“The spreadsheet I received says 20% growth, year-on-year,” Bob says as the meeting starts.
“But the one I got says 17% growth,” Gareth says, before Bob can say much more.
“Mine says 25%,” Judith adds.
And so the argument begins, and what should have been an hour of brainstorming and discussion about the implications and consequences of “the number” rapidly degenerates into an hour wasted on tracking back through innumerable emails, attachments, and versions until everyone has a common understanding about year-on-year growth rates.
Stepping back from the specific meeting, this is an all-too-common result of relying on email for collaboration. Who has the most recent edition of a document is unknown, uncomfortable, and a pain in the neck. People’s attention is focused on proving that they have the most recent one, or their comments are muted by realizing the preparation they put into the meeting was wasted because they based their work and thinking on outdated information.
Looking at this situation, if you have the opportunity to influence the technology people use for sharing information, distributing documents (whether as downloadable items or web pages as such), sharing reports and numbers, then a big question to ask is whether you want to get people to spend their argumentative – creative thinking, blue sky thought processes, and the like – on “who has the right number?” or “what should our response be to the number?”
With email and attachments, the risk is high that there will be a divergence of information, and thus argumentative effort will be put into reconciling the data. With a shared collaborative workspace, where the latest version is posted, with email or instant messaging or Twitter-like alerts whenever the number changes – it’s more likely people will put more of their argumentative effort into implications and consequences.
How people work together – the tools, the practices, the processes – have a big impact on culture. And culture can be changed with a change of tooling – to a degree.