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Eight Reasons Why Online Collaboration Systems Fail

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Bill Brantley
December 5, 2022

As government workers transition to working in the office or to hybrid work, online collaboration tools are gaining even more importance. During the quarantine, employees had to quickly learn how to collaborate online while software applications were continually developing. In addition, it seemed like new features were being rolled out daily. As a result, I spent much time developing training programs to help employees learn to collaborate online.

Much of the training was to help users find ways to work around the limitations of the software. For example, when training users at the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office to collaborate with Microsoft Teams, I needed to teach them a new way of working in groups. Employees learned to modify how they would collaborate in person to adjust to the new online environment. For example, I stressed the need for consistent naming conventions in storing documents in the system. Other new habits we developed were writing a descriptive subject line and chat etiquette.

Why are online collaboration systems often hard to use? In 1994, Dr. Grudin (a computer scientist from the University of California) explained how group work makes it difficult to create easy-to-use collaboration software. His article explained eight challenges of collaboration applications.

Who Does the Work and Who Gets the Benefits?

Ideally, the labor in operating and maintaining the groupware application must be roughly equal among the group members. In reality, this is rarely the case. An unequal burden in supporting the collaboration software will cause people to stop using the system.

Critical Mass of Users

The collaboration software field is filled with many different platforms for collaboration. Unfortunately, in large government agencies, multiple collaboration systems don’t communicate with each other. Ironically the systems that exist to promote cooperation often end up promoting organizational silos.

Social, Political and Motivational Factors

As Dr. Grudin explains, collaboration software can only model a rational workplace, but actual workplaces are much more complex due to organizational culture.

Exception Handling

We rarely work the exact way that is described in our work processes. As a result, collaboration software built only based on documented office procedures is seen as too rigid and unable to handle the flexibility required frequently at work.

Decreasing the Communication and Coordination Load

Organizations are designed to reduce the communication and coordination needed to do the job. However, collaboration applications can significantly increase the number of interruptions that disrupt people’s ability to concentrate and prioritize work. I often had to turn off the notification features, or else I would be inundated with alerts of new messages.

Hard to Evaluate Groupware

It is challenging to test groupware because the group dynamics are so hard to replicate. It can take several weeks of careful observation to fully understand how a group works. Software designers don’t have the time or expertise to evaluate how their software will aid collaboration fully. In other cases, the software forces us to collaborate in unfamiliar or uncomfortable ways.

Intuitive Decision Making

Because of the nature of our work, we often must make decisions based on little evidence, and thus we rely heavily on our intuition. Unfortunately, groupware applications rarely support intuitive decision-making but force users to input significant amounts of data to make a fully reasoned decision. We often do not have all the data, and a decision must be made quickly. Hence, we abandon the groupware application to use a simple spreadsheet or other individual application to support our intuition.

Managing Acceptance of the Groupware

Too often, I have seen a collaboration solution launched where the users are expected to adapt themselves to how the software works rather than the software adapting to the way the group works. A particular system at my work is universally despised because it practically handcuffs a group of users to a cumbersome and protracted painful process. I’ve only used the system once, but that was enough to avoid even clicking on the program icon.

Despite these principles being nearly thirty years old, I still see the same mistakes being repeated in today’s online collaboration tools. However, I also see where companies have put these principles into practice and have made excellent collaboration software that has endured and grown in popularity. Online collaboration software must work well so government employees can work together effectively and efficiently.

Author: Bill Brantley teaches at the University of Louisville and the University of Maryland. He also works as a Federal employee for the U.S. Navy’s Inspector General Office. All opinions are his own and do not reflect the views of his employers. You can reach him at https://www.linkedin.com/in/billbrantley/.

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