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Collaboration Exasperation

[Editor's Note: This podcast was produced by Guy Clinch for No Jitter. Below the audio player is the transcript of the podcast so visitors can read along.]

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Really; is this the best we can do? Are we really happy with the collaboration tools we have today? How much of our productive weeks are lost at the beginning and during the time we spend in collaborating online? I’m sorry to be such a curmudgeon, but how much time must we continue to lose due to the tools and our incapacity to execute their use well? 

For me the aggregate of lost productivity has come to rival all the time I’ve spent in my life waiting for elevators, stuck in traffic or standing in line. When I think about the productivity drain of wasted time in anticipation of the arrival of late guests, that spent waiting for downloads, or waiting for Java to update, or waiting for a new version of the app to load, or awaiting for the proper person to be passed the permissions to become the presenter, or holding off or abandoning the meeting all together because no one dialed in with the proper code, I despair.

Just when you think you’ve experienced them all someone or the technology invents a new agitation. I don’t know which is worse, the ever growing list of fails or the complacency with which we’ve come to tolerate the disruption. 

The paradox is that in the hands of today's skilled marketeers, the term collaboration has taken on almost mystical qualities. We’re preached of a state of Nirvana to business’ most urgent ills.

In reality the experience is more often paradise lost. Not unlike sitting at a stoplight, or in the rope line at a Transportation Security Administration checkpoint, or (with all due regards to the State of Connecticut) those two and a half hours spent behind the steering wheel going from where I am to where I want to be, our days too often come a screeching halt.

The situation can be vexing enough during a web conference, but it gets awful during video conferencing. As someone who has spent a considerable amount of the time in my life trying to help people understand how these technologies could be helpful, it pains me to say this. The truth is even now after decades of trying, we still have a long way to go.

There is plenty of culpability. For all the progress that has been made, collaboration platforms still struggle to maintain user adoption. Saying this there is also no question that part of the nuisance belongs to the users. Too few people take the time to learn the tools, to prepare for each meeting and to execute meetings well. 

This is not a new woe. The situation has occurred seemingly forever. For example, how many times have groups of people assembled in a conference room only to have the start of the meeting be delayed because no one has stopped by beforehand to make sure the projector works or that the white board markers have not dried up. 

There is little question that both the users and the technologies share in the dysfunction. The users can be excused to some degree because even after all these years of refinement, the technologies are not as intuitive as should be. 

Each platform holds its own inscrutability. Just when you think you’ve got it down, a Monday morning greets you with a new interface and a new Rubik’s Cube to solve. In these days in which our expectations are driven by Apple and Android and highly intuitive devices surround us, we have decreasing patience technologies that don’t lend themselves to immediate comprehension. 

The fact that today’s collaboration technologies still require the users to dedicate their time to learn how to master the technologies, predestine their misuse. The fact that the vessels through which most experience the tools are not engineered for collaboration adds to the complexity. For instance, that might be the best place for the engineer to site the camera on a lap top, but if the user can’t tilt the screen so that they can both be seen and comfortably see the other participants and any material presented, the ergonomics of collaboration fail the function. 

Adding to user reticence towards adoption is that most of the learning about how to overcome the eccentricities of each platform is earned from the making of mistakes; the solutions to which then need to be remembered. Documentation, even if the user had time to explore it, trails or is nonexistent. 

Not that I wish to let the users off the hook. Too few spend the small amount of time it would take to improve the experience. If you are going to participate in online meetings, please take a moment to think about the people on the other end. 

If you are on a video conference, take a few seconds to adjust your environment. Make sure you are not washed out by excessive ambient light. Use the audio mute function when not talking. Don’t put us on hold. 

Aim your camera. How many hours must we all spend staring at your askew forehead, your stained shirt or that messy credenza? 

Look into the camera occasionally. At least if you are not going to be in the shot, put something interesting for us to look on the wall or by the desk. Otherwise why use video? I suspect that most participants would rather still use some other medium. That fact comes out in the exhibition of collaborative passive aggressive set of behaviors. 

I know all the arguments for use. Meetings using collaboration tools should be more productive because visual cues convey more meaning than that of audio alone. The problem is that what is most often conveyed via the visual queue is disinterest. What else does it mean when we in the audience don’t look at the person who is speaking? No matter how we try to conceal our typing, we all know who is multitasking. If that joke was so funny, why not share it with the rest of class? 

Oh! By the way, don’t forget that you are on video. There is time and a place for intimate personal grooming. It’s not when you occupy my desktop. 

Note to self: Never borrow that guy’s pen.

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