Virtual Collaboration: If You Can’t Work Side-by-Side

The Idea:
What do you do if you need or want to collaborate, but you can’t do so in person? What purposes are best served by weblogs, wikis, and other types of online collaboration tools, spaces and media?

Collaboration entails finding the right group of people (skills, personalities, knowledge, work-styles, and chemistry), ensuring they share commitment to the collaboration task at hand, and providing them with an environment, tools, knowledge, training, process and facilitation to ensure they work together effectively. This is challenging enough face-to-face in real-time. It’s doubly difficult virtually and asynchronously. But there are examples of great music, literature, invention, scientific discovery and problem-solving that have come from such handicapped collaboration. How did they do it, and can you improve the likelihood of brilliant virtual collaboration by using the right tools and media?

Let’s take a look at some of the alternatives:

Tool / Medium Collaborative Advantages Collaborative Disadvantages Best Suited to Collaborative:
weblog easy to post & comment; content is subscribable/ publishable participation limited to comments Conversations
wiki anyone can contribute content harder to learn; can be easily sabotaged; inelegant appearance Projects / Alliances
whiteboard real-time; anyone can contribute content content only persists for duration of call; possible firewall issues Conversations / Projects
document-sharing can be real time; anyone can contribute content possible firewall issues; attention is focused on a document Conversations / Projects
IM/skype/phone/ e-mail/ videoconferencing real-time conversations; audio/visual context; speed content only persists for duration of call Conversations
mindmaps shows and documents consensus can’t capture detail Projects
discussion forums threading of comments; content is subscribable/ publishable limited contextual knowledge of participants; can attract undisciplined behaviours; threads can be hard to follow Conversations
community of practice/ interest spaces organization; defined membership; multiple collaborative tools harder to learn; formality can reduce intimacy and level of participation Projects / Alliances
personal e-mail groups flexible; personal; easy to use e-mail overload/spam; threads get lost or hard to navigate and follow Projects / Alliances
social networking tools large number of members; good way to find collaborators most actual collaboration is done using other tools and media Finding collaborators
in-person collaboration easy; real-time; context-rich; flexible expensive; time-consuming All of the above if time & cost permits

There are three levels of collaboration based on duration of contact:

  • Conversations: Where you’re in contact just once, or a few times, discussing a particular subject or group of subjects.
  • Projects: Where you’re in contact as often as necessary to complete a project.
  • Alliances: Where you’re in contact in multiple conversations and on multiple projects, working together for an indefinite period of time.

A collaborative conversation may be provoked by an interesting or important idea or an urgent one-off need for information or assistance. Much of the time spent in business is consumed in consulting with others, in canvassing for ideas or suggestions or comments, and in making decisions on what something means or how to respond to it. These are generally quick, collaborative conversations. In large organizations these conversations are usually peer-to-peer (where trust is stronger than up or down the hierarchy), and as size increases further they tend to be more and more intermediated (one middle-manager recently told me that 70% of his e-mail and 50% of his telephone calls are of the “Who should I talk to about X?” variety). In smaller organizations, these conversations are more likely to draw on external networks, and to involve the use of today’s clunky social networking tools like LinkedIn and eCademy. I have argued before that the next generation of social networking tools should include ‘people-finders’ that streamline and automate the process of finding the right person (inside or outside the organization) to talk to, so that more time can be spent on actual conversations with those people.

Once you’ve found the right person to converse with, if they’re close and inexpensive to talk to in person, that’s likely what you’ll do. But what if they aren’t? How do you quickly provide your Conversation Collaborators with the context they need to converse with you effectively when you can’t put a chart or a piece of paper in front of them and brief them? Organizations have found that if the person you want to converse with face-to-face is more than two minutes walk (or elevator ride) away, the probability of you making the effort to converse with them in person drops precipitously.

If you have a blog, an audience, and a little time, your blog can serve this need well. Ask a question on a popular blog and you’ll probably get an informed answer quite quickly (thank you readers!) Most businesses, alas, have few established blogs and even less time. Preferred conversation tools in business, when face-to-face is impossible, are now IM and the telephone — with IM trumping the phone for its self-documentation, its suitability to multi-tasking, and because it’s easier to browse than voice-mail, and the phone trumping IM if a lot of iteration is needed to provide context. White-boarding and document-sharing applications, awkward as they are, can be helpful additions to IM and telephone conversations if the participants are savvy enough to use them properly (most aren’t) and if documents and graphics are needed to provide more context. E-mail is the increasingly unpopular fall-back.

Discussion forums are the ultimate tool of last resort for conversations, because of the disadvantages listed above. In most of the companies I am familiar with, they are only sporadically used and quickly grow stale.

A variety of tools have been developed for more enduring project collaborations and alliance collaborations. Because they tend to involve more participants than conversations do, the logistics get tougher and the effectiveness of these tools gets more challenging. And the threshold point for giving up on the viability of in-person collaboration rises dramatically. I think this is an absolutely critical point. It is the reason large corporations, with the internal resources (people and money) to sequester, have the capacity to collaborate more effectively than small corporations and loose, unfunded collaborative groups (though whether they use that capacity to advantage is another question entirely). Open Source project teams and alliances have pioneered low-budget, virtual, asynchronous collaboration, and are the role model to follow. But is the reason for this perhaps that Open Source collaborations are generally undertaken by exceptionally tech-savvy groups, very agile at using and even inventing their own collaborative tools to get the job done? They usually have a good GUI for the non-techie, but wade into the material and collaboration technology behind a lot of these groups and your head will start spinning. What about the other 95% of the population? If I want to set up a virtual collaboration team to design a model intentional community (with people I might end up spending the rest of the my life with) or to invent a post-capitalist economy (a large project if there ever was one), what tools and media should I use?

Wikis are one place to start — a bit nerdy and physically inelegant but functional and not that hard to learn once you take the plunge. They are, however, asynchronous tools, which is a significant barrier to true collaboration.

There are some more robust collaborative ‘spaces’ for communities of interest and communities of practice to adopt, but some of the best ‘groupware’ (like Groove and Exchange and eRooms) costs money and requires considerable learning to use its different tools effectively. These tools generally also require a coordinator to invest a lot of time to setting up and managing the ‘space’.

There are a variety of document-sharing technologies in the market, which allow several people to see a document at once and to ‘take control’ each in turn to change that document.

Ideally, using a combination of

  1. Skype (free global VoIP telephony),
  2. White-boarding (everyone online can see what anyone posts to the white-board),
  3. Document-sharing and
  4. Mindmapping or some similar session annotation tool (everyone can see what the group’s ‘scribe’ has documented as the findings, decisions and next actions from the collaboration)

would be a close approximation to an in-person collaborative session. But that’s a lot of technology to juggle on your screen, to hog and interfere with your bandwidth, and (if you opt for the more powerful tools in these categories) can also require some outlay of money. My experience has been (thanks in no small part to the valuable insights of online communication wizard Robin Good and Skypemaster Stu Henshall) that video-conferencing (seeing the people you’re talking with online) is a “nice to have” not a “need to have”, especially when bandwidth limitations force you to choose which applications to have running at any one time.

I am confident that, as bandwidth and processing power continue to expand, we will soon see:

  • A single, free, reliable, easy-to-use, professional-looking application that will provide what I’ve called Simple Virtual Presence — the four applications listed above plus the option of videoconferencing (illustrated above), and
  • A simple, free, easy-to-use collaboration space where the results of the online collaboration sessions, and a library of relevant resources and links, are stored, with wiki-like capability so it can be maintained by any and all in the group.

Now that would be a real virtual collaboration environment.

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11 Responses to Virtual Collaboration: If You Can’t Work Side-by-Side

  1. Dave:I’m in the midst of an experiment right now to use a gift economy model to collaborate around a real project I’m working on. Mostly using Skype at the moment, and having the richest conversations I’ve ever had with that medium. I basically posted the invitation on my blog and whoever comes is the right people!

  2. Emile says:

    Yo ! Ever tried [a href=]MoonEdit[/a] ?It’s pretty neat :) – ‘specially when used with Skype …

  3. Emile says:

    erm – sorry for the link :-P This should be cleaner : *

  4. Dave Pollard says:

    Interesting stuff, Emile. Have you used this yourself? What’s your experience, especially with non-techies?

  5. Valdis says:

    I like the Virtual Collaboration window above… only addition is the Who’s On-line list should be a network.

  6. Emile says:

    A bit late … I actually hadn’t tested MoonEdit since yesterday, I just had heard it was nice.And, well, it is :) It’s new and being discovered and explored.”Ting sessions” are being organized, the next one is Thursday 21:00 UTC. They consist of using MoonEdit and Skype together, it may interest you :) (I probably won’t make it, it’s 5AM here at that time)more here :’m going to try to get my mom into using this for organizing the holidays ^^ But she probably wouldn’t be considered a non-techie)

  7. Emile says:

    (hmm, break lines in the comment box are cut off …)Just another note : I also had some firewall issues with moonedit (one of the reasons it took me some time before I could try it). Not that it interests anyone, but it would fit in your table :)

  8. Geogre Scott says:

    I developed a free collaborative system for groups to use to share files, calendars, message boards, and so on. I hope your readers will try it.

  9. This is a wonderful contribution to our understanding of the technologies of coworking. You might enjoy comparing this with an article I published in 2000 – – in many ways, things have not changed, despite all the hoop and la about Web 2.0. Still no comprehensive, free meeting technologies out there…I was especially gratified to read about the role of “scribe” – even though you only mentioned it. When you get someone who really understands how to use mindmapping or outlining software, and understands group process, you get something far beyond scribe. It’s what I call the role of “technographer” – which became, in 2005, an official “forbidden word” – – and yet, for those who have experienced it, it remains a significant, and perhaps central role in virtual collaboration.

  10. Nick says:

    I really like online collaboration, but the site that I seem to like a lot better than the ones you suggested though skype is quite good is Trailfire: it’s really great for working on a research project as it allows for wiki’s and leaving comments right there on the web. Just a thought..

  11. Google Wave – Almost “nail on the head”? (I came back to this post a while after the fact)

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