Collaboration Tools Don't Solve All Collaboration Problems



We live in the most robust virtual working time ever. The nature of collaboration tools spanning high-res video to immersive spatial audio are breath taking in every aspect. Yet despite these incredible advances, many organizations and individuals don’t see more fundamental collaboration challenges solved. In many cases, tragically, nowhere near the intention. The culprit is not the tools, it’s the collaboration culture itself.


I’ve been in the collaboration business my entire life! Since I count all forms of communication as collaboration, you can join me in experience qualification. We are a communicative species having successfully figured it out over the millennia. Our messages are both simple and complex. Understanding the nuances of intentions against actual conveyed messages has always been a high stakes affair.


In the zeal for improved communications, collaboration tools set out to make it easier and more productive to escalate the modality of our dialogs. Simple presence indication, for example, can let others know we are on or offline. Virtual meetings in whatever form them come offer the borderless meeting room where we can conduct our business from anywhere at any time.


So why do our meetings and communications struggle? Especially in the work place? It has nothing to do with the tools. It has everything to do with you and your culture. I’ve found excellent communicators in dream tech savvy groups as well as old school. I’ve seen bad communicators as well. I personally have not seen anything worse than a bad communicator in a bad tech environment. It’s destructive in an organization’s collaboration culture.


Many companies I interact with indicate they value collaboration at some level as a company value. Few companies really live it. Since the focus of this conversation spans both culture and technology vectors, I will outline a few idea

s how leaders and technologists can improve their collaboration and maximize innovation and approaches.


1. Verbal and Non-Verbal Communications

In the early days at Cisco when we were launching Telepresence, we frequently cited these communications facts:

  • 93% of communication is non-verbal...

  • People remember 30% of what they hear, 40% of what they see, and 70% of what they see and hear...

Communication is a sensory experience. What you do while you communicate speaks volumes. It affects communications. When you attend a meeting, are you there or are you simply occupying a seat and sucking air out of the room? Meeting effectiveness can tie back in a significant way to engagement level.


Leadership Tips

  • Consider making some of your meetings a no-phone zone. Check them at the door if needed. Shorten the meeting if people are that concerned about missing a call. Often, phones are used for more nefarious purposes…like commenting on someone’s presentation or, worse yet, "submarine," your meeting.

  • Mobile devices may be required for critical content. I suggest taking 20 seconds at the beginning of the meeting to clarify what tech will be used during the meeting to remove this barrier. For example, “…I’m going to be taking notes on my laptop,” or, “…I need to access our scorecard for the meeting today and will be using my tablet.”


2. Meeting Manners

When was the last time you looked at your Myers Briggs score? How often does that impatient side of you, or another meeting participant, find themselves barging in on a conversation before someone has a chance to finish their thought. Painful, right! This is the epitome of pontification. It demonstrates real-time a lack of discussion discipline in the meeting and culture. Meetings feel rudderless and people feel as though their time is being wasted.


This is accentuated in tech driven collaboration. It plays out on an audio or web call when people talk over each other. In video calls people may put themselves in silent/stealth mode not activating video and muting mics, which communicates a whole different message altogether. Tech does not solve communications problems, it amplifies them.


Leadership Tips

  • Turn your camera on! In an age of web and video conversations, the price of participation is presence. I like that currency analogy too. If you don’t set the expectation and walk the walk yourself, you can’t expect a different or better result.

  • Seek first to listen. Covey got this one right a long time ago. One of the major challenges in tech collaboration is to maintain the natural feel of a conversation. Good meeting manners have always been grounded in a desire to understand what others are saying rather than forcing your idea on the table. This lesson isn’t just for tech meetings either!


3. Be Present with your Presence

Presence in the collaboration technology sense refers to red, yellow, green light status. Are you available for communications? If you are a heavy corporate instant messaging user, you know this already. Our smart devices drive presence awareness as well. The notion of indicating you are open for communication really helps others know when and how to engage with you. But does your presence indicate your presence?


Here’s the snafu folks – green doesn’t always mean go. Worse yet, there’s nothing worse that seeing a phone or video icon in a meeting and they question turns to the present AWOL participant who now needs to be caught up on the conversation. Time wasted. Eject! Not just from the meeting, eject the participant from the web meeting…seriously!


Leadership Tips

  • Consider recording meetings more often. If too many people are joining a call-in listen only mode, it’s probably no longer a meeting for that many people. A call recording can be published, and people can listen to the call at their leisure in the more common conference call venues: treadmill, McDonald’s drive thru, or during a serious game of Fort Nite. Call recording helps you sift and make more productive meetings.

  • Come to a meeting prepared! If you have been invited to an on-line meeting, come ready to engage. Prepare with pre-read materials done or action item follow up ready. Everyone’s accountable. Turning the camera ON tells others you are ready to engage. And don’t worry about the distractions that do happen all the time. For the telecommuter whose dog starts barking, or traveler whose gate change we can hear in the background, don’t stress it. That’s what MUTE on both video and audio are for. Embrace BEING and BEING present.

It’s an exciting time to be a working professional. The tools at our disposal offer limitless possibilities for unleashing the productivity and potential of teams. If you are not living the border-less conference room now you are living in the stone age. If your tech can’t support your ability to drive far reaching collaboration, get on your leadership yesterday. Call me, I can refer you to several top-notch collaboration tech gurus that can get you headed in the right direction. You don’t have to live, learn, play, and work in pre-historic times.


Leaders, I encourage you to embrace this approach. I hear many leaders say how much they don’t trust their people working from home. If this is you, I assure you that you are missing a huge opportunity. Worse yet, any of your competitors have already figured this one out. This is a new way of working. The reality is that your face to face time becomes 100 times more effective when you transition to working moments leverage tech than otherwise. And remember, collaboration tools don’t solve collaboration problems.

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