Speed to Proficiency     Creating a sustainable competitive advantage

CAT | Collaboration


There’s “stuff” and there’s “conversations about stuff.” And it’s the conversations that are the heart of collaboration.

A few years ago, we were helping a F500 customer develop their Vice President’s Leadership Program. It used an action learning model, and featured a 9-month project where each team would brief the company’s executive committee on their recommendations for new markets.

Collaboration between team members was essential – and the ability to collaborate was in fact one of the desired outcomes of the program.

Teams brainstormed on ideas. They divided up research tasks and reported results back to the group. They decided on a new market together. They determined how this would be presented to the executives and once again divided responsibilities for the creation and delivery of the presentation.

However, the team members were distributed across North America! The could only meet face to face three times during the nine months due to travel restrictions, and one of those meetings was to make the presentation.

How did they work together? They used three tools: The telephone for synchronous conversations, WebEx for synchronous meetings, and a robust discussion forum for doing the work. Individual topics within the forum organized their collaboration:

  • A topic for general conversations
  • A topic for maintaining records of meetings
  • One topic for each research area
  • One topic for follow-up ideas and discussions about the market area they finally chose
  • One topic for each section of the report, where drafts were posted, read by others, and comments made

We can characterize this collaboration as consisting of conversations for action around shared content. But the heart of the collaboration was not the documents (the content). Brainstorming, decision making and planning were done via conversation. Documents were the result. In fact, even the preparation of documents was conversational in nature, as drafts would be prepared, discussed, reviewed, and enhanced.

Having run a 100% virtual company for 15 years and launched any number of online business communities of various types, I have come to believe that conversations for action are at the heart of collaboration, not shared documents that anyone can edit and comment on. I’ve also come to believe that synchronous technologies are great for meetings, but fundamentally, meetings are not where the work or collaboration happens. They are bookends that frame the work. The majority of collaboration in distributed teams happens asynchronously, and the right tools need to be available for this. More on these tools in another post.

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