Collaborative walled gardens

Collaborative platforms are all the rage at the moment – every company wants one, has one, lives and dies by one. Cisco’s CEO John Chambers blogs, Michael Dell is on Twitter, Microsoft is selling Sharepoint by the truckload (well, figuratively speaking) and every software company in the world is busy putting 2.0 behind their offering, from backup to presentations.

I am worrying that all these platforms will lead to less collaboration, not more.

First, a personal observation: I am what Malone and Rockart in 1991 termed an intellectual mercenary. That is, I think of myself as a company of one, working for many organizations, but I am never member of only one community, and never, for a number of reasons, a full member of one. Sure, I have been on the faculty of the same business school since 1996 and had relationships with more or less the same set of people in the consulting world since 1994, and currently I am in year three of what I hope will be an 8 year research project on information access technologies. But that doesn’t change the fact that I am not a full member, at least not technically speaking, of any one of them.

My base job, as an academic, has a technical infrastructure geared towards a physical presence at the campus (at least on a regular basis) and a lack of visibility outside campus. The school has an outdated infrastructure, but since most of the faculty thinks this is just fine, since it works, few things change. So I have to have my own web site and email to project a less antiquated face for the rest of the world. Fine. Then I work with two companies (one mostly in the States and one mostly in Norway) on various projects. In case of their technical infrastructure, it is more modern, but tightly integrated around a different platform than what my main place of work is using.

The interesting thing, of course, is that as long as communication took place via email and collaboration was done sending Word documents around, everything was hunky dory – I could use whatever I wanted. Now each collaboration partner has their own collaborative platform, with integrated calendaring, Twittering, email, directories and Turing knows what else – and I find myself fighting new user interfaces every time I need to do something.

Software evolves from application to platform to standard. The problem is that we do not yet have standards for collaborative activities, only for the end results of those activities: Reports, teleconferences, single emails, and presentations. If you want integration, you have to belong to one organization, and that organization only. Which is fine for most people, but not for those of us who wants to contain multitudes, and do.

At the current state of collaborative software, it strengthens intra-organizational collaboration but weakens inter-organizational collaboration. We are back to the days when some companies used Wordperfect and some Word, and everyone fiddled with translations between them. Now we have to find ways to maintain a personal creative space (in my case, Evernote, Word, and Windows Live Writer) while injecting and extracting the results from various collaborative platforms. I find myself yearning for something that will maintain my collaborative activities in much the same way Live Writer (along with Live Sync, the best product Microsoft has come up with in a decade) allows me to suck down and load up posts to my various blogs. (A bonus would be if you could update the various Wikipedia articles you care about as well, but I digress).

An alternative is a shared platform, such as Google Docs, but again, that forces you to work in a different interface (though it is very similar to Word), does not bring the work inside your own space (where you are reminded about doing it) and forces everyone else to move out of their space. What we need here is some serious standard work in XML, and a recognition by the platform providers that a substantial amount of collaboration (and, I suspect, much of the innovation) comes from those that jump between platforms.

So, here is my message to the collaborative platform vendors: Tear down the walls before you have erected them! Do it by offering APIs or facilitating cross-platform synchronization. While we are at it, some software company with a stake in keeping their operating systems dominance should probably take me up on creating a cross-platform personal collaboration client.

I want my PCC revolution now!