For more than 25 years, asynchronous collaboration tools have been used by thousands of companies all over the world. Technologies have evolved from Lotus Notes to web-based self-service collaborative environments like eRoom, QuickPlace or SharePoint Portal Server, just to name the most popular ones. And today there are dozens of such products. What is the feedback of such dissemination? Are employees working better in their daily life? Are all employees using collaborative tools at their desktop?

The answer is NO! The most used collaborative tool is still the electronic messaging system. Why? Because e-mail is an unstructured way to send and share information; an immediate and effortless system. When you enable people and teams to work with powerful collaborative tools, you notice that it takes time for them to consider these tools as part of their daily work.

The reason is the length of the adoption curve, because it takes time to change working habits to work in a more structured and disciplined way. If the company is well organized and its processes well defined, documented and managed, the adoption of the collaboration tools will be easier and faster because they will drive and support the processes.

But, this is not the most common case. A majority of corporations and SMEs are not that well organized and a huge number of employees are still working with a lot of informal knowledge. To force those employees to structure this informal knowledge through a collaborative tool is a difficult challenge.

This problem doesn’t exist with synchronous collaborative tools, because they are based on a real-time communication and there is no need to structure anything. But even those tools are not widely spread in corporations. This lack of usage of synchronous tools will be solved with a pragmatic approach by the hierarchy when it will be obvious that security issues can be managed and that productivity is really higher using these tools.

However solving the asynchronous tool adoption problem will be much more difficult, and what follows shows why it is so important to change our way of thinking about collaboration, because this topic could be one of the next most important corporate organisational changes in the coming years.

Do Collaboration Tools Have Improved Corporate Organizations?

An established fact now is that even in most of the companies using collaborative tools the organization has not changed. It should be obvious that introducing such tools in companies should result in major organisational changes. Why? Because those tools allow people to be more interconnected, to capitalize information, to work transversally instead of vertically, to need less hierarchy in their management, in other words to be more efficient, more productive and more creative. But it is not the case.

As research shows us, the major issue is that these collaboration tools have been matching the rules of the existing organizations, not the reverse. In fact, collaborative tools are used as suppliers, facilitators in some cases, but not as disruptive tools changing radically the behaviour of people. They are just enablers.

On the opposite, the most unique recent experience is the emergence of the Web 2.0 paradigm with the birth of a generation of new participative tools and the creation of huge social communities and user-generated contents. The blogosphere has grown from nothing in 2001 to more than 70 million of blogs in 2006, doubling each six months up to now. Social networks like mySpace have reached the 100 million users in 3 years, and user-generated content web sites like YouTube reached 100 million videos streamed daily in less than 2 years! It is not possible to stay quiet in front of this phenomenon. Is it a pure consumer change or will it affect also the companies? Why these participative tools have such a great impact and not the collaborative ones?

It seems that the Web 2.0 wave has woken up a “deep human longing for individuals to participate and make their voices heard” (Thomas Friedman, The world is Flat, 2006). People want to participate, to be involved, and to take part of. It is the reason why blogs, wikis, and all user-generated content web sites are so successful.

Participation versus Collaboration

What is the real difference between participation and collaboration? Collaborate is “to work together, especially in a joint intellectual effort; to work together toward a common end” (Webster); Participate is “to take part” (Webster) or “to join in, to take part, to involve oneself” (Wiktionary); What it means is that participation action doesn’t need a “work together” action, only a personal involvement in a global action. It is easier for most people. “Working together” can be done without reflecting upon the nature of work, while participating induces involvement, and it is what people want, to be involved in the decision, to take part of them, even if they are not fully collaborating to achieve the work.

Blogs are the best example of this new participation era. The origin of blog is egocentric: it is the ability for a human being to publish his own thoughts to be read by his family, his friends, and perhaps some other unknown internet users. Thanks to the possibility of commenting and “trackbacking” on the other bloggers’ posts, a huge network of links has been created day after day: the most important ones are not the URL links but the human links created between all bloggers thanks to these two trivial mechanisms. Step by step, a collective intelligence has emerged from this pile of blogs, without any real collaboration, just through a self-organization of active participation! Consequence is that world is changing, not thanks to the collaborative technologies, but thanks to the participative ones that have unleashed the human will to be actively involved in his environment.

Consequences for institutions and hierarchies are huge. For institutions, it is the emergence of the “democracy 2.0” concept, a participative democracy, where the citizen will be involved in the political decisions at a level never reached until now. For hierarchies, it is the end of hierarchical management in companies, because nobody will suffer anymore not to use in their own company the tools that everybody is using so efficiently in their private life. Even if the company’s managers don’t want to introduce these participative technologies inside their companies, the pressure from their employees will be so strong that no one will hold this wave.

Participation, a Disruptive Change for the Organization

The situation is critical for the organization, because for the first time, the consumer world is ahead in terms of new usages. Participative tools, even collaborative ones are used daily by millions of people in their private life, changing their habits and their way to see the world and interact. The new generations, still in college or universities, have grown up with these tools, which is not the case for their parents who are today the companies’ employees.

It is a disruptive change for the companies. Collaboration tools haven’t succeeded in changing organizations and mindsets, because these tools are only facilitating current work and matching current organizations, even if a small percentage of advanced users take profit from these new tools to change their way of working (e-working, e-organizations). If it is impossible for most users to be fully involved in all the company’s collaborative processes, participative tools give the technical infrastructure to allow all company’s employees to be really involved, each of them at their own level, in the small or big decisions where they can have something to say. Like in the blogosphere, if the company is able to manage this new organization, a collective intelligence will be self-generated, increasing the efficiency, the productivity and the creativity of each individual, team and finally the whole company.

Participative technologies are for everybody: each employee can use them, publish, comment, interact, share, exchange, validate, interrogate, freely, without any constraint, just following the good usage rules and conventions decided by the company. It is the reason why today the most important thing to do for a company is to implement immediately participative technologies, at least blogs and wikis, in all their departments, with all their teams, allowing people to express themselves, to interact through comments, to start building participative interactions and create step by step a participative ecosystem. This way, it is not only an improved information system that the company will earn; it will be a deep involvement of all the company’s actors to reach a common goal and to improve their collective results and intelligence, and finally their mutual collaboration.

Participation is the key;
Collaboration will be the natural consequence

(I published this article for the first time in January, 2007 within the eSangathan newsletter #2)

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