Long before she became my wife, I was sitting on a plane when I decided to make a grand gesture to a beautiful girl I barely knew. On the seatback in front of me was a device — I think it was called a SkyPhone — which I could use by swiping my credit card, taking it out of its holster and holding it from where it was connected by a cord to the seat.
As it turned out, my then-girlfriend wasn’t home. “I’m calling from a plane,” I told her roommate, in part because this whole thing cost me something like $25 bucks and I wanted to see some ROI. In a sense, it worked — she was flattered when she found out, and eventually, dear reader, I married that girl.
Most collaboration tools, it must be said, fail to achieve this level of closeness between two people. Sales reps still leave a lot of voice mail. Trade shows continue to exist only because vendors hope someone will walk by their booth. Boardrooms are still routinely booked for all-day brainstorming because teams can’t seem to ideate when they’re not somehow trapped. We have more than enough tools to foster enterprise collaboration — why aren’t we using them?
My theory is that the most successful collaboration tools are not the ones that aim to replicate a face-to-face encounter but allow us to hide a little bit from each other. I’m not saying this is a good thing, necessarily. A few years ago I was managing a team, for example, who were all sitting in cubicles right next to each other. No one was getting along, but you only knew this from what was passing from one inbox to another. At least once a week I said something to the effect of, “Maybe e-mail is not the best way to discuss this.”
Videoconferencing was supposed to help solve the e-mail problem within organizations, but who wants to look at their coworker through a screen when you can be watching something else while they’re trying to communicate with you instead? That’s why text, and more recently Slack, have been among the only real collaboration tools to threaten the dominance of e-mail.
Unified communications vendors have been peddling applications that can mix and match between voice, e-mail and other channels for years, but you’d probably see greater collaboration across organizations if there were a few more constraints or quick methods to ask and answer things. I’m just waiting for someone to develop a method of talking about everything from demand generation to conversion and beyond using nothing but a library of GIFs.
This all may sound cynical, but it’s not. I think as humans we favor the most simple, lightweight mechanisms to collaborate because the simplicity and limitations of the most popular channels allow us to avoid uncomfortable confrontations and free us to think through what we’re trying to say. I’ve seen people paralyzed as they attempt to finish writing an e-mail, but you can use a winky-face emoji to mean almost anything in an exchange of text messages.
In our Collaboration Issue this month, I’m going to explore how well technology is allowing us to exchange ideas and collectively solve problems in a digital world. We’ve certainly come a long way since the SkyPhone, but the promise of cross-functional tools that let us work better together have yet to fully take off.