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Collaboration Architecture and The Knowledge Worker Productivity Dilemma


As I wNew Picture (1).jpgas putting together some new material for a presentation I had to give at IASA’s eSeminar “The Age of Collaboration” a few weeks ago, I was lucky to come across a very thought provoking piece with one of those lucky Internet searches. “Innovation and the Productivity Crisis  (available in Google Books) contains quite a few theories that are applicable to several of the things we wrestle with when it comes to the “right” collaboration architecture for the enterprise.

The main premise the book investigates is that, in many ways, “the electronics innovation has not paid off”, and the authors offer several very interesting theories on why that could be the case.

Mainly, the authors speculate that, “.. in the long run, computers encourage companies to engage in more computer-related activities rather than reducing labor required for a given level ..”. And I think they are right indeed. If we observe our patterns as we go about our everyday duties as knowledge workers, I think it is clear that the workflow was hijacked by the computer interface. Furthermore, I would venture to say that this has not always been in the best interest of our productivity as knowledge workers (never mind our social human nature). We can all relate to the frustrations of being locked to our computer screens, wrestling with yet another clumsy user interfaces of a few critical applications that slow us down (yes, ERP systems, I am talking about you). We all have witnessed some applications become less useful as they widen their focus: we struggle to stay on top of our constantly overflowing email, there are so many wikis and other information repositories within our enterprise intranets that we are left wondering which one we should follow or contribute to. And shouldn’t people make up their minds about whether we should follow their blogs, their tweets or their Facebook updates? J

I think the common theme here is that the knowledge worker is still trying to find the collaboration silver bullet: the optimal tool to gather, transform, and distribute information capable of influencing the decision making process of other knowledge workers. The dilemma may very well be that our computers are great to generate information. Lots of it: so much of it that it becomes disorienting.  At their best, computers are to us knowledge workers what canvas and brushes are to a painter. But at the end of the day to get the job done we have to present, discuss, solicit input, seek consensus - and as close to the face to face, real time experience as possible. Surely, that presentation we put together is most effective at influencing others when we give it in person - having people download it and browse through it is not going to have the same impact.

The problem with the work flow for knowledge workers is that, while it structures an activity and captures the documents we produce as part of that, it fails to capture what we could call “collaboration metadata”. And the latter is of vital importance to improve knowledge worker productivity. Which experts did I seek out for input and validation when I put my presentation together? What comments did those experts have as I presented my ideas? What internal and external websites and blogs and white papers and presentations influenced the material? That “collaboration metadata” is very relevant to anyone that, for example, picks up my responsibilities if I were to take on new role. Or if I want to avoid taking the same detours that slowed me down the last time I drove a very similar project. We all know that to replicate business success, we cannot merely try to clone the result, rather it is about replicating the best practices that lead to a successful outcome. And in a knowledge workers' world, it is about capturing the entire collaborative flow that lead to a successful result. Not just the documents that were generated as milestones - but the meetings, conversations, in a nutshell, the human exchanges that influenced the result, and which currently fall by the wayside into what amounts to a big trash folder in the enterprise.

And then there is the information itself: documents are great, but we knowledge workers know that we absorb knowledge far faster in 15 minutes by the water cooler with an expert than tediously reading the white papers and presentations that same expert has recently produced. It's both more productive and more enjoyable.

And that is what “the right collaboration architecture” for the enterprise is all about: about enabling an environment that boosts knowledge worker productivity by accelerating the type of workflow knowledge workers participate in: a workflow that for now is still fraught with ambiguities and fuzzy logic, as well as information packaged in ways that are very slow to consume and hamper its effective reuse. Linear workflow tools fail to capture the complex interactions between knowledge workers, and impose artificial rules and constraints that often slow down activities. Plus should, should we admit it: richer, more social collaboration tools are far more enjoyable.

And, that, I think, is what the authors of “Innovation and the Productivity Crisis” were describing. The right collaboration architecture will allow us to start the slow process of alleviating that productivity crisis. It will eventually deliver on the elaborate, flexible yet replicable type of structure (or, as it is called in business process modeling, “choreography”) that will greatly boost the productivity of many workflows knowledge workers participate in. Rich information that is easy and appealing to consume will be tagged along with the collaborative metadata that generated it, greatly boosting learning curves, greatly enriching enterprise information capital, and allowing knowledge workers to use more natural, enjoyable tools. It's truly no revolutionary insight: more engaged, happier employees are always going to be more productive.

I am excited about attending Gartner's Enterprise Architecture Summit this week to discuss this topic with Enterprise Architects that are increasingly discovering Collaboration Architecture as an area they need to optimize and quickly add enormous value for their enterprises in. If you're attending the same conference and want to discuss the topic, we are having a collaboration architecture get-together. More information on-site. Or join the collaboration architecture discussion right here!

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