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

Google Wave Asks, Do You Like Your Project Collaboration Hard or Soft?

Google Wave Asks, Do You Like Your Project Collaboration Hard or Soft?

By Dennis D. McDonald

I had lunch with a fellow consultant recently. We talked about how some complex software-based collaboration systems get used and how some don’t. Sometimes the problem is with the software, and sometimes it’s with how the organization approaches collaboration.

Examples are when a purpose-built collaboration system is designed or customized to support the development of a large, complex proposal that combines business, technical, and financial information. Invariably such systems are complex or cumbersome to learn and use effectively. Many users end up “voting with their feet” and send large Word and PowerPoint files around via email as attachments instead of using the dedicated system. The result is wasted time and increased error and re-work because management now must concern itself with synchronization issues and the inefficiencies these can cause.

The early informationI’m seeing about Google’s newWave communication and collaboration platform is that it has great potential for helping people to collaborate.

Part of the reason why complex collaboration support systems can fail is that they don’t always take into account how real people work and collaborate, especially the people who are more comfortable with using web based tools to support sharing information collaboratively via social media and social networking technologies.

Highly repetitive collaborative processes where individual and group involvement can be described, standardized, and at least partially automated may in many cases be only a small piece of the puzzle. Heavily original or knowledge-based collaborative efforts are more likely to incorporate a level of creativity and innovation in their project work that demands much more flexibility in how people communicate and share information. Platforms like Wave and its combination of real time and “record/playback” messaging- and email-like features could provide a robust and effective way for large numbers of people to collaborate very rapidly and very socially.

One of my specific interests has long been using collaboration tools such as blogs to support project management communications. Two things I’ve learned as a project manager, though, are that collaboration tools need to be easy to use, and people need to understand how they relate to how they currently operate. Will people managing large projects see a platform such as Wave as a useful tool? How easy will it be to use for people not accustomed to managing multi-threaded conversations that can be experienced in real time or via review of recorded streams?

I don’t really know how to answer that based on what I’ve seen so far about Wave. It could be that Wave will be especially useful in what I call “soft” project collaboration situations. These are situations where what is needed is a great deal of flexibility in how web based communication and collaboration take place. Flexibility in this context refers to the ability to start and stop communication rapidly, to rapidly interact with the members of the groups with whom information is shared, and to share data and documents centrally while tracking individual contributions.

The focus of soft collaboration might be on project related communication rather than on performance of the specific processes that are the subject of the project, such as highly structured software testing, complex software application development, construction projects, transportation of goods, or testing and inspection work. These latter cases are opportunities for “hard” collaboration where the nature of the exchanged information is more structured and defined, even when multiple people are involved.

Wave will have competition from other sources. Applications already exist that support internal and external collaboration and communication along with rudimentary project management features; a good example is a past client of mine, Jive Software. Also, even rudimentary email based blogging systems such as Posterous have been suggested as basic project management tools.

Given Google’s creativity, deep pockets, and its track record in making complex web based applications very easy to use, I think Google has a shot at developing and promoting Wave as a platform that includes open source components that a developer community can work with. What will be interesting to watch is how Wave evolves. Will it promote a revolution in how people collaborate and communicate online? Or will it be adapted to support existing processes and work habits? My guess is: probably both.

Copyright (c) 2009 by Dennis D. McDonald, Ph.D.

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