Why people don’t use collaboration tools

Posted by  Shawn Callahan —June 16, 2007
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 8 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:

  1. Most people are still unfamiliar with the tools in the middle and right columns.
  2. Many of these tools are unintuitive and hence not easy to learn to use.
  3. The way you have to use these tools is not the way most people converse and collaborate, i.e. they’re awkward.
  4. 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.
  5. 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).
  6. Often the people we most want to converse or collaborate with aren’t online.
  7. 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.
  8. 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 their 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 respond by putting 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 it. 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 that 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?” Guy Kawasaki suggests people ask good questions, then shut up. Great advice.

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 and see the idea as 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.

Originally posted 21/09/06

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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. Firefly1234 says:

    With respect to younger employees expecting to be able to use collaborative/social networking tools – in the last two companies I’ve worked in, there have been strict controls on Internet usage – I can’t log into Facebook from work. Which is probably a good thing as it takes up far too much time!! Same with Instant messaging tools – I can’t install software on my work computer so using MSN messenger or the like is out of the question. Of course, Google has gotten around that by utilizing both a web-based chat as well as downloadable software. But some companies block web email as well so if this is the case, even the google web-based chat can’t be used.
    I was unable to find people let alone the right people to use collaborative software – when Groove first came out, I downloaded the beta copies of it because I thought it was a fantastic tool. I couldn’t get anyone else to try it with me!!!
    I did use a collaborative web-based tool for a brief period of time with colleagues based in a different city from me. I would consider it semi-successful – it did become overwhelming as the content increased and eventually we stopped using it as it was more efficient to communicate, collaborate using e-mail, phone etc.
    I would still love to be in an environment where collaborative workspaces are a working reality. It may be the geek side of me though…

  2. Interesting especially your describing strict controls on Internet usage to limit use of sites like Facebook. Seeing the growth in Facebook users among my fellow professionals just since Facebook released its lastest API, I’m intrigued. I wonder if you’ve seen Andrew McAfee’s Facebook comments:
    A “Financial Times” page 2 story today headlined “Facebook spreads its web wider” describes how “The company is aiming to broaden its networking site int a launch pad for internet applications.” It will be interesting to see the evolution of social networking platforms in enterprises, especially with platforms like Visible Path offering business networks:

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