At the beginning of this year, I swore off using Slack. My resolution amazed my friends who extolled the virtues of Slack. Slack isn’t the collaboration app proclaimed to be the “next big thing’” I remember back in the early 90′s when computer-supported work applications were all the rage (remember when “Lotus Notes” was first rolled out). Organizations threw a lot of money and resources at early collaboration systems, but many were failures from the beginning.
The failure of many new collaboration systems to catch on was perplexing because software packages for individuals and organizations were doing well. What was it about developing software for groups that made it so different from developing software for individuals and organizations?
In 1994, Dr. Grudin published an article that answered that question with the simple observation that groups were just different from individuals and organizations. How they are different is explained in his eight challenges for developers:
Who Does the Work and Who Gets the Benefits? Ideally the labor in operating and maintaining the groupware application must be roughly equal among the group members. This ideal division of labor is rarely the case. Consider a project management application where the team members must update it regularly with progress reports, performance data, and other data. A good deal of the team member’s team is compiling information and feeding the system while the project manager must spend a minimal amount of time reading reports the system generates. The team member sees only a burden from the software and soon avoids doing this extra work which leads to poor reports causing the Project Manager to quit relying on the system for information. Soon, no one is using software.
Critical Mass of Users. The collaboration software field is filled with many platforms for collaboration. Many offer similar features, and each has an enthusiastic community of supporters. In large government agencies you can see several collaboration systems in various pockets of the organization that don’t communicate outside of their pocket. Ironically the systems that exist to promote collaboration often promote organizational silos as the groups argue that their system is the best solution.
Social, Political, and Motivational Factors. Dr. Grudin gives a great example of this challenge when he describes the failure of meeting management software. It assigned meeting rooms based on priority but quickly became useless because no one wanted to admit that their meeting was anything but “high priority.” As Dr. Grudin explains, collaboration software can only model a rational workplace, but actual workplaces are much more complicated due to organizational culture.
Exception Handling. We rarely work the exact way described in our work processes. Collaboration software built only based on the documented office procedures is too rigid and not able to handle the flexibility required frequently at work. Just think of how often you don’t have a typical day at work and have to improvise a workable solution. Now, imagine trying to program that into software.
Decreasing Communication and Coordination Load. Organizations search for ways to reduce the communication and coordination needed to do the job. How often have you said that you could get more done if you were not interrupted so often? Of these interruptions, how many were due to email, phone calls, a colleague stopping by to talk, etc.? Sometimes you can over-collaborate, and this often results from poorly designed groupware.
Hard to Evaluate Groupware. It is challenging to test groupware because the group dynamics are so hard to replicate. It can take several weeks of careful observation to understood how a group works, and software designers don’t have the time or expertise to evaluate how their software will aid in collaboration. Often the groupware vendor blames this on inadequate user training and will continue the same software with better tutorials and help aids but never realizing that the fundamental problem is that people don’t like collaborating the way the system is forcing them to collaborate.
Intuitive Decision Making. Because of the nature of our work, we often must decide based on little evidence, and thus we rely heavily on our intuition. Groupware applications rarely support intuitive decision making but force users to input significant data so a fully reasoned decision can be made. Often, we do not have the necessary data, and a quick decision must be made. Thus, we abandon the groupware application to use a simple spreadsheet or other individual application to support our intuition.
Managing Acceptance of the Groupware. Too often, I have seen a collaboration solution launched where the users are expected to adapt themselves to how the software works rather than the software adapting to the way the group works. A collaboration system at my work is universally despised because it practically handcuffs a group of users to a cumbersome and protracted painful process. I’ve only used the system once, but that was enough for me to avoid ever having even to click on the program icon.
Despite these principles being 25 years old I still see the same mistakes being repeated in today’s collaboration tools. I also see where companies have put these principles into practice and have made excellent collaboration software that has endured and grown in popularity. I suspect that Google engineers must have memorized these principles when they developed their Google Docs system.
I leave a final exercise for the reader: how many of these principles does SharePoint violate (if any)? Or does SharePoint violate new principles of collaboration software?