A lot of the projects I work on involve generating ideas and user interfaces for systems to get collaboration happening for organisations. Many business decision makers are all too aware of collaboration’s benefits, but struggle to make their systems realise these benefits. One of the reasons could be a lack of a rational model underlying the system changes needed.
I find collaboration is a lot like religion: most people already think they know what collaboration is, could talk about it a bit, but probably haven’t really fully experienced it. It’s something other people do. A big reason for this is the language we use: we tend to talk about it in terms of its outworkings, motherhood statements, and end products. Do these sound familiar:
- Collaboration will deliver more innovation
- Collaboration will make us more efficient and more profitable
- Collaboration will strengthen brand loyalty
- Collaboration will enable more effective management
- Collaboration will reduce greenhouse gas emissions
- Collaboration will end war and bring about world peace
…OK, you get the point. We can’t help but think about collaboration in grandiose hyperbole. What business decision makers are often left with is a big chasm between collaboration’s great promises, and the right systems and interfaces to actually get it happening. I think we need to speak more in terms of information models, and start with the patterns and habits that people are already used to. I think we can speak more in terms of good old stock-in-trade for Information Arhictects: finding, organising and sharing information.
Finding information: moving beyond keywords
Search is big. I mean, really big. Google has spawned not only its own verb, but new approaches to searching and sifting through information that others are adding innovative thinking and features to all the time (like Clusty and Vivisimo).
Search is crucial for collaboration because we’re always going to approach information in terms of what we want more than what we can give. It’s time that the various comprehensive search features out there were made more available inside organisations’ systems. Searching for information has to be integrated (searching several systems at once), contextual (offering more relevant results related to your tasks) and predictive (offering avenues that you might not have anticipated).
When predictive search works together with integrated and contextual search, organisations can better anticipate what issues lie over the horizon, giving them an edge over their competition.
Organising information: moving beyond folders
Information is traditionally organised into files, folders and business areas. Think of your average office intranet, and the way your files are arranged on your server; everything is probably arranged by the organisation chart. The server probably has a big folder called ‘Clients’, with hundreds of folders for specific projects inside. This type of thinking arises from the more traditional metaphors we’re used to, like filing cabinets, rolodexes and business cards. It works up to a point, but it relies more and more on keeping that mental model of the structure in your head.
This creates issues when new uninitiated staff arrive, when the organisation restructures, and so on. This approach can also limit scalability, place too much reliance on technology and hold back organisations’ potential.
A more useful model puts the person at the centre of the information, and organises everything by connections. Connection-based categorisation adds a new dimension of relevance to information management, and allows a more flexible, agile and future-proof way of finding and working with information.
For example, every document on your server probably belongs to some sort of project, case or other discrete unit. It has one or more authors, one or more versions, and so on. Every author has a relationship to that project (a role to play, duration they’re on the project), relationships to the other authors, and other similar projects that they have worked on. And each of those projects has its own relationships.
Get the idea? Mapping this sort of metadata reveals connections that users may not be aware of, and aid in searching, browsing and adding richer meaning to that document. One example of this in action is the way LinkedIn displays connections to other people that you’re linked to. It does this to give greater context to connections, and reveal other people you may not have known about, or may not know that your connection is connected to.
Here’s a table comparing the ways organising information by connections can help:
Organising by files and folders
Organising by common topics
Organising by people
|Information is organised by whatever makes sense at the time
Is an induction manual filed under HR? Or Policies and procedures? Or Training?
|Information is organised by more real-world terms and business rules
Such as by subject or topic, or by roles and tasks
|Information is organised by people and their experience
So it has more associations than just by topic or business rule
|Rigid and static structure
Information can only be stored and referred to in one place
|Flexible but static structure
Information can be referenced from many locations, but can lose relevance over time
|Relational agile structure
Information is referenced from many locations, and new connections are made all the time
|Not as intuitive
Finding information usually requires induction and memorising locations
Finding information is associated with terms people already understand
Finding information is associated with people and their experience, as well as familiar terms
But you have to know what words to search with, or work by trial and error
Grouping information by familiar topics improves searchability
Searches are expanded to include people’s experience and expertise
|Not much collaboration
The system doesn’t help people to learn from each other
The system passively allows people to learn from each other
The system actively encourages people to learn from each other
This approach doesn’t necessarily mean replacing existing organisation practices and technology. It means adding the connection management layer to make your existing organisation more effective.
Sharing information: moving beyond email
Sharing information is actually an oxymoron to a lot of people; there are many people who have got to where they are precisely because they don’t share information, and perhaps are specifically required not to. But for the rest of us who aren’t spies or lawyers, there can still be a culture of only sharing information when we have the time and when we’ll profit from it.
But let’s assume we are sharing information. It typically means relying on technology that is simply not purposed for collaboration. It typically means using email messages to do the sharing, and the inbox to do the collecting, which presents all sorts of limitations in terms of file versions, decentralisation and difficulty in finding information. Collaboration can instead be fostered with the following factors:
- Openness – the more people are present and able to contribute in a collaborative space, the more useful it is. A knowledge management system open to only a few authors won’t be used as much as a more multi-author (or wiki) based system.
- Trust – information has to have credibility and authority to be relied upon.
- Convenience – the easier it is to seek and contribute information, the more the system will be used.
- Context – people have more incentive to use collaborative tools when they are seamlessly available as a part of the work they are already doing.
- Personalisation – offering features that let people customise the system to the way they work increases use and usefulness.
Start with the information design
Effective collaboration systems should start with a clear articulation of the information model, and the way that an organisation’s people are to use that model. Getting used to talking about the information design rather than the high-falutin’ benefits will help these sorts of projects actually succeed.
It will also help in resolving sticky issues like governance in systems that express the points of openness (above). It will help to strike the right balance between ‘top-down’ governance, corporate-regulated roles, permissions and information management, and ‘bottom-up’ open contribution and sharing.
It will help change a system people have to use to a system people will rely on. Amen to that!