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Editor’s note: Today we begin a new monthly topic in Business Impact at Technology Review: Collaboration Tools. Powerful software and widespread Internet connectivity are making it easier than ever for people to work together no matter where they happen to be. Throughout March we will look at the latest tools for collaboration within and between organizations. We’ll analyze why some technology-enabled collaborations work and why others don’t. We’ll explain why some collaboration tools have failed to prove useful to the employees meant to benefit from them. We’ll present case studies, profiles, and interviews that help you understand how to make the people in your organization more collaborative and more productive.

 

Since the dawn of managerial capitalism, collaboration and work have almost always been synonymous. People need other people to realize their greatest impact, and innovation, perhaps the most valuable activity in business, depends critically on the kind of cross-pollination of ideas that collaboration enables.

But technology has changed how we collaborate, especially since the communications revolution began 150 years ago with the telegraph and the telephone. This wave of change continued with the commercialization of the fax machine in the 1970s and of e-mail in the 1980s. The last 20 years have brought a convergence of communications and computing technologies that has expanded the possibilities for technology-enabled collaboration, whether synchronous or asynchronous, proximal or distant. With voice mail, videoconferencing, instant messaging, chat forums, blogs, wikis, social networking, microblogging (through services such as Twitter and Foursquare), voice-over-IP, telepresence, and, of course, mobile communications and computing, never have we had so many ways to collaborate without having to be in the same place at the same time.

Technology-based platforms explicitly designed for collaboration arose in the late 1980s with the concept of “groupware” or “collaborative work environments.” These made it possible for people to join forces even though they were working in different places and in different time zones. Lotus Notes brought the notion to the corporate market at a time when business use of the Internet was still in its infancy. As the journalist David Kirkpatrick wrote in 1992, “If groupware really makes a difference in productivity long term, the very definition of an office may change.” With admirable prescience, he noted: “You will be able to work efficiently as a member of a group wherever you have your computer. As computers become smaller and more powerful, that will mean anywhere.”

That prediction has become reality, especially since the recent financial downturn. As businesses cut back on workers and resources, the number of professionals who defined themselves as freelancers increased to 30 million in the United States alone, and many of them turned to social-networking sites, such as LinkedIn and Facebook, to build their businesses. Many people who remained employed used the same strategies as an insurance policy against the next reduction in force. They also compensated for leaner IT budgets by supplying their own hardware, leading to new acronyms such as BYOD (“bring your own device”) and BYOC (“bring your own computer”). In fact, Kraft Foods “coöpted” employee-owned smart phones and tablets, explicitly welcoming and supporting “third-party” devices not directly purchased by the company.

Such policies, in turn, created a new meaning for BYOC: “bring your own culture.” Why? Workers equipped with their own smart phones and notebooks became accustomed to using those devices in whatever ways they chose. They demanded freedom of access to rich media websites (like YouTube), social-networking platforms, and certain content providers (such as WikiLeaks and publishers of its documents, like the New York Times and CNN.com) that many corporations and government entities had blocked for reasons of bandwidth costs, data protection, and corporate security. One senior Dell executive I’ve come across argued that if he was going to spend 60 to 80 hours a week at work, the company had no business deeming any content on the Web off limits. The corporate firewall, designed to make a stark distinction between internal and external information resources, was an artifact of a bygone era. The Dell executive prevailed.

As we’ll see in this month’s articles, interviews, and case studies in Business Impact, network-enabled collaboration both within and between firms is changing work in fundamental ways.

To fuel this revolution, established companies and startups are offering tools and platforms that support ever more powerful means of collaboration. Their business propositions are predicated on Metcalfe’s Law: as linkages among individuals increase arithmetically, collaboration as a result of those linkages rises in value geometrically. That’s why many companies seeking to accelerate the pace of innovation turn to open innovation.

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