The Psychology of Collaboration – Dr Irene Greif for Technology Review

As part of their series on collaboration, Jodi from Technology Review interviewed Irene Greif at IBM about the psychology of collaboration. The focus of the interview was about the non-technology aspects of collaboration, and they discussed:
– Too much automation leads to process breakdowns. The system can’t see what people can see.
– More informal interaction in the office is now online, meaning that combining informal and formal things may be more possible.
– Knowledge management failed; social software does knowledge management as part of work.
– Dogear gave better search results on the IBM intranet than intranet search.
– Why collaboration requires the sharing of pre-finished thinking and artifacts.

The most interesting comment to me from Irene was this:

Jodi: What qualities will make or break the next big thing in collaboration?

Irene: I think it is not about the technology per se, but more about finding technologies that are resilient against controls [by management]. When I first came to Lotus, I was excited [that] anybody could create a Notes database on a server and set up access control in a very intuitive way. Anyone, not a database administrator, could create a place to meet. Slowly, over time, [IT managers demanded more control]. You would have to submit a request to create a database; you would have to submit a request to change access control. As a result, a lot of places [that use Notes] don’t have the “group experience” in Notes, and they just use it for e-mail.

The next important thing will need to withstand the controls that may be imposed on how it is implemented.

My Comments
1. Irene’s comments about the ability to create a database in Notes takes an opposite view to what I’ve said. I have said that (one of the reasons) Notes “failed” was because anyone could create a database at any time with no controls (thus leading to database proliferation), but she said that Notes “failed” because IT removed the ability for people to create a database at any time with no controls (thus leading to just using Notes for email – a very suboptimal use of a great technology).

2. I know of one Notes organization that is transiting to SharePoint. The SharePoint fans inside are delighted because they think they’ll be able to create SharePoint sites whenever they want. The IT department is folding its arms, looking at them strange, and saying, “you could have done that in Notes, but we didn’t allow you to. And we aren’t going to allow you to do so in SharePoint either.” Sorry …

3. Last year, I wrote a report about the need to introduce control in SharePoint land, so as to avoid site proliferation. Clearly, if you take away one of the key things that people loved about a new technology – their ability to fit it to the purpose they wanted it to be used for – you greatly reduce their affinity and love for the technology. Irene says that happened with Notes. The same may / could happen with SharePoint … but perhaps that’s the cost of growing up and becoming an enterprise platform.

4. For both Notes and SharePoint (and other similar tools), I believe that some control over database/site/space creation is necessary – it shouldn’t be a free-for-all, because the systems are part of the organization’s information systems, and will contain valuable corporate data. There may be records management and retention requirements, so without seeing joint data creation in a collaboration space as part of the overall content lifecycle, there are big risks.

5. Irene – please – how do you see these issues?

2 thoughts on “The Psychology of Collaboration – Dr Irene Greif for Technology Review

  1. Michael, this is a problem that we really need to solve. There is clearly a tension between the need to protect corporate information assets and the desire for front line workers to build fast solutions to important problems.
    Companies are run on rogue spreadsheets with impossible to untangle macros and formulas; and on rogue MS-Access databases that are badly designed and not protected; and now, on rogue SharePoint sites with ‘silo-ed’ data and poor IA.
    How can we give the users the power and speed they need while still protecting data and reducing risk?
    I don’t have the answer, but I think we are making small steps toward some solutions.
    -Ruven

  2. Ruven, yes, we do need to solve this problem – but my question is “for whom”? Our respective consulting clients, via consulting projects? Or the world, via a research syndicate that isn’t funded by consulting work and therefore creates more generalizable research and recommendations?

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