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The Psychology of Collaboration

An IBM researcher examines the limitations of collaborating through software.
March 16, 2011

In the 1980s, long before the rise of online social networks, Irene Greif helped found the field of computer-supported coöperative work (CSCW), which explores how technology helps people collaborate. Today Greif is an IBM fellow, the company’s highest technical honor, and director of collaborative user experience in IBM Research. Jodi Slater, who worked with Greif at Lotus Development after it was bought by IBM in the 1990s and later cofounded the business consultancy MarketspaceNext, recently spoke with Greif for Technology Review about why some of the hardest collaboration problems have nothing to do with technology.

TR: How are today’s technologies that help employees collaborate different from those that existed before, such as Lotus Notes?

Greif: What got researchers interested in starting this field [CSCW] was that anthropologists went into offices and started seeing the kinds of things that break when you automate too much. Mostly that happened because the automation was online, people were not involved, and personal conversations were eliminated. The automation “process” handed off a form to someone. It might notice they were on vacation, it might tell someone, and it might not.

These were cautionary tales: “Don’t get too excited about automating, because you could break things.” [One problem was that] the informal things [about office interactions] were offline and the formal were online. That is what really has changed the most. So much of the informal is online now that we can try to bring them together. More and more we are trying to link formal workflows and informal information, and we have an opportunity to act instead of just worry as we did in the ’80s.

What about knowledge management, which sought to create central repositories inside companies for information that would otherwise be scattered around? Why was that not more successful?

Knowledge management focused on asking, “How do we get information out of people’s heads? How can we force them to write it down?” That just didn’t work. Now, social software is drawing people in, and they are contributing information. It is happening so much more naturally.

How has this played out in IBM?

We started by taking ideas that were working on the Internet and bringing them into the company. We wanted to see whether those ideas would take off naturally inside a company. Dogear was exactly that kind of experiment because we were taking something that had existed [on the Internet] in Delicious for sharing bookmarks [to items of interest online] and brought it inside. People had to use their real names, and they could bookmark things inside and outside the company. For searches on the intranet, people liked what they got from Dogear better than what they got from the regular intranet search that relied primarily on text analytics. Now it is a standard feature and the CIO has put it on our search page.

What is the lesson here for other companies?

If you are a CIO trying to decide whether to buy a product and want to know whether everybody will use it, and if you are going to be measured by whether something you buy starts to be used by everybody, you need to make sure you are measuring the right usage. Dogear, in particular, is not used by a huge number of people, and it is not clear if it would be better if more people used it, which is part of the interesting magic of this. People self-select which tools they use. Probably only 10 percent of the company is actively sharing bookmarks, but because we are [combining bookmarks with internal search results], everyone else is getting a benefit from that collection of bookmarks. 

What qualities will make or break the next big thing in collaboration?

I think it is not about the technology per se, but more about finding technologies that are resilient against controls [by management]. When I first came to Lotus, I was excited [that] anybody could create a Notes database on a server and set up access control in a very intuitive way. Anyone, not a database administrator, could create a place to meet. Slowly, over time, [IT managers demanded more control]. You would have to submit a request to create a database; you would have to submit a request to change access control. As a result, a lot of places [that use Notes] don’t have the “group experience” in Notes, and they just use it for e-mail.

The next important thing will need to withstand the controls that may be imposed on how it is implemented. For example, it is possible that companies that insist on doing small pilots of social software will dampen the viral effect so much that they will never see the benefit and they won’t buy it. Someday the whole world will have social software, but during this whole long phase of evaluation, anyone who is stuck on old styles of evaluation is not going to see the value.

What should the goal of all these programs be?

I have always believed that collaboration is most meaningful when you are really creating something together and when you are sharing your thoughts before they are finished products. If I am only willing to show you something that is a polished document, you might edit or change it a little, but you are not really doing it with me.

People have to trust each other to do that. It is risky to show people your unfinished thoughts. Technologies for a long time could let you do that; people did not always do that. Social software, to the extent that it is helping people build trust and be comfortable with more casual, lightweight communications, could make it possible for more of our attempts at collaboration to be real collaboration.

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