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Online social networks are booming, but companies are still trying to figure out how their employees can take advantage of constant connectivity to collaborate without becoming overwhelmed or distracted. One answer is to ask small groups of employees to collaborate online for limited periods of time, says Tom Davenport, a professor of information technology and management at Babson College. He spoke to Technology Review’s chief correspondent, David Talbot, about the latest trends in collaboration tools.

TR: Collaboration software has been around for a long time, but it hasn’t always been very effective. Why?

Davenport: There is a long history of collaboration aids, going back to relatively structured tools—Lotus Notes being the first prominent example. Microsoft Sharepoint is the most prominent example today. Companies are implementing them all over the place. Of course, nobody gets really excited about them, because they are seen as very corporate.

Whether or not they are exciting, are these tools creating efficiencies and saving companies money?

The fact is that most organizations aren’t really serious enough yet about collaboration to measure it much. They tend to be a lot more interested in traffic to their website than traffic on their collaboration tools site. They typically don’t have any particular focus on who should be collaborating with whom. That means you have to measure everything, such as overall hits on a collaboration site, or number of users of Sharepoint.

What is the most effective way to use collaboration software?

People who work on mapping collaboration and patterns of interaction between people have noticed that less is more. Historically, companies were quite interested in increasing the amount of collaboration. Now they are interested in targeting and limiting collaboration because people are getting overwhelmed. We will probably see a return to the more curated, facilitated collaboration environments. Deloitte has found that giving people a bunch of tools and saying “Go innovate and share ideas” doesn’t work very well. Limiting the duration of a program is critical, and so is limiting the set of people that it makes sense to collaborate with.

Online social networks such as Facebook are now ubiquitous. Why aren’t they often doubling as tools for companies to use?

People did get excited about these more bottom-up social tools in that they promised a “people’s revolution” in collaboration. I think many companies are uncomfortable with unstructured tools. But they are quite comfortable with Microsoft [software] and can say “We’ve got blogs, social tagging, discussion databases.”

What do you see as the next wave of innovation in collaboration?

The whole idea of collaboration and social media—but in the context of a work process—is one that is going to take off. In other words, you might build a social-networking tool around a specific work process [with tools that] keep track of where you are and your tasks.

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Credit: Courtesy of Tom Davenport

Tagged: Business, Business Impact, Collaboration Tools

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