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What is hard about collaboration and what makes it go wrong?


There are four people named Everybody, Somebody, Anybody and Nobody.
There was an important job to be done and Everybody was asked to do it.
Everybody was sure Somebody would do it. Anybody could have done it but Nobody did.
Somebody got angry about that because it was Everybody's job.
Everybody thought Anybody could do it but Nobody realised that Everybody wouldn't.
It ended up that Everybody blamed Somebody when Nobody did what Anybody could have done.

Further consider that Somebody had previously worked with Nobody and so was unsure about their: To make matters worse, Everybody assumed that Anybody understood what it meant to be available 24/7, and that Everybody would say when things were going wrong with their individual work.

Adding to these already challenging problems, the job was now critically late and so needed an immediate solution. Somebody was absolutely sure the job was exactly the same as one he had done ten or twenty years ago. He said it was simply a matter of digging out the old solution. He was sure it would only take a day or two to achieve this. Anybody could see that the world had become a very different place since then but they didn't like to contradict Somebody. Somebody tended to harbour grudges and Anybody would have to work with Somebody for the foreseeable future. And anyway, if Somebody was already volunteering, why should Anybody trouble themselves to risk incurring Somebody's anger when they had enough other work to be doing as it was?

Two weeks later, Everybody got together and Somebody proudly showed them his solution. He admitted that a lot of tweeking had to be done to make it work but was sure that it was good enough in the circumstances. Nobody objected that it was probably going to stand up to service but Somebody reacted angrily, pointing out that Everybody had agreed that Somebody should try it when the team was in crisis two weeks ago. And anyway, Nobody had offered to help. The big problem was that Everybody could see that everything had changed in the last two weeks. The project had been axed but Everybody had thought Anybody should have told Somebody that the job no longer needed doing.

What do technologies have to do with effective collaboration?

When it comes to communicating and working together, technologies cannot be thought of as just another independent tool. Why? Because, if we must work together through technologies, we come to know one another through those technologies. We know one another from moment to moment and make sense of the things we do by interpreting what we see and hear in terms of our historical dealings with one another and with others in that environment. Each technology tells us particular things about other people and, by the same token, fails to inform use about other matters. So, rather than thinking of technology as a separated entity, as one might consider for example a vacuum cleaner, the technologies through which we collaborate are much more like a language in their own right or a particular place within which we are able to construct our joint actions. We can express ourselves only in terms that exist within that language and we can understand what is possible by virtue of the structure and conventions of that place.

Collaboration technologies both stand between, representing a kind of barrier or restriction on what is possible, and connect, representing a bridge or support, people in pursuing their joint interests. Consequently, they have the potential to be a curse or a blessing depending on how well they are integrated into the practices of those who work together.