24 February 2012

Electronic Brainstorming: Can Microsoft SharePoint, Cisco Quad and IBM Connections Reclaim Productivity Lost to Collaboration?

The message coming from all communication technologies, be they consumer, business or “bizumer,” is that they increase user productivity and problem-solving by keeping users connected to the larger group (herd).  Unfortunately, scientifically speaking, nothing could be further from the truth.

Behavioral study after study has proven that incessant connectivity robs people of the solitude required to solve problems while delivering the mediocre results of groupthink.  We instinctively know, and the Discovery Channel proves, that the wildebeest that strays from the herd gets eaten.  During meetings and conference calls (real-time) we agree to stupid things for fear of rejection by the group or being stoned by the boss; thus groupthink is born.  (It’s vestigial brain stuff from the stone age and middle school.)

Interestingly, artists, inventors and innovators tend to be loners.  Superman had the Fortress of Solitude, and hell, if you believe Creationist claptrap, God worked alone too.  (Additional insight can be found here, here, here and here)

Anecdotally, we see “Generation Clusterthink.” College students who should be learning to stand on their own calling parents to sort out minutia.  They are more comfortable living with their parents because they never became an individual; apron strings turned to steel.  This is the generation that sacrifices solitary individuality to simultaneously listen, watch and broadcast for fear of being left out.

This all began in the 1950s when an advertising executive (no surprise here) named Alex Osborn created the idea of group brainstorming, believing that groups led to higher quantity and quality of ideas and creativity. The irony being that Osborn was probably alone when he came up with the thought, self-defeating his own premise (but advertising and history never lets truth get in the way). 

Brainwashing on brainstorming persists and has literally been translated into office environments.  In the 1970s the average U.S. worker had 46.5m2 (500 square feet) of working space.  By 2010, that had shrunk by 60% to 18.5m2 (200 square feet) with 70% working in open-plan offices.  The subliminal belief being that proximity bred productivity.  Yes, it saved real estate costs, but remember your first open plan office?  What was said? “We’re tearing down the walls to increase productivity by encouraging group collaboration” (unless you’re an executive).

As anyone who’s ever been in a group knows, they are unproductive, stifle creativity and often deliver a lowest common denominator result.  In-meeting multi-tasking isn’t a sign of being busy, but rather equates to apathy about the topic, feelings of powerlessness, inevitability of outcome and avoidance of boat-rocking. 

Therefore, promoting SharePoint, Quad and IBM Connections Next as productivity tools due to their connected and collaborative properties is a sham. (I have to say IBM Connections Next because no one knows what Connections is – Vulcan, Calgon, whatever)

What these vendors need to do is stop marketing against science.  This application class should be positioned and used to free contributors from the endless banality of the group while enabling them to engage when needed while making the contributions and quantum leaps delivered by uninterrupted, uncompromising, individual problem-solving.

In addition to proving that brainstorming is ineffective, research shows that “electronic brainstorming” can be.  If you strip away the verbal and body language components of communication and depersonalize it, vestigial groupthink triggers weaken.  Extrapolating the concept, groupthink could be mitigated by groups using non-real-time communication (few meetings, fewer calls). 

For Microsoft, Cisco and IBM this means that instead of promoting their applications as “the next level of group collaboration,” they should be promoting these applications for their abilities to unearth the best ideas and most effective work by managing and controlling over-collaboration.

This is not to say that real-time communication is not productive, but it must be deliberate, controlled and measured for productivity to be improved.  In many ways, the realities of group and individual dynamics undermine the arguments for video communications.  The argument for ubiquitous video resurrects AT&T’s “the next best thing to being there” slogan and that may very well be the problem (a proposition Cisco might grit their teeth at). 

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