Social Networking: Why are Conversation and Collaboration Tools so Underused?

chairsYou’ve seen it a million times: At a meeting with a dozen people, some of them take notes and others don’t, and if you have a chance to see the notes afterwards you wonder if the people were actually at the same meeting. The people connected in by phone or online were even more clued out, somehow missing everything important that came out of the meeting. And a month later, the minutes of the meeting come out, and you read them and ask yourself: When during the meeting did we agree to do that?

One of the purposes of the new flood of social networking tools is to try to organize, facilitate and improve the effectiveness of conversations and collaborative activities. The power and promise of these tools was and is considerable, and a year ago Steve Barth even predicted the demise of group e-mails (in favour of next-gen wikis and other more dynamic tools). But most of these tools remain underused, or hardly used at all. The following table is my rough take on current usage of these tools:

Used by Most People Used by Those on the Right Side of the Digital Divide Only (say, 20%) Used by Power Internet Users Only
 (say, 2%)
  • telephone
  • group e-mail
  • face-to-face meetings without any personal documentation of learnings or decisions
  • skype and other free global enhanced VOIP telephony tools
  • discussion forums/groups
  • weblogs
  • face-to-face meetings with personal notes or mindmap documentation
  • wikis
  • google writely and other online document sharing tools
  • sophisticated collaboration & coordination tools and ‘spaces’
  • face-to-face meetings using Open Space or other advanced highly-effective conversation and collaboration techniques

What’s happening here? I think there are seven main reasons for this underutilization:

  1. Most people are still unfamiliar with the tools in the middle and right columns. 
  2. Many of these tools are unintuitive and hence not easy to learn to use.
  3. The way you have to use these tools is not the way most people converse and collaborate, i.e. they’re awkward.
  4. Most people have poor listening, communication and collaboration skills, and these tools don’t solve (and can exacerbate) this underlying problem of ineffective interpersonal skills.
  5. The training materials for these tools don’t match the way most of us learn and discover (i.e. by doing, by watching others, and iteratively by trial and error).
  6. Often the people we most want to converse or collaborate with aren’t online.
  7. Often we don’t even know who the right people are to converse or collaborate with, so we need to go through a process of discovering who those people are first, which these tools cannot yet effectively help us with; once we’ve discovered who the right people are, we’re likely already talking with them using the ubiquitous tools in the left column above.

In many cases the cost of limiting our conversations and collaborations to the 20% or 2% of people who can effectively use these tools is just too high, so we revert to the lowest-common-denominator tools in the left column above.

But the consequence of this is suboptimal conversations and collaborations: A lot of wasted time, high travel cost, a great deal of miscommunication and non-communication, misunderstandings about what has been learned and decided, great ideas and important information not heard or not used, learnings and information lost or forgotten, and collaborations dominated by the loudest or most powerful instead of drawing on the best from all participants.

Many people seem to believe the answer is to make the tools better and wait for the rest of the world (or the next generation) to catch up with the 2% or 20%. But I’m not so sure. The digital divide seems to grow ever wider, not narrower, and if a tool as simple, free and intuitive as Skype can’t replace the telephone even for tech-savvy users, what hope is there for more complicated, sophisticated tools?

And while better education and training in conversational and collaboration skills, and in the use of enabling tools, would certainly help, my guess is that we’re too busy, or don’t consider it urgent or important enough, to make acquiring these skills and tool familiarity a priority, so it just ain’t going to happen. A generation from now someone will write an article very much like this one, and nothing will have changed.

So let’s try an experiment in online collaboration, using Google Writely, one of the right-column tools, and see if we can come up, through conversation and collaboration, with some better answers, or at least an understanding of why social networking tools aren’t going to change the world. You can find a copy of this article on Google Writely here. If you want to participate in this conversation and collaboration, here’s what to do:

  1. Send me an e-mail so that I can give you editing rights to the Writely document.
  2. On the editable Writely version, help create a conversation around the five questions I’ve asked below by answering them right in the document, any way that makes sense to you, and let’s see whether, by using this tool and putting our heads together, in a self-organizing way, we can turn this post into something powerful that will guide social networking tool designers and teach us all how to be more effective communicators and collaborators.

As long as it isn’t a dog’s breakfast, once everyone has had their say, I will replace this version with the collaborative Writely version here on the blog. If it turns out really well, I may make this standard procedure on many of my blog posts.

Time for your say:

  1. Why are conversation and collaboration tools so underused? Is my list of 7 reasons missing anything? Are any of the reasons predominant?
  2. Is the answer making the tools better? If so, how? If not, what is the answer?
  3. Given time, do you think people will eventually learn to use these tools, despite their shortcomings? Which tools, current or envisioned, will be the winners, the killer apps for online-enabled conversation and collaboration, and why?
  4. What one simple thing should we do/learn to most effectively enable people tobecome better conversationalists, and how would we do this?
  5. What one simple thing should we do/learn to most effectively enable people to become better collaborators, and how would we do this?
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18 Responses to Social Networking: Why are Conversation and Collaboration Tools so Underused?

  1. To me, the basic tools for a good meeting are these: have a good question, that is the real question we need to be talking about; use a talking piece, or something to help the group self-regulate their conversation (NOT a chairman!); give it time; harvest something; discern the wisest action to come out of the meeting.It’s really not about fancy tools and processes, but about the basic things that add value to the most important conversations we need to have.

  2. Ken says:

    I’m thinking of my own dislike for real-time communication tools such as messaging clients. While the medium of text is familiar and comfortable, I tend to want to ponder my words for a bit before typing out the first thing that comes to mind and sharing that with others. For example, this posting has been edited and re-edited multiple times, and I’m still not happy with it. :-)I don’t know if I would want a camera with a microphone and speakers connected to my computer, given the ‘cracking’ that is evidently done by powerful groups (or the singular), it seems one’s privacy could be negatively affected without one even realizing it. Even the microphone in this laptop I’ve been using gives me the tinfoilhat jitters, and I’ve thought about disassembling the unit and either desoldering the microphone or installing a mechanical switch. Well, at least there’s a switch for the speakers which is kept off most of the time, but my computer, making sounds, doesn’t negatively affect my privacy, just my desire for silence when thinking. As I look at your diagram, I notice that the introvert/extrovert division isn’t noted. Perhaps extroverts are happier talking to each other ‘verbally’, whereas introverts tend to be happier communicating in ways that allow them to reflect and consider before impulsively blurting something out. In a way, your first commenter touches on this with his word: “talking”. Myself, I evidently love to read, and one of the benefits of reading is the ability to read fast, and slow down in areas that may require deeper thought. Verbal communication’s pace is the pace of the speaker’s mind, not of the listener’s mind: additionally, as you mentioned, some people may not process verbal information as well as others. An interesting question is, are introverts disproportionately represented in the two more rightward columns versus the left column where perhaps they are less well represented? An oblique question to the former might be: what is the impact of immediate and real-time communication tools of any kind versus those who may wish to consider their words carefully, whether they be spoken or written, before sharing them (regardless of any introvert/extrovert polarization)? And yet a third might be: Is today’s Internet built for the people who historically used it? Have the fancy bells and whistles of the last few years, such as video and real time video conferencing and messaging transcended the historical and typical user’s skill set by moving away from communication and toward commination? In an attempt to answer this introvert/extrovert question, I searched the Internet and the top result was an article titled “The Introvert’s Path To Success: Learn To Act Like An Extrovert”. (What tripe!) The article studied corporate executives, and the CEOs’ billion dollar compensation packages has left me rather devoid of sympathy or a desire to emulate their behavior.Unfortunate as it is, this touches on your second commenter’s core point sans the inflammatory rhetoric. (I see that by the time I’m done writing my thoughts and making them presentable, the inflammatory post is gone. Haha.) Let me remind of the deleted post’s core point that our societies seem to be “hierarchical” (corporate executives are just one case in point), and even some inspired words on paper regarding “created equal” doesn’t change humankind’s darker social nature of several millennia of class warfare. The Bonobos aren’t the only chimpanzees.

  3. Kris Olsen says:

    Dave – Thanks for an insightful and accurate analysis. As you might guess from my web site, I have a special interest in promoting wikis and I have come to the same conclusions you have. I have written on this very topic a few times – the technology is easy, culture is hard.

  4. Most people do not have this passion to spend a lot of time on social network tools. They are very practical. What’s in it for them? Does it fit in their daily rithm? Do they need to use these tools for their work, to organise their life? Unfortunately (?) social software is not like oxygen. Most people can live without it.

  5. My interest in this topic has been ongoing for many years. I think the general analysis that you provide is a good one. I work for a very large company and managed to be one of the first to incorporate collaboration tools, such as wikis, blogs, geek log into my day-to-day activities several years ago. Even so, I am constantly presented with the challenge of getting others to use the technology. I would be interested in learning about any specific research you may have uncovered that would shed further light on the topic.

  6. Jon Husband says:

    Don’t overlook the near-DNA psychological assumptions / learnings we have about working in non-collaboration-friendly structures.

  7. Dave, Thanks for reminding me and shining light on the gaps in the software world. In general, I agree that we have ways to go to better support human intellectual activities (learning, communicating, researching, creating,…) with technology. In my opinion, this is the next frontier of HCI (Human Computer Interaction): it’s not just about creating new UI concepts and interaction methods, but rather better matching the software to the need and making it work _with_ the mind (not act as a barrier).The trouble is after identifying such these gaps, how to come up with software that does a better job. How to gain the critical piece of insight that makes the software participate in a person’s “flow”? How to make software that is deeply usable and truly supports the human mind?

  8. Hobie Swan says:

    Just to provide an alternate scenario to the one you led off with: A dozen people in a room (or meeting virually) gathered around a projection or computer screen, working together to build a visual map of the meeting. One person rund the keyboard, capturing people’s comments as they are offered. The map structure enables the team to jump from topic to topic as needed, but still keeps them focused on the overall agenda. As the meeting closes, each person takes responsibility for the new actions they have all agreed to (and which they can all clearly see spelled out in the map). By the end of the meeting there are clear actions, clear assignments and clear next steps. Immediately following the meeting, this common set of notes can be shared via the map itself or through export to Word, PowerPoint, Project, or as Outlook tasks. When the group meets again, they open up the same map and immediately pick up where they left off. We have thousands of customers for whom this is the new meeting culture. Reaction to mapping tends to be universal: simple technology that works the way our minds do; technology that gets out of the way and lets us think together; the place where real thinking gets done. Mapping is technology that, as Julien suggests, “works with the mind.” Bill Gates talked last year in Newsweek about how future generations of mind mapping tools would enable users to synthesize information into knowledge. That future is here and now.

  9. When I met my fiancee 7 years ago she had never owned a computer. Last week she finished editing her own videos and posted them on Youtube. She also has a 70+ member Tribe at coworker of mine, a very talented programmer, didn’t own a cell phone until last year, because he didn’t want to be “tied down”. I explained to him that he could use his phone for outbound calls only – when HE needed to contact someone. He picked up a phone a few weeks later. Everyone welcomed him to the nineties.Then there’s my mom. She’s on her third computer (my brothers and I always try to keep her current) and still doesn’t use, or has a desire to use, email.The point of these three stories is that a change in behavior requires people to identify a major benefit to their lives by using the newer tools (My mom hasn’t found one important enough yet for her to learn to use email). Also, it could be that the new tools just aren’t as good as the old ones. If they’re worth their salt, they’ll grow. Great article, BTW. Actually, this is the first time I’ve come back in a year or so, and the content is still great.

  10. Jonathan Grudin researched the barriers to collaboration in the 1990s, when ‘groupware’ was the term du jour. One factor (which technology cannot overcome) is that many systems have a mismatch between who puts in the effort and who gets the benefits. See Groupware and social dynamics:

  11. Jonathan Grudin researched the barriers to collaboration in the 1990s, when ‘groupware’ was the term du jour. One factor (which technology cannot overcome) is that many systems have a mismatch between who puts in the effort and who gets the benefits. See Groupware and social dynamics: eight challenges for developers.

  12. Leon Cych says:

    Moodle is catching on like wildfire in the educational communities around the world because it mirrors social constructivism. This tool was built from the ground up on with that as a basis and is gaining ground every day. So within certain groups things are beginning to happen. Go along to and see for yourself – you might be surprised.

  13. ian says:

    Reaching a collective decision on anything but the simplest issue is simply very hard. When most meeting agendas don’t even estimate how long an item is expected to take it isn’t going to change any time now.In practice it seems that 90% of face to face meetings are poorly conducted, 90% of those taking part don’t realise how bad they are and 90% of the rest don’t know how or don’t have the power to change things. These are ‘people’ problems that must be solved before any technological response has a chance to bite.

  14. Marnie Webb says:

    At a high level, I think that the fear of being wrong is a huge part of the problem. When people are working on their own private document, they don’t have to worry about whether or not the notes are good or write or accurately capture everything that happened. That’s not true once you start to work on collaborative platforms.I find that it gives folks stage fright just as much as standing in front of a large group can give them strage fright.

  15. Brad Kirkman-Liff says:

    I found this page a year after the last post – but it is still relevant. I’ll try to follow your procedure – if you are still doing this experiment.

  16. Time, time, time keeps me from using. The idea of group-thinking, collaborative writing, like Google Writely, is wonderful. Now, to find the time, the topic.See my methods for improving communication and for collaborative thinking and Collaborative Edge Decision Making meetings on my website. I offer simple self-help methods of Intuitive Focusing and Focused Listening which allow people, alone, in pairs, in groups/teams/communities to access their creative, right-brain, “intuitive” thinking in the midst of problem solving, and to hear deeply the Creative Edge in the thinking of others.

  17. I guess I should give URL for Creative Edge Focusing (TM) : and McGuire

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