status of a task within a project? Hasn’t Microsoft Project done that for years without the extraneous wittering that social networking breeds?
I find business use of consumer social networks (Twitter, Facebook, et al) particularly invigorating. There’s always some boob saying things they shouldn’t. Certainly in 2010 Avaya learned to lock the bathroom doors during NDA briefings on their Nortel integration roadmap as attendees were Twittering and blogging almost before it was even out of their mouths. And Siemens PR must have been positively orgasmic in December 2010 when their own executives spilled the beans to NoJitter on an acquisition taking place the following week.
Email? I love it. It comes to me automatically. I don’t have to check a page or portal. It forces people to put their thoughts and questions into words and in the process weeds out a few dumbos. I don’t have to really care who you are, just what you want. Nirvana. Now if I could have a gatekeeper in my email that said, “Your question will NOT be answered if the answer is found in the first 10 Google hits, you lazy putz.” SIGN ME UP.
Telephone/Voicemail? Iffy. People tend to blabber and have difficulty putting their needs into words often times herding their thoughts like chickens. This is especially true in voicemail, caught off guard, they stumble through aimlessly, finally leaving a phone number at the end read at the speed of sound that you have to replay four times to get. That said, once the initial ground rules are set via email, telephone calls are great ways to fine-tune.
Conference calls? The slowest-acting poison known to man. My phone allows me to mute myself, but I want to mute the speaker most of the time. Especially true of all-hands calls that prove the more people on a call, the less likely there will be anything important said.Business is in the business of quickening the pace of selling and replacing the crap they sell. Why make an unbreakable car when I can make a mediocre car owners will replace every 3-5 years? If I put recipes on food packages people will use it more quickly. Communications solution vendors are always complicating the simple act of transferring information from point A to point B under the aegis of “productivity” which cheapens the overall transaction. Something to think about as you 1.3 million wait for a personal Tweet from Padmasree Warrior.