Friday, March 19, 2010

Contextual Collaboration? What's That? (Part 1 in a Series)

Executive Summary: Collaboration & communication seem to happen as individual events. For example: I make a call, I get an email. These are individual events. However from the user’s perspective they always happen in a context. Examples for context might be the person I am working with, a project, a workflow, a relationship I have, a customer, a meeting I am preparing. Communication becomes relevant through its context.  And communication creates business value due to its context. Contextual collaboration is aimed at maximizing the business value created by collaboration. Collaboration gets more difficult due to the multitude of different collaboration technologies. Plus the sheer amount of information flowing in or on your disposal makes it more challenging. Contextual filtering becomes the key.

The Details: Collaboration and Collaboration technologies have been a hot topic of focus in enterprise business discussion for more than 5 years now. That focus is now growing even more intense. With the economy driving businesses to go to even more highly distributed workforce models, collaboration technologies and solutions are no longer "nice to have" solutions. They are now becoming critical to business success as companies try and manage their far-flung workforces.

When people think of "collaboration technologies" they may think of a whole range of multimedia, real-time communication solutions. People can do affordable, real-time collaboration every day using one or more of the following collaboration technologies; email, instant messaging, telephones, cellphones, text messaging, voice conferencing, white-boarding, wikis, video conferencing, Skype, Google Docs, Sharepoint, Basecamp,, Twitter, FaceBook, LinkedIN, Google Buzz, Google Wave, etc, etc. This is only a partial list of all the various choices people have as they embark on surfing the real-time, hyper-dimensional state of the internet that Vonage co-founder and Twitter investor Jeff Pulver calls "The State of Now".

So what's the problem with this picture? Simply stated we now have a "Realtime Collaboration Overload" problem. Jeff Pulver's "State of Now", as exciting as that state is, is largely a "State of TMI"(Too Much Information). We have WAY too many overlapping and uncoordinated technology choices for real-time collaboration. We used to complain about "phone tag" as being non-productive. Now we have to play tag on dozens of collaboration channels simultaneously; (Cellphone-tag, desktop-phone-tag, Google Voice-tag, Skype-tag, Email-tag(X4 email addresses), IM-tag(X4 IM id's), Facebook-tag, GoogleBuzz-Tag, Wave-tag, Linked-Tag, Blog-comment-tag, etc, etc, etc.

How do we stop this insanity? If it continues we may all start contemplating the thought of a shaving our heads, donning flowing orange robes and running off to live in one room shacks on  mountain-tops to get away from the rushing flood of communication and information. 

The answer I think lies in "context". Every communication session request you get and accept or decline and every piece of information information you bathe in each day has some small or large amount of context in which it lives for you personally. 

Clay Shirkey has said "The problem is not information overload, the problem is filter failure." That's where context comes in. A focus on paying attention to and managing context, lets call it "Contextual Collaboration", has the potential to help us all achieve "Filter Success" in our many daily collaborations. So what is it?

Contextual collaboration is managed approach to collaborative technologies that involves embedding all the relevant applications, such as word processors, enterprise instant messaging (EIM), shared calendars, and groupware, into a unified user interface to aggregate, coordinate, and thereby enhance, collaboration. This means that from within any of the applications people could communicate and instantly share any resources at their disposal without having to manage multiple independent thread of collaboration across multiple independent collaboration channels. The goal of contextual collaboration is to make online collaboration between people anywhere in the world as simple and intuitive and focused as it is to work with people in the same room.

The concept sounds wonderful. But the problem is both broad in scope and deep in complexity. There are thousands of different collaboration scenarios and collaboration technology choices available to us. So how do we get started? 

To explore this I'll be writing an entire series of blogs that start to dig into the roots of the collaboration overload problem and start to propose focused solutions that use "context" as the core filtering mechanism. In the next blog in this series I'll explore more about the specific pain points businesses are trying to alleviate with collaboration technologies.

Are you in a "State of Overload" with all the collaborations and collaborations technologies you have raining down on you daily? How is it affecting you and what remedies, if any, do you use in trying to manage this problem? 
Let me know what your views and experiences are! Leave a comment on the blog or feel freee to send me email at or my personal email
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