Collaboration tools are overrated

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You’ve probably used some variation of collaboration tools at some office gig you’ve had. Some of the big names are Slack, Trello, Basecamp, and Asana — but honestly, Microsoft Online and Google Drive are basically collaboration tools as well. It’s pretty much anything that can, well, allow a team to collaborate across a series of projects and deliverables.

Collaboration tools have gotten a bunch of attention from the business media and some corporate leaders in the past few years — there was a feeling by many that Slack could revolutionize the entire idea of the workplace — and, perhaps more importantly, these collaboration tools are often fiscal big-hitters too. Sorry to drill down on Slack here, but they got to a $1 billion valuation in two years — with no CMO.

I personally like collaboration tools, but the more I’ve thought about it and worked within a bunch of them, I see a lot of problems too. Let’s discuss.

Collaboration tools problem: Do people really want to collaborate?

This would seem to be a fairly big problem, right? There is some research that people don’t actually enjoy collaboration at work. Like any research, it can be taken with a grain of salt — but I’ve seen this in a lot of places I’ve worked too. We’re going to discuss basic human psychology a few times in this post, I’d reckon, and basic human psychology plays in deeply here. People want to be rewarded and know they’re doing well. Now, while no one knows exactly how or why most people get promoted at jobs, we tend to promote individuals, even though we’re always pushing them to work in teams.

This is a big problem with any ideas around collaboration, including collaboration tools: six people need to come together to hit a deliverable and advance the company in some way, right? But then only 1 of those 6 will get a bump in the next year. So 16 percent of a team supposedly slaving away to hit targets will get a reward, and 84 percent of that team will go back and collaborate with others on another project? If you’re consistently in the 84 percent bucket, you’ll eventually get tired of what you’re doing. It happens to most people.

The second problem here is any concept of cross-functional collaboration in most companies. Silos are a really powerful thing. We train people to think about work as a series of functional expertise moments (silos), which is a huge mistake in 2016. Most of the time, you’re going to end up working on something you’re less comfortable with — and you gotta figure it out. Our culture now is business need-driven and/or customer-driven at most places. It’s not driven by “I’m a marketing guy!” or “I slay sales dragons,” but most companies are still set up that way.

Again, it goes back to basic human psychology — if you work in IT, you have a chain of command and set bosses. Those bosses should be the ones theoretically driving your workflow. But then marketing needs to work with IT on some e-mail marketing solution, and suddenly you’re beholden to a bunch of new people with new vocabulary and new deadlines and new systems. Your IT boss is fighting with the marketing boss. The whole thing is a giant fucking mess.

These scenarios happen almost every day at companies ranging from 10 employees to 30,000 employees. It’s really not that uncommon. Collaboration isn’t easy for many people, even though it’s become a gold staple of corporate buzzwords for executives trying to prove how functional their organization is.

Collaboration tools problem: The ‘reduction in email’ argument

Whenever someone is selling one of these collaboration tools, one of the big things you always hear is “It will totally reduce your email.” This is logical on face, because now you’re storing documents and files in a shared place and there are tags and whatnot. Everyone has access. So, you’re reducing the culture of “This piece of information that an entire team needs only resides in Ben’s inbox.” Now, of course, the reason it was only in Ben’s inbox is that Ben wants to feel like he “owns” a process at work, so he hoards information in the name of professional relevance. We’re back to basic human psychology here.

A bunch of places I’ve worked, here’s what happens with collaboration tools: people start out with them somewhat slowly (since they’re new, and change is hard). Then they see more people getting stuff on there and they become a bit more connected, etc. But still, whenever something big is due … or there are questions about something … or a smaller subset of the team needs to be contacted? Everyone falls right back to email.

I don’t know what it is about email. I think it will die out someday, but for a lot of people, it’s basically crack in the 1980s. They just can’t get enough. They go back to it even when it’s violated them so many times.

If you want to do collaboration tools right, you need to seriously use them — and use them across a variety of contexts, even the more difficult ones. Otherwise everyone will just slide back to the email mentality, and then Ben’s inbox becomes The Gold Standard again. Let’s not give Ben such an easy win, OK guys?

Collaboration tools problem: The overloading of files and documents

People love process. It makes sense. It can really benefit a business if done well — problem is, though, most businesses drown themselves in process to the point that process is overwhelming results. The ironic thing about this? Most processes in a company are simply ‘process for the sake of process’ — they don’t really move anything forward, they just make some middle manager feel more comfortable with a spreadsheet he/she has to maintain.

This happens all the time with collaboration tools too, as detailed here by Forbes:

What tends to happen at the leadership team level is that people put more and more things into the shared tracking sheet as time goes on and the work progresses. At first this seems like a good thing because more detail is associated with more commitment. At some point the detail become overwhelming and people stop reading or paying attention to the shared forms.

Yep. If you want quick adoption of any platform, it needs to be relatively simple to use and have a good interface. That’s how collaboration tools work too. If they’re clunky (product failure), people won’t like them. But internally if it’s all process-for-the-sake-of-process documents and burdensome tracking sheets, people will say “Eff this crap” and head right back to their email and full meeting schedules. Collaboration tools just died in the flood.

Collaboration tools problem: The rollout

I got a funny story here. Last place I worked started using Yammer (a collaboration tool) because it was already using Microsoft Dynamics (a CRM) and needed to roll ’em together.

You need to understand one thing about people — and not just people at this last job I had. People everywhere. They are often lazy as shit. Change is hard, and we all believe ourselves to be drowning in daily tasks as it is. Whenever a management team introduces a new thing, the first response from most employees is usually: “Great, here’s another thing I gotta manage!”

So from a basic human psychology standpoint, this new thing — whatever it is — could represent awesome business productivity growth, and suddenly — right off the bat! — you’ve got 70 percent of employees like “Ugh, what the crap is this?”

That happened with Yammer at my last gig. A couple of execs tried to say it was “Facebook for work!” (It’s not.) As a result, people just started posting vacation photos and trade show high-five shots on there. Any productivity that could have been gleaned from these collaboration tools died in the river.

Even though we often think of management as someone barking orders and everyone else hopping right on it, it’s really more about providing some context to what the hell’s going on. If you decide to use some collaboration tools, explain what they are, what the purpose of using them would be, and what the desired result is.

The funniest shit about this story above is that 10 months into everyone posting personal pics on Yammer, the CEO almost blasted one of his lieutenants in an all-hands meeting about why Yammer wasn’t the place where real documents were being shared. “Transparent culture!” It was tense for a second. No one in the room really seemed to know what Yammer was. “Is that the thing where my cubicle mate posted a video of his vacation? Oh yea!”

You mess up the rollout, you doom the collaboration tools as a real source of anything.

Collaboration tools can be great

Some companies use them really well. They don’t drown them in process. They introduce them and explain the process and value clearly. Teams can easily find things and information is relatively transparent. Seat time becomes less important, and productivity becomes more so. These are all good things.

My concern is, though, that because of ignoring some basic tenets of how people work and want to understand work in their brain, collaboration tools are hard to introduce and sustain.

What say you?

My name’s Ted Bauer; I blog here regularly and you can learn about hiring me for freelance and contract gigs as well. You can also subscribe to my newsletter.

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