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

Technology-Enabled Collaboration and Information Siloes


By Dennis D. McDonald

James Robertson’s recent post Collaboration tools are anti knowledge sharing? got me thinking about the introduction of technology-enabled collaboration into large organizations. (Thanks to Jack Vinson for bringing this article to my attention via Twitter).

Technology-enabled collaboration has been on my mind a lot lately. I recently completed an assessment for a client of factors that influence corporate adoption of collaboration solutions. As I’ve noted elsewhere, introduction of collaboration and “web 2.0” tools into an enterprise is rarely “slam-dunk.” Resistance can come from factors ranging from ignorance to cost to politics. Sometimes resistance makes sense, and sometimes it doesn’t. Sometimes, adoption just takes time as solutions spread through an organization in a viral fashion.

Still, it’s good to think about ways to assess when organizations are ready to adopt technology enabled collaboration solutions. The reasons for doing so can include reducing the time and cost of performing individual business processes, support for better customer relationships (and enhanced revenue), and stimulation of valuable innovation and creativity.

Robertson points out some potential downsides of collaboration:

The strengths of collaboration tools in supporting the needs of individuals and groups are also the potential weaknesses for the organisation as a whole.

By default, staff will tend to publish all of the content they produce into ‘their’ local collaboration space, rather than into a higher-level corporate space.

Left unmanaged, this will inevitably lead to the proliferation of hundreds or thousands of collaboration spaces each containing a small subset of corporate content.

This fragmentation makes it hard to find information published by other areas. (This is the lesson we didn’t learn from the era of Lotus Notes, and we are in danger of repeating it now.) 

Robertson goes on to say that (a) the lack of “context” is a major issue when users from the outside of a group access a collaboration group’s content, and (b) “search” is not an answer since this “context” may not be provided.

Robertson makes some good points. But I think his focus on “content” and tools is a possible shortcoming. 

Yes, if Work Group A develops a virtual work space where documents and discussions can be created, modified, tracked, tagged, and discussed, the possibility exists that Work Group B — if it only occasionally accesses Work Group B’s work space — will lack “context.” Yes, this may result in “siloing” since Work Group B may therafter be reluctant to look at Work Group A’s content.

This analysis can make sense if collaboration focuses primarily on content. If, however, collaboration focuses not only on content but also on exposing people and their identities, expertise, and relationships to visibility across work groups, some of these content-siloing shortcomings might be reduced.

This leads to the area of “expertise management” which I wrote about here.

One reason I think expertise management (as opposed to “content management”) makes a good application for social media and social networking technologies is that content-focused management will always tend to lag behind what’s in people’s heads. Once an idea and associated metadata are fixed in a document, a spreadsheet, a database, a podcast, or a video interview, that idea is fixed. But the originator keeps on thinking beyond the document and develops new ideas and relationships that can lead to new ideas and progress.

So which would you, as a corporate collaborator, rather have immediate access to: the document Joe authored six weeks ago; or, Joe today who has since received feedback on that document from his personal and professional networks and is already thinking about new ideas — and hasn’t had a chance yet to update the group’s wiki?

Actually, you’ll probably need both. That’s what I have come to believe. Content management solutions without social networking and relationships management features are a throwback to old-fashioned systems that overemphasized file-oriented document functions and hierarchically-imposed structural definitions at the expense of user control and rapid relationship building and navigation.

Ideally, an effective collaboration solution will integrate content management with expertise management and with relationship management and networking. And that’s the direction I think we’re headed.


External Collaboration Needs to be Managed!

How Soon Till We See a Backlash to Social Networking??