Culture & Competency

In Praise of Collaborative Processes – Taking Turns, Working Together, Developing Shared Understanding

Conversation is about taking turns. I talk and you listen. You talk and I listen. If we’re in a conversation and both of us talk at the same time, our ability to hear what the other party is saying decreases rapidly, and we start shouting to make ourselves “be heard.” If we’re working together on a whiteboard, the same dynamic plays out – to work together means taking turns.

Working with others on the whiteboard is akin to “a conversation with pens.” I have the pen and you watch. Then you have the pen and I watch. We know how to do this when we are clustered around a physical whiteboard, but this approach to co-working on ideas, to collaborating on developing shared understanding, is much more difficult across geographical boundaries. And so due to the lack of access to good tools for co-working in real-time, we revert to more stilted ways of sharing stuff – by video conference perhaps, with the video camera pointed on the board. It allows one person to say what they are thinking, but the other person is locked out by design. This is one of the reasons I like the promise of the eBeam approach – it’s collaborative by design.

Think about another scenario that could be collaborative. A PowerPoint presentation locks the presenter into a particular flow – the slides are laid out in linear fashion, and in most instances, the presenter wants to “get through the deck” before taking questions. With 90% of the meeting taken up with the PowerPoint show though, there is very little time or inclination left at the end for insightful interaction.

I remember back in 2000 when I taught a final year undergraduate course in Information Systems at the local university. While I can make PowerPoint sing, I deliberately chose to use an overhead projector and printed and blank slides. I wanted the ability to engage with my students, to hear what they were saying and to say something different to what the next PowerPoint slide would demand me to say if that’s what the students needed. It’s hard to do that with PowerPoint; the medium constrains the message. But by using a more malleable form of conveying information and stimulating conversation – overhead slides – I was able to create a very different dynamic in the classroom.

Is collaboration supported or hindered by the tools you use?

Categories: Culture & Competency