Why people don’t use collaboration tools

Posted by  Shawn Callahan —September 21, 2006
Filed in Collaboration

David Pollard offered for anyone on the net to join him is a joint collaboration project using Writely. The topic: Why are conversation and collaboration tools so underused?

Dave lists 7 reasons and I jumped in with a number of other points answering a set of questions Dave posed. Interestingly only a few people got involved and the discussion hasn’t progressed much over the last few weeks. Hmmm, perhaps collaboration requires a strong need to work together.

Here’s Dave’s list:

  • Most people are still unfamiliar with the tools in the middle and right columns.
  • Many of these tools are unintuitive and hence not easy to learn to use.
  • The way you have to use these tools is not the way most people converse and collaborate, i.e. they’re awkward.
  • Most people have poor listening, communication and collaboration skills, and these tools don’t solve (and can exacerbate) this underlying problem of ineffective interpersonal skills.
  • The training materials for these tools don’t match the way most of us learn and discover (i.e. by doing, by watching others, and iteratively by trial and error).
  • Often the people we most want to converse or collaborate with aren’t online.
  • Often we don’t even know who the right people are to converse or collaborate with, so we need to go through a process of discovering who those people are first, which these tools cannot yet effectively help us with; once we’ve discovered who the right people are, we’re likely already talking with them using the ubiquitous tools in the left column above.
  • We are not accustomed to learning with others. Traditional schooling rewards individual effort (e.g. you take the test by yourself).

Here are my additions and some answers to specific questions posed by Dave:

When faced with the choice of learning new technology and chatting to colleagues on the phone and email to get a job done, if it can be done with what they already know they will go with that;

Collaboration tools work best when your collaborators are geographically distributed and in other time zones and I wonder how many teams have that as a situation? Sure, globalisation is spreading and small, nimble operators are connecting using these tools, but how many large corporations are active users? I know IBM is and I would imagine technology firms would be at the vanguard. I was surprised however when PriceWaterhouseCoopers consultants arrived in IBM because there were unfamiliar with collaboration tools and disinterested in using them.

It works best when all the collaborators are equally enthusiastic and capable in using the tool. It just takes a handful of influential members of a team to stop using the tool for the tool to be abandoned.

The majority of people in organisations are baby boomers (I’m not sure this is true) and haven’t been brought up in environment using collaboration tools. I was in a pub the other day meeting our complexity group and I overheard a small group of people in their 20s and 30s talking about the MySpace interactions. These people already know how to use the tools and will expect them in the workplace.

To answer to Dave’s question: “Is the answer making the tools better? If so, how? If not, what is the answer?”

I think we need to make tools that operate in ways we are familiar using. People are all learning to use browsers so our tools should be browser based. I think we should stop encouraging people to use a new tool and just send them a URL and say, we are going to share our documents here, feel free to update the calendar and let people go for it. By saying it’s a new tool that will make your life better people put up the shutters; “I’m too busy to learn something new.” Yet learning something new is fun

To answer to Dave’s question: “Given time, do you think people will eventually learn to use these tools, despite their shortcomings? Which tools, current or envisioned, will be the winners, the killer apps for online-enabled conversation and collaboration, and why?”

Content volume kills collaboration tools. I’ve used Lotus Teamrooms, Groove, Basecamp and in each case when the volume of the content becomes unwieldy the users stop using. Considerable effort is required to clean out the material, archive it, highlight what’s important and bring to people’s attention the key things to notice. At the moment I favour web-based tools like Basecamp because of their keep it simple philosophy and the fact it’s browser-based.

To answer to Dave’s question: “What one simple thing should we do/learn to most effectively enable people to become better conversationalists, and how would we do this?”

In addition to listening I think knowing how to craft and ask good questions which encourage people to converse is essential. I like asking questions that elicit stories such as “What happened?” or “When was the team at its best?”

To answer to Dave question: “What one simple thing should we do/learn to most effectively enable people to become better collaborators, and how would we do this?”

Focus on the practice of collaboration and only introduce tools when the need arises. For example, a research group might think of new ways to harness energy from heat is a promising research project. They start off chatting on the phone, sending emails to one another and then someone says: “It would be good if we could track the versions on this document we are creating.” That’s the point a tool could be introduced. I would run a poster campaign in an organisation with the title “Avoid using collaboration tools for as long as possible” and then use the rest of the poster to describe the signs the team should look out for to introduce effective tools. Put practice and process before tools.

About  Shawn Callahan

Shawn, author of Putting Stories to Work, is one of the world's leading business storytelling consultants. He helps executive teams find and tell the story of their strategy. When he is not working on strategy communication, Shawn is helping leaders find and tell business stories to engage, to influence and to inspire. Shawn works with Global 1000 companies including Shell, IBM, SAP, Bayer, Microsoft & Danone. Connect with Shawn on:


  1. Shawn,
    still catching up on a backlog of emails and blogs sinc getting back from holiday yesterday. This caught my eye – very thought-provoking. I agree with all your responses to Dave Pollard’s questions. I must go and check his blog, and maybe contribute to his itme on Writely. Great stuff!

  2. andrew campbell says:

    There is some evidence that the trick for getting people to participate in these kind of things is getting the ‘culture’ into an alignment with the ‘tacit’ organization of the ‘project’.
    Some say ‘alter the culture’ and others ‘change the project’s structure’ to fit the culture. Both involve deep understanding of the project and culture at the outset. (initial conditions etc)
    Individuals have ‘inner cultures’… ( i presume)…
    I think that there is an invisible -quantum- effect in all ‘supposed’ open processes i.e. ‘open space’ based process, – and that is that the success of the intervention depends on the state of the intervenor. (IC again) Quite often i suspect, Open Space users are no less pre-determined on an outcome (pure) than many other styles of operators…i suspect it may have something to do with the aesthetics and creativity.
    I think the Open Space gig is fast filling with fast buck agencies – and the client, after years of KM (joke) and KS (joke) is by now quite giddy to any suggestions — poor client;-)
    Dave lists 7 reasons and I jumped in with a number of other points answering a set of questions Dave posed. Interestingly only a few people got involved and the discussion hasn’t progressed much over the last few weeks. Hmmm, perhaps collaboration requires a strong need to work together.

  3. Good post. I’ve provided some of my own followup and comments here:

  4. Nancy White says:

    I asked for a key to the writely, but haven’t heard back. Lots to chime in on!

  5. Patterns of Wiki Adoption

    These are my notes from the Patterns of Wiki Adoption

  6. Sara Jameson says:

    As someone who just collaborated on Writely/now Google.docs to write a co-authored conference paper, I can say that I found the software incredibly easy to use. Writing on the screen was just like writing on WORD, with only an occasional glitch — such as that sometimes when I use the down arrow to get to the line below, I found myself at the entire bottom of the document. My co-author and I wrote simultaneously on the talk even while we were sitting in the same room and only once were we actually at the same place on the document. I got a message that he and I had changed the same thing (but differently) and how did we want to resolve that. What’s interesting to me is that while my collaborator, Michael Faris, is an online genius, I am not – it’s not that I am a technophobe or luddite, I’m just not as savvy as I want to be. I found using Writely easy, fun, stimulating, and successful. Ultimately, of course, I saved to Word for final formatting. I would absolutely use Writely again. And since Michael and I are collaborating on another paper, I am sure we will.

  7. Welcome to the Wiki Evaluation Project

    Welcome to the Wiki Evaluation Project. The goal of this project is to flush our requirements for an enterprise wiki solution. Please feel to edit these pages or comment with your opinions in regards to requirements for your specific business unit….

  8. Erdis Malar says:

    Most of the factors preventing progress are social so you have to think about a culture evolving and changing, taking steps from one phase to another. An analysis of this that is now ten years old, but still seems pretty good.

  9. Hi!
    I seem to agree with Edris here. Its the human X factor that is crucial.
    I would suggest that, its time for “nextintranet”, an eBusiness facility, which can help us in this knowledge age, to over come these difficulties.
    Sushant Madhab

  10. kriti says:

    hi ,
    I also belive with david, I have instutionalize a coolaoborative tool for teh HR fraternity my company and facing issues in getting people on to it.
    I pledge people to start their own discussions and blogs but no use, peope, dont respond to it.
    can one give me more tipe in how effectively i can pursue people to sue the tools more often

  11. winston says:

    you may try: http://www.colla-doc.com, which is a easyto use, content based tool, it’s good if you have a lot of content based sharing and collaboration.

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