Communications vs. Collaboration

Posted by Brett Young | Friday, December 26, 2008 | | 0 comments »

Anymore, it seems that communications and collaboration are inseparable, as well they should be. Unfortunately, this close association has resulted in some confusion about how the two terms differ. It has even caused some to wonder whether they my be the same thing. The fact is that communication and collaboration differ widely from each other. However, they are complementary: think peanut butter and jelly. Neither communications nor collaboration are new concepts. Both predate the modern computer era. In this post, I will attempt to clarify these terms and their relationship to each other.

Communication is simply the act of exchanging information. People have communicated by voice, and written word for thousands of years. Communication implies a two-way interaction. This is contrasted with a broadcast which is one-way. Within in the last 150 years or so, new, electronic channels of communication have been developed to overcome the time and distance limitations of voice and written word, such as the telegraph and the telephone. The Internet age brought new communications channels, including email, instant messaging. The concept of channels is critical to understanding what communication is and is not. A channel connects two points and enables the flow of information, or communication. Information travels from one point, through the channel, to another point, just like two cans connected by a string. It is not enough, however, for the information to reach its destination. It must arrive in a form that can be comprehended by the recipient. Today, the sender and the recipient of a message could be a human or a computer.

Collaboration is simply two or more people, working together toward a common goal. For most of humankind's existence, collaboration has required meeting in the same physical location. While it may have been possible to collaborate in the early 1800's via pony express, the "latency" inherent to that system would have undoubtedly complicated the process of working together toward a common goal. It was not until the arrival of the telephone that collaboration across space became viable. However, the telephone was not without its flaws. A telephone conversation is ethereal and lacks context. If you really wanted to work as a team toward a common goal, you needed a common meeting room, or workspace. So, for decades we have been flying people all over the world to meet in common workspaces and work toward a common goal. Although modern air travel makes this easy, it is still relatively slow and expensive. In some cases, people are using communication channels such as telephone, email, and instant messaging to avoid travelling as often. Ultimately, however, communication channels cannot adequately replace the need for a common workplace. A workplace provides critical context that is not present otherwise.

Today, virtual workplaces may be supported by real-time communication platforms, such as audio, web, and video conferencing. However, to overcome the obstacle of time, we need persistent virtual workplaces. They provide context and access to the content and tools necessary to achieve a common goal. This is where collaboration platforms such as Lotus Notes and Microsoft SharePoint come in. Collaboration platforms enable a framework that supports working toward a common goal. Collaboration platforms by themselves are not the solution anymore than a physical conference room is a solution of itself. Instead, collaboration platforms provide a common workplace within which teams interacts, manages relevant content, and accesses enabling tools.

Collaboration without communication is not possible. On the other hand, communication without collaboration happens all the time. When there's no common goal, communication without collaboration is to be expected. Unfortunately, people with a common goal attempt to collaborate using communication tools only. Perhaps they are using the only tool available to them or understood by them. We all know what it is like to be part of a project that relies solely on email. It's hard to find the project artifacts among all the other email. It's also hard to find the right version of a particular artifact. Compiling input from multiple people into a single piece of content is time-consuming and prone to human error. A communication may be misunderstood because it doesn't contain adequate context. A common workplace attempts to address all of these issues by delivering a common workplace built around a common goal. A workplace where the content, tools, and members come together for the purpose of reaching a goal.

Unified Communications and Collaboration (UCC) provides an integrated set of technologies that enable people to work toward a common goal across time and space constraints. As a society we are maturing rapidly toward leveraging communication channels and tools within the context provided by common workplaces. Where do you see communication and collaboration going over the next decade? Are there any disruptive technologies on the horizon that could substantially change the way we communicate and collaborate?

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