E L S U A ~ A KM Blog by Luis Suarez

From the blog

Stop Blaming the Tools when Collaboration Fails

 Gran Canaria - Pozo de las Nieves

We, human beings, seem to always be very keen on blaming the tools (and technology, in general, for that matter) whenever things just don’t work out all right, specially, in the collaboration space. Apparently, it is way easier to blame them (or others!), when our very own things go wrong, than to look into one self and question whether either our mindset or behaviours, for instance, have got some blame to be accountable for as well. By and large, we just can’t shake off our technology fetish, but, you know, when different problems come around, typically, associated with some kind of fatigue or overload (insert your favourite moniker here), or, just simply, plain collaboration failure, we seem to have developed that gift of shaking it off ourselves rather promptly and, instead, blame the tools. Seriously, why do we keep doing that?

Of course, we all know the tools can’t talk back to us, so they can’t defend themselves. We also know that, over the last few decades, we have been taught, rather well!, how we can shake off ourselves, and very efficiently, whatever sense of accountability or responsibility we may have got left. We will just go ahead and keep blaming the tools. Over and over again. Deep inside, we all know we just can’t face any other reality that may point directly at us, so, instead, we point elsewhere to deviate the attention. And it works. Every single time. It just works. #lesigh

You know, it’s so tiring sometimes. Even more so when there seems to be this cycle that keeps repeating itself, every few years, where collaborative tools may well be different, but we still blame them, just in case, when we start noticing how our productivity levels are not getting any higher anymore. Well, perhaps we may need to start realising it may well not be the tools, nor collaborative technologies, in general, but ourselves, the ones who, at long last, may need to come forward and acknowledge our very own culpability. Collaborative technologies by themselves are not the problem. They never have been. It’s been, essentially, our very mindset and behaviours of how we adapt to them, or fail to, what’s at play here. If anything, that’s who we need to start blaming, instead: ourselves. 

Why am I saying all of this? Well, mainly, because of an article Sean Winter wrote at CMSWire yesterday under the rather suggestive title of ‘Do Collaboration Apps Make Employees Less Productive?’ which seems to be repeating the same good old story as ever: we just can’t collaborate effectively because technology is getting in the way. Again. Hummm, not really. It’s us the ones who keep getting in the way, and, somehow, we don’t seem to want to change that much. Instead we justify it. Yikes! We need to smarten up, collectively. We need to start elevating the discourse and begin asking the really tough questions. If collaboration is failing, if productivity has been tanking since the 1980s (and still going strong!), maybe, just maybe, we need to think really hard whether it’s us the main problem. Something tells me we are, so how do we change it? How do we shift gears and stop barking up at the wrong tree?

Well, how about making use of some fresh, new thinking? How about applying some new lenses? How about if instead of aiming for a single collaboration solution to all of our business problems, which seems to be what most Enterprise Social Networking vendors keep advocating for, wrongly, we start acknowledging that it’s a bit more complex than that? How about if we, at long last, understand, comprehend, and fully embrace, the notion that fragmentation is good? It’s healthy. It’s something that should be very much encouraged as our mere means of survival for us all knowledge Web workers. And, finally, how about if we shift gears and realise that different people have got different needs and wants based on the context and interactions at play for the different outcomes they may want to execute on, whether individually or in groups?

At the end of the day, it’s all about choice. It’s all about understanding that different groups (and individuals) have got different needs to cater for; that is, diverse sets of habits, mindset, behaviours, corporate culture, contexts, constraints, conditions, understanding of the business world surrounding them, etc. etc. Have you noticed how, perhaps, a decade ago we were having the good old discussion about having a single one tool that could do everything and therefore there wouldn’t be a need for anything else, because, you know, we all thought we knew better and how nowadays it’s become rarer and rarer to see a single business or organisation making use of a single tool to do everything related to collaborating more effectively?

It’s all about choice, indeed, or, better said, it’s all about fragmentation, about having various lenses that could cater for distinct audiences to achieve a specific set of business related goals using the several (social) collaborative tools at their disposalThat’s why collaboration keeps failing us all, because we keep thinking about how we all view traditional collaboration, through 20th century models, (i.e. *cough* email *cough*) and we expect today’s emergent social collaborative technologies to behave pretty much the same way. When they don’t. They never have. Things are a whole lot more complex than that and that’s what we may need to think about and change altogether: our very own notions and perceptions of what constitutes effective collaboration. And start applying some brand-new, refreshing, 21st century thinking. 

At the moment, my current favourite trend of thought to counteract our obsession with either collaboration overload or failure, while we keep blaming the proliferation of either tools or input sources, is to think in terms of Social Lenses. A concept my good friend, Thomas van der Wal, coined back in 2008 and that he presented at this year’s KM World conference in Washington DC with a superb slide deck I plan to keep reusing over and over again every single time I hear, or read, how collaboration has failed us. No, it hasn’t. We have failed it. We have failed it, because we haven’t acknowledged how we need to think bigger, different, more diverse, context driven, accommodating not only the different types of interactions one can expect at the workplace, but also based on the different groups we may be part of, whether individuals, teams, networks, communities, or whatever else. Each of those groupings will have distinctive needs and wants to cater for, which is why we need to start coming to terms with the fact that not a single tool in any organisation would feed everyone’s needs anymore, regardless of whatever the collective.

The moment we understand that and fully embrace it, that’s probably the moment as well when we will all stop talking about how multiple (social) collaborative tools have failed us all along till today and, instead, while shifting gears accordingly, we’ll really start focusing on getting work done more effectively, which, after all, has always been the main premise of Productivity with a capital P.

Work smarter, not necessarily harder.

Don’t you think?


2 votes


  1. Yes, Yes, Yes!
    I could write a book on this subject but will try to keep these comments concise. The fundamental problem is that we use ‘collaborate’ as a catch-all verb. To be sure I am a scientist but as a chemist and information scientist I tackle different problems with a different set of tools from a botanist or a zoologist. Probably the only commonalities are the physical laws and mathematics.
    I have long been a fan of the approach that Thomas has used, and if I now go on to look at other approaches that is not being in any way critical of his work. We need to remember that the discipline of computer-supported cooperative working dates back to the mid-1980s, and so for over forty years there has been a huge amount of research into why and how people work together. The two key conferences are probably the ACM CSCW annual conference and the biennial Group conferences (Supporting Group Work) though there are others. It seems to me that very few practitioners are aware of not only these conferences but the wealth of case studies that have been published.
    Among the first to look at what I might call the granularity of collaboration were Yiannis Verginadis and his colleagues ( Universities of Athens and Pireaus) in a paper published in 2010 on the use of design patterns in collaborative work. They summarized all the previous work on this topic in their paper. At the same time Tara Matthews and Steve Whittaker (IBM Almaden) were developing their collaboration personas based on a large-scale survey of IBM practice. This is work of great importance in that it led to a second paper specifically about how to select collaboration tools in line with the persona requirements.
    Another aspect that has come to the fore recently is evaluating collaboration solutions. One of the first research groups to tackle this problem was led by Pedro Antunes (University of Lisbon) in a paper published in 2012. Niles Jeners and Wolfgang Prinz (Fraunhofer Institute) then came up with another set of metrics around shared documents in 2014.
    Now of course we have multiple ‘collaboration’ applications, in particular enterprise social networks. The opportunities and challenges that they present are discussed in a set of nine research papers in the June 2016 issue of the Journal of Information Technology. These include a fascinating paper on understanding individual user resistance and workarounds of enterprise social networks.
    The point I am making is that we, as practitioners, should be taking these models and case studies and building on them, not reinventing the wheel. Some the case studies are on a very substantial scale, well beyond anything that we might do as a consulting project. One of the JIT papers is based on a sample of almost 500 employees in a company. The common purpose of all this research is to dig beneath the technology and understand organizational and personal factors that help or hinder collaboration.
    My final reflection is that until we start to see Director of Team Working, or Chief Collaboration Officer positions emerging the momentum is with vendors to sell us more of what we may not need. The cry goes up “We are not collaborating effectively” but no one produces any enterprise-wide evidence that this is the case. I would encourage people to look at the work that Thomas van der Wal has undertaken, the work of Morten Hansen (www.thecollaborationbook.com) and some of the research mentioned above (especially the IBM collaboration personas) and start to look more analytically at the collaboration conundrum.

    1. Hi Martin, thanks ever so much for taking the time and patience to read the blog post and for leaving the above comment, which is a terrific one with plenty of great insights I will try to respond to in order to add further up into the conversation. Again, thanks a lot for being so generous adding further up into the dialogue on what I think is a rather important and ever so relevant topic. Let’s get things going with that additional input from yours truly.

      RE: ’use ‘collaborate’ as a catch-all verb’, Oh my, absolutely! Collaboration, along with teamwork, community, social business, and a few other concepts have been fully loaded all along and abused left and right to no end as in ’everything is a community’, when we obviously know it is not. And that is just an example. I guess we should start getting some clearance about the different types of interactions and conversations and come to terms with the fact of how collaboration is not necessarily an umbrella term that could be used sparingly. Purpose comes to mind when thinking about how we should define collaboration and what is ’collaborate with others’, because, somehow, we are not asking often enough, but just take it for granted.

      RE: ’We need to remember that the discipline of computer-supported cooperative working dates back to the mid-1980s’, well, I think that’s the main problem, isn’t it? Here we are, nearly 40 years later, and we are still talking about collaboration overload, failure, abuse and what not, because we haven’t figured it out altogether! I still remember plenty of the main premises and key principles from Groupware and 25 years later we have got prettier, fancier, sexier tools, and yet we can’t manage to collaborate effectively, because, if we were, it would have shown already.

      That was exactly my point from the original blog post, that perhaps it’s not the tools themselves the ones to be blamed, but ourselves, for that matter, and, hopefully, we should start looking into it as us being part of the equation as to how things haven’t worked versus shaking off that culpability elsewhere. I am really glad you have shared the references to the couple of conferences on the subject, because we would have, still, a lot to learn in these topics, and rightly so! Many thanks for that, Martin!

      Oh, and many thanks for the references to Yiannis (was not aware!) and then IBM’s work in that space by Tara and Steve. I am very very familiar with Tara’s work, as I was very involved in that research back in the day around personas, their different requirements, and collaboration needs. Never mind as well the piece of work that tapped directly into community building and what different types of communities there are out there and how they interact between communities themselves and inside them with their members. Small world, indeed!

      [For those folks who may be interested, here’s a very interesting paper on Tara’s and Steve’s work. Worth while a read for sure!]

      And I do appreciate as well, Martin, the references to Pedro’s, Niles’ and Worlgang’s work as well around collaboration! Very much appreciated and perfect timing for the upcoming holidays to read on and digest accordingly.

      RE: ’These include a fascinating paper on understanding individual user resistance and workarounds of enterprise social networks’, now we are talking, indeed! This is right at the heart as to where our issues with collaboration overload or collaboration failure. Somewhere along the way we just thought putting together the tools and make them available to people would suffice for them to start making good use of them right away, when we all know it hasn’t been the experience.

      The good old saying of ’build it and they will come’ is part of the problem and why the reluctance starts to show up early in the game and I think you have pretty much nailed it with this other quote as the main reasons why: ’we, as practitioners, should be taking these models and case studies and building on them, not reinventing the wheel […] The common purpose of all this research is to dig beneath the technology and understand organizational and personal factors that help or hinder collaboration’, BINGO!

      Yet, we don’t do that, we keep reinventing the wheel because we all feel we know better. We don’t want to look into the past and learn from it, because we either don’t have the time, nor the intention of learning from others, but mostly, because we keep thinking we know way better than those people in the past, because they just didn’t understand how technology works, when, in reality, it’s never been a problem with technology, but with sociology, which is where I think the main focus should be in all of all these transformation programmes, because tools are just tools, enablers, that allow us to achieve a certain goal around transformation, but for as long as we keep ignoring the people aspect of the equation we will keep struggling with it! That’s what needs to change, and pronto!

      RE: ’until we start to see Director of Team Working, or Chief Collaboration Officer positions emerging the momentum’, probably, but I would say we may need to be careful about taking those steps, because somehow I fear that the moment we do see such new roles we may be both institutionalising and industrialising collaboration and that may well be the worst thing that could happen to add further up into the problem!

      Finally, to add further up into the excellent resources and wonderful people you have recommended doing some pretty amazing work in this regard around collaboration, Martin, I would also like to suggest the rather impressive and very much thought-provoking work from a good friend of mine, Thierry de Baillon, who has put together this incredibly helpful resource around The Future of Collaboration with plenty of really smart folks adding their own insights around the whole notion of what collaboration is all about.

      A treasure trove of sorts with enough insights in it to suit almost everyone out there that would help quite a bit not having to reinvent the wheel anymore, which is what, I think, we should stop doing and start opening up to what others have done and researched over decades and start, finally, getting our very own act together, before we commence regurgitating the same issues over and over again when the next cycle comes up.

      Again, thanks ever so much, Martin, for the stunning contribution and for the superb recommendations on those additional resources and research to dive even deeper into the whole concept of what constitutes effective, purposeful collaboration.

      Much appreciated.

      1. Not much I can add to your reply, but I like a challenge! Hopefully our perspectives are just sufficiently different that readers will get the benefit of a 3D view of collaboration.

        So just three points. First on the issue of a definition of collaboration. To me there are two criteria and they are both about everyone. In collaborative endeavour everyone has a stake in the outcomes. If only one person wins (the leader!) and everyone else is as they were then that’s not collaboration. The second criteria is that at all times everyone can and should contribute and critique. There is continuous peer review and indeed everyone is a peer of everyone else. All are equal and their voices carry equal weight in discussions.

        The second is a combination of your view of technology and of learning from the past. One of the much-annotated books in my office is Collaborate to Compete: Driving Profitability in the Knowledge Economy by Robert Logan and Louis Stokes, published in 2003. In an introduction to the book they note this paradox

        “The more complex and sophisticated the technology, the more important are the human behavioral issues of attitude, cooperation and motivation, as well as the training, education and learning of all members of the organization.”

        Spot on.

        Now where I think we may have differing views is

        “We keep reinventing the wheel because we all feel we know better. We don’t want to look into the past and learn from it, because we either don’t have the time, nor the intention of learning from others, but mostly, because we keep thinking we know way better than those people in the past.”

        I don’t think that is the case. I think it is more about a view that academic research is not of value together with an inability or unwillingness to find the research. It’s certainly out there. A search for collaboration in Google Scholar comes up with 4 million references, albeit many are more about scientific collaboration than business collaboration. Because academic research is almost always technology-neutral the outcomes can be translated into current practice.

        You and I have a point of common contact because Steve Whittaker was a Professorial colleague at what is now the Information School at Sheffield University from 2003 to 2009, though sadly we did not have an opportunity to collaborate (sorry!) on any joint research. The later paper by Tara and Steve than the one you cited is “Collaboration personas: A framework for understanding & designing collaborative workplace tools” and sets out a very clear framework for collaboration tool selection. I suspect very few IT managers with responsibility for selecting collaboration tools has ever read it. We end up with products that are fit to specification but not fit to purpose. IT carry out UAT and decree that the product meets the specification. But what if the specification is wrong because of the paradox I have cited from Logan and Stokes?

        Finally, I have to agree with you about a Director of Collaboration. It never worked with KM!

        1. Hi Martin, no worries. That’s just part of the conversation and the overall discourse. I don’t think we differ much in our views from the comments exchanged so far over here as well as the many conversations we have been having over the years. I think all of these perspectives are interesting and I am grateful we are sharing them across out in the open, so folks who are somewhat intrigued by this whole dialogue around collaboration can have some additional background info to chew on… So, as far as I am concerned, keep the comments going, please! I am enjoying them very much as they are also making me think and challenge my own assumptions, and what I have experienced, over the last 2 decades, and counting …

          I really like the criteria you have added above about what constitutes collaboration including its definition criteria to which I would add and refer back to the origins of the word ’collaboration’: ’collaboratio’, ’work together’. I guess that pretty much sums it up in terms of what roles do people play when attempting to collaborate: instead of top-down hierarchical command and control mandates of the work that needs to get done it’s more what you mention about their voices carrying equal weight in the conversations. However, somehow, here we are, already immersed in the 21st century and we still need managers to manage people when they can’t even manage themselves and are trying to dictate what collaboration is all about. Yes, I know, it’s a bit of a snarky reflection, but I think it’s one that gets the point across rather nicely, as Peter Ducker himself said a few years back: ’So much of what we call management consists in making it difficult for people to work.’.

          Remove the friction and perhaps we can start talking about the true purpose of collaboration: getting together in equal terms, as peers, to get work done more effectively (purpose). That would be a good start, don’t you think?

          RE: ’Collaborate to Compete’, amen to that one! That is perhaps the one single area where the next evolution of collaboration will be happening, i.e. when we think of collaborating and competing with others as one and the same thing: coopetition. I think that’s our biggest challenge at the moment, because instead of thinking about how we could ’coopete’ in an open and transparent manner, we just keep perpetuating that status of ’knowledge is power’ and how we cling to it by protecting it and hoarding it not just from our peers, but also from potential customers and, why not?, from our competitors as well for that matter.

          It’s just silly we keep thinking in terms of the scarcity from last century as the operating model, when we have got an abundance of knowledge and resources out there just ready to be utilised in a much more useful and effective manner than what we have done so far. And we just have it at our fingertips ready to make the most out of it. I first heard about coopetion nearly a decade ago and I was intrigued as to whether both our mindset and behaviours were ready for the shift. A decade later and I still see how we aren’t. It’s, definitely, our biggest challenge at the moment beyond the conversations we are having over here at the moment…

          RE: ’[…] a view that academic research is not of value together with an inability or unwillingness to find the research.’, this is, indeed, a great point although, if I play the devil’s advocate for a minute, it’s always been said how far apart from each other both the academic and the business worlds have been all along, to the point where they remain irreconcilable, it’s going to become an on-going challenge unless either one of them, or both!, would concede, give in and decides to get closer. I think it’s very much needed, because I certainly agree with you there are tons of superb research done out there around sociology and it would have a tremendous impact if it were injected, applied, adapted and iterated in a business context.

          On the other hand, the academic world also needs to get closer to the business world vs. continuing to live in a bubble (if they ever have). I think it’s down to us, practitioners, to bridge both worlds and get them to understand each other, Martin, because otherwise I don’t think that getting together may happen at all. And we very much needed. But, again, I think both groups would need to come together, as peers, as equals, with no pretensions other than to help one another understand each other better. Clarity on both sides will be key here.

          Thanks a lot, by the way, for adding that other reference to Tara’s and Steve’s paper. It seems like it’s the very same paper with some additional updates and tidbits, which is very nice as I have linked to it as well for those folks who may be interested in reading it through as well. 😀👍🏻

          RE: ’We end up with products that are fit to specification but not fit to purpose.’, my goodness! I think this particular quote pretty much nails it for me in terms of confirming why we have the current struggles when embarking on the so-called social business and digital transformation journey, that somehow we forgot completely about the purpose (’Why do we do the things we do?’) and, instead, just decided to put a lovely green check mark about, yet again, another , IT project to spend our budget on before it’s taken away from us and we can now move on to other check marks …

          I tell you, I shall remember that quote very fondly every time I bump into different articles or publications (or even conversations!), as to why collaboration keeps failing us or how much we are suffering from collaboration overload, and will drop it like a bomb, wait for it, keep silent for a little while long and watch the reactions. Something tells me it will help out with the wake-up call we need to do in order to think AND do different RE: collaboration.

          So many thanks for the inspiration, once again, Martin! Like I said, excellent conversations!

  2. Wow, another “down the rabbit hole” post and comment stream Luis!

    Martin – some interesting papers to follow up on in your comments (as an aside, shame how much of academic publishing is still locked behind paywalls)

    From personal experience I would suggest some of those barriers to deeper adoption of academic insight in the business world (apart from simple prejudice) are:

    * access to the material (see comment about paywalls above)
    * accessiblity of the material – reading formal academic material effectively and efficiently is an acquired skill
    * the mismatch between the narrowly specialized nature of most academic research and the broader nature of most people’s skills in the commercial world
    (I’m not convinced that we have ‘T-shaped’ professionals any more, or if we have the ‘T’ has several legs, and the cross-bar is of quite varying thicknesses, with some very long tails (mixed metaphor alert!!))

    1. Hi Julian, thanks ever so much for the insightful feedback and for the wonderful additions into the overall conversation. I think you may have hit the nail on the head with regards to the on-going disconnect between academia and the business world in terms of both areas trying, and failing, clearly, to understand one another. In fact, in my own experience, it’s been mind-blowing to watch how over the course of the last 20 years one keeps blaming the other, and vice versa, about each of their own problems, instead of listening carefully to one another and find common ground to help each other.

      I mean, imagine IF academia would get closer to the business world in trying to help solve plenty of the business problems out there that may not have much to do with technology per se, but sociology, for instance. Or imagine IF the business world would come forward to the academic world and try to relay what they are doing and what future directions they may want to head into to create new markets and business opportunities. Somehow that mutual lack of understanding is a killer, as you well observed above, and I keep wondering what’s going to be the defining factor that will, finally, wake both of them up into the new reality where they need to blend together vs. failing to understand each other.

      20 years later, I’m still waiting …

      (Thanks again for the superb feedback, Julian! Looking forward to plenty more conversations on this important topic, over here or elsewhere!)

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *