Saturday, September 27, 2008

The Neglected Human Element in Web 2.0

Most of the talk around "Web 2.0" rarely touches on the human element. There is lots of rhetoric about the promise and potential of emerging social / collaborative technologies, but no one connects these as tools that enable human processes / practices. There seems to be an underlying assumption of "build it and they will come" or "give the group these technologies and magic will happen."

I think this is a problematic and potentially costly assumption.

Example. Wiki technology enables a group of people to jointly create and edit a document, track who made what changes, and have a related on-line discussion about the document/content. A much more productive tool than using only Microsoft word and those ugly revision marks.

But without common purpose and motivation to contribute, the required skills and knowledge to contribute, agreement to basic ground rules and processes, clear decision making around what content stays and what goes, and a transparent, agreed to arbitration process in the case of irreconcilable conflict -- all the basic things guide group work even in the absence of technology - the tool in and of itself is ineffective and desired outcomes will not be reached.

Related to this idea is that the word "collaboration" has become a generic term to refer to ANY form of interaction between individuals and groups. Yet there are multiple forms, including consulting (asking for input), co-operating, coordinating.

In each one the motivation, process and outcomes are different than real collaboration, which can be defined as exchanging information for mutual benefit, and altering activities, sharing resources, and enhancing the capacity of another to achieve a commonly agreed to outcome through an agreed to process.

Common, explicit understanding and agreement about the outcome / goal, and HOW a group will interact together is important for establishing roles/responsibilities and rules to govern the interaction, and the choice of technology or tool.

I think when "collaboration" is used generically it leads to multiple interpretations and assumptions, which causes breakdown in processes/practices and prevents groups from achieving their potential.

Adding technology in the mix only multiplies the risks.

1 comment:

Peter Zakrzewski said...

I think I have to disagree that the technology would only multiply the risk.

I think it would actually decrease the risk. Social networking technologies in the workplace could be used to actually increase accountability, openess, and transparency.

With the right guidance, managers could learn to help employees collaborate more effectively by using a tool like a Wiki to make explicit the roles and responsibilities inherit in any of the work that the team does inside, outside and around the Wiki.

But I have to agree with you on the need to put people first. Perhaps rather than deciding how to engage using a tool, discuss how a team should engage face-to-face and then transpose that same governance onto the tool. Start with the people first, make it explicit, and then let the tool bring the people closer together to help them achieve a shared outcome.

Technology alone won't deliver on our goals to collaborate more effectively. But it could potentially go along way towards helping us reach them.