Dennis D. McDonald ( consults from Alexandria Virginia. His services include writing & research, proposal development, and project management.

When are collaboration “barriers” good for innovation?

When are collaboration “barriers” good for innovation?

By Dennis D. McDonald

Google Drive and Microsoft Office 365

I use both Google Drive and Microsoft Office 365 as alternatives to email for group collaboration. Each has advantages and disadvantages. (By “collaboration” I mean the sharing of information around a common goal or objective.)

I’ve been using Google Docs for collaboration a lot longer than I’ve used Office 365 for collaboration. In fact, I’ve been using Google Docs since before it was even called Google Docs. It almost replaced my use of Microsoft Office for several years except in those instances when Microsoft Office was required by my consulting clients.

Google Docs and collaborative shortcomings

I did make several attempts to use Google Docs for collaborative client work. These were not entirely successful when it came to document sharing and collaboration even though Google Docs was already being used “underneath the radar” by groups of the clients’ corporate users.

Introducing Google Docs and Google Drive into an enterprise accustomed already to Microsoft centric networking and dependence on Word and Excel is not as easy as I once thought. Many enterprise worker are accustomed to traversing a typical networking architecture built around drives, files, folders and are bewildered by the simple elegance of the the Google Drive visual architecture. I have found that making the transition between the two organizational metaphors is not something to be attempted lightly. Throw in large and small differences between Google’s apps and Office 365 apps and you have an additional source of confusion.

Office 365 and its advantages for enterprise collaboration

Earlier this year I started using Office 365 and Microsoft’s OneDrive service extensively due to involvement in some Microsoft-centric product development work. I’m finding that, despite the serious user interface issues associated with Windows 8.1, Microsoft has, in my opinion, done a much better job of integrating collaboration functionality with office productivity applications than Google has. I believe that the transition from a “classic” corporate environment to a more collaborative environment is easier with Office 365 then it is with Google Docs and Drive.

The reason is simple. Office 365 applications retain much of the “look and feel” of classic Microsoft Office apps while adding better integrated networking and sharing features.

Total integration: not needed for innovation

But that’s just background to what I’m really writing about. While it might be theoretically ideal for everyone associated with an enterprise — including outside contractors —  to use the same tools for creation, sharing, and collaboration, I’m no longer convinced that, in our “social” age, total standardization or even total interoperability should be a goal.

I’ve seen too many instances of “bottom-up” or “middle out” innovation where groups of people got together, grabbed the tools at hand, and started working together without waiting for senior management or central IT to show the way. It happened with websites being developed independently by Marketing, it happened with departmental workers starting up “unauthorized” Facebook sites, and it continues to happen in Microsoft-centric organizations when “skunk works” groups”get together using outside-the-network tools like Apple iPads and Google Docs to share information. Such tools are available, easy-to-use, and you don’t need someone else’s permission to use them.

Were I wearing in my own consulting a more traditional “systems integration” hat I’d be appalled at all this work-related sharing going on, sharing that runs the risk of exposing sensitive data to inappropriate eyes. Plus, there’s money to be made by connecting different systems and seeing to it that data and metadata are standardized.

Let the groups form

But I say, let the informal groups form and innovate. People use the tools they are familiar with. Reducing friction among creative and knowledgeable people is one way to encourage productivity and creativity. If that means that closed-door semi-closed groups will form and reform using the tools people are familiar with, so be it. Let creativity and innovation flourish even when the results are messy.

At the same time, make the barrier for transitioning from informal to formal processes low and provide support for making the transition. Don’t let bureaucracy get in the way of making the transition and — this is especially important — don’t let forms and special documents and file structures get in the way of creating and communicating good ideas.

Beware the common platform

In summary, I would not be too eager to force the enterprise user to share a common platform for collaboration and knowledge transfer. In today’s environment, the more structured and rule-based you become, the more you encourage user migration to easy-to-use and readily available systems with little friction.

Copyright © 2014 by Dennis D. McDonald

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