Confessions of a Casual Collaborator
As much as I do incorporate team collaboration apps into my work, the fit isn't always quite right.
Truth be told, I'm a reluctant collaborator. I prefer projects that I can start, work on, and complete pretty much on my own. It's not that I'm asocial at work, or a control freak. I've just found that coordinating too much with others can introduce complications and delays... and, of course, reaching agreement on how to approach a problem is much easier when I only need a consensus of one.
That said, I'm regularly involved in all kinds of work that requires many people's participation. And because I work in an industry that produces countless collaboration tools, I do try to incorporate them into my work as much as possible.
With that little preamble, I'd like to make the following confessions:
- Most of my "collaboration" remains email-centric. I wanted to get that out there right away because I've written a lot about these "email killers" and how they're making us so much less dependent on email. And no doubt they have all sorts of great potential to wean us off of email, and I'm sure others using them find themselves less and less bogged down in email. But for a number of reasons, which I'll get to shortly, the vast majority of my interactions with coworkers, clients, and others are still via email.
- I like team collaboration apps, but at this point they're complicating rather than simplifying my messaging experience. For context, I'm talking about the apps I've been calling "team collaboration" for want of anything better. No Jitter bloggers Zeus Kerravala and Dave Michels describe them as "workstream communications and collaboration," and Cisco seems to have settled on "business messaging." Whatever you call them, they work well and are useful to folks like me whose job involves staring at a screen of some kind or another for more time than my optometrist says is healthy. I've used a number of the apps for different projects, and they do a good job at organizing messages and shared content rather than having everything dumped into my email inbox. They're also good at eliminating multiple emails with the same endless reply threads. And they can save me from hunting around for that one email with that one attachment that I need right now. But I'm afraid that my casual use of team collaboration apps has complicated rather than simplified my messaging experience. Instead of messages coming into just one app, I'm managing messages arriving via email, corporate IM, various team collaboration apps, various mobile messaging apps, etc. (A year ago I would have listed enterprise social too, but I've instituted a policy that for every new messaging app I start using, I stop using another. So my use of enterprise social apps has kind of fallen by the wayside.) My main problem with using multiple messaging apps is I can't always recall which ones have which messages and attachments in them. I mean, one, two, or six months down the line I can't always recall if some interaction I want to review took place in email, on IM, or in one of the team collaboration apps I've been using. That some team collaboration apps don't yet support a feature as straightforward as search doesn't help. So heaven forbid I have multiple collaboration sessions in multiple spaces or rooms or folders... or whatever metaphor a particular app uses. I'll never find what I'm looking for without a simple search function that's in any 20-year-old corporate email app.
- I usually have to use email in conjunction with team collaboration apps, not instead of them.
Back when enterprise social apps were all the rage, I found that they were only useful when everyone I needed to communicate with also actively used them. But if one or two people central to my job refused to use them -- usually because they would only use email to communicate via text -- then the social app became next to useless.
It's much the same with team collaboration apps. On more than one occasion a project group I'm part of has agreed to use a team collaboration app to share files, provide status updates, and discuss the project ... but one team member simply refuses to use it. Of course, this person is always a key member whose participation in the project is vital. And of course he or she always reverts to email. The last time this happened we wound up cutting and pasting each new post in the collaboration app into email for sending to the luddite, and then cutting and pasting the email reply into the collaboration app. It was a complete farce, and I'm hoping few others have experienced the same.
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- I don't long for less email. I long for less messaging. In a recent Slack survey, respondents said using the app led to a 48.6% reduction in internal email for them. Cisco bandied about a similar figure -- 50% if I recall correctly -- at last month's Collaboration Summit. I don't use team collaboration apps enough to have experienced anything like that, but it sounds great, right? Email sucks. Who doesn't want less email? But when I see these kinds of stats I wonder how much of the time being saved from doing email is just being spent using team collaboration apps instead. Because in the end, I don't really need to spend less time in email per se. I need to spend less time in messaging apps of any kind -- including those that reduce my email usage. The amount of time I spend using team collaboration apps plus the time I'm still using email and IM needs to add up to a number that's sufficiently smaller than the time I previously spent just using email. Because if it doesn't, I'm not freeing up the time I need to be more productive. I've just mucking about with one type of messaging instead of another.
- I'm often disoriented when I first join an online meeting because it's unclear what kind of conference it will be. It's so easy to set up an online meeting that's audio only, audio and content sharing, video only, or video and content sharing. But when I'm joining a meeting someone else set up, it's often not clear to me what's going to happen when I hit that click-to-join link. I might immediately be plopped into a live audio conference, or I might be presented with dial-in instructions, sending me scrambling for a phone. My webcam might suddenly flicker on and I'm in a video session. Or it won't, and I've combed my hair and donned my Acme Home Worker's Video Conference Upper Wear for nothing. Content might be shared, or I might have to fish out documents that were or will be sent separately. You might say, "Just use this app or that service. It's so much better than the others and completely addresses this problem." That sounds good, but I'm rarely the master of my own conferencing experience. I have to use whatever other people choose... and however they choose to use it. As a result I'm regularly confused in the first minute or so of an online meeting as I figure out what I've gotten myself into.
- When it comes to video conferencing, I can take it or leave it. Don't get me wrong. Video conferencing is fantastic. I especially like video in the first few minutes of a meeting when things are more casual. As a telecommuter, being able to talk face to face with colleagues who I seldom see in person is great. But it's more of a luxury than a necessity. After we've gotten past "Hi! How are the kids? How's the weather?" and started in on the meeting itself I need to concentrate on what's being said rather than on what the person looks like while uttering the words.
- I don't download video client software any more. I used to have 12 -- count 'em, 12! -- distinct apps whose sole purposes were to set up video conferences. Each would try to launch at start up, run in the background, and call dibs on my A/V equipment. Each regularly nagged me for updates and periodically required me to reinstall them. And I suspect they factored into laptop performance problems I was having at the time. Now if my IT department hasn't installed and doesn't support the app, all of my video conferences are in the browser. While WebRTC apps aren't always as stable as the more mature, less buggy video apps that once overpopulated my PC, when they work they work well. So it's just WebRTC for me from here on out.
- When I'm in a video conference I probably don't see you. No offense... but see, when I'm in a particularly productive conference I'm asking questions, getting answers, and taking lots of notes. Taking notes means I've got a word processing app open. An open word processing app means I'm looking at it, not at the person speaking. Sometimes I open multiple windows, with the video conferencing app next to the one I'm using to take notes, but more often than not it's just the word processing app that's visible. So I've become adept at maintaining eye contact with the webcam while I take notes, even though I can't actually see anyone else in the conference.
That's it for my confessions. Do you have any you want to share? Add them in the comments.