Collaboration Technologies Come Up Short

Three ways to improve today’s collaboration tools.

By Alexander Alonso, SHRM-SCP May 25, 2018
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​When you were in school, did you despise team projects? Maybe you ended up doing all the work and others swooped in at the last moment to share the credit. That was my experience, and it always left me fuming. When I entered the workforce and realized that the emphasis on teamwork would only increase, I anticipated more of the same. Could there be a better way to ensure that true cooperation took place at all stages of a project?

Organizational psychology teaches us that the best collaborative experiences are those in which ownership is shared, the development of ideas is mutual and information is distributed in a way that makes sense. But current tools come up short in these areas.

In my first job, everything I thought I knew about working together was turned on its head—not by new concepts, but by new virtual technologies. I was now using WebEx, GoToMeeting, SharePoint and more to coordinate tasks and communicate with teams all over the world.

Yet I also realized that, for all their benefits, these tools could also undercut a group’s success. We’ve all been there: straining to hear conference calls, struggling to share files and dealing with version-control issues in documents. Promoters of these innovations assumed that key collaboration processes happening outside their systems would ensure that everyone was on the same page. Of course, that often wasn’t the case.

Fast-forward 15 years. Software has evolved and now provides better communications options and sharing capabilities. We have OneDrive and other cloud-based systems, Jabber chat, Google Hangouts, and Workplace by Facebook. They’re all great, and they will undoubtedly push collaboration even further—but we have yet to truly tap into the full potential value of technology.

Here’s what I hope for the future of these products:

Team formation input. Many tools strive to help teams achieve their objectives but don’t focus on how groups are actually brought together, including finding the right balance of people to best accomplish the task at hand. Tomorrow’s technologies should take the team’s whole life cycle into account, especially the formation stage, which research shows is critical for reaching a unit’s full potential.

Machine learning capabilities. Several products purport to help with brainstorming, but they do nothing to lead people to ask the right questions. This is where machine learning can really help. It can drive idea generation further using programmed data that supports decision-making.

Evaluation features. The last stage of the team life cycle is the post-mortem debrief and evaluation, and it’s usually missing in today’s systems. We still don’t have technologies to help us assess which groups are most effective. Future tools should be able to aggregate and analyze information to assess a group’s performance. The results can also be fed back into the loop to inform the formation stage for the next group project.

Here’s a challenge for your vendors: Ask them to form a group of their own to come up with ideas for improving collaboration and transforming it into seamless coordination. Anyone who says no is just not a team player. 

Alexander Alonso, SHRM-SCP, is chief knowledge officer for SHRM.

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