Hats off to Penny Edwards, who posted Are We Really Collaborating?, in which she reminded us that collaboration and communication are not one in the same. Her post sparked some thinking on my part about the relationship between the two terms and why many equate them.
Let’s begin by defining each term in the context of virtual, online work environments:
Collaboration: The sharing of a virtual space to complete defined tasks, with control passing from one party to another, either asynchronously or in real-time (e.g. wiki, document, desktop, whiteboard)
Communication: The act of relaying information, knowledge, or opinion to one or more individuals through either synchronous or asynchronous virtual messaging channels (e.g. phone, e-mail, blog, IM, microstreaming)
To most of us, collaboration used to mean working together in the same physical place. Getting work done together required communication, to be sure, but it was an assumed aspect of the collaboration. We talked to each other as an integrated part of the idea flow and development that was taking place.
Now that more workers are interacting virtually — not face-to-face — both collaboration and communication technologies are necessary to complete a task. The problem is, that these technologies have not been combined well in a single application; we still need separate applications to successfully collaborate online. There are application suites that provide both collaboration and communication functionality, but that functionality is experienced as separate, disconnected components. We have not yet reached a point where virtual collaboration and communication are nearly one in the same, as in a face-to-face working session.
Virtual worlds (e.g. Second Life, Active Worlds) promise to bring these two elements back together. In a virtual world, users in the same space can communicate synchronously while working together on an object, just as we would in-person in physical space. From a technical perspective, the technologies for collaboration and communication are still separate, but they are experienced as a single, integrated technology by the user. Recreating the seamless experience found in physically co-located work sessions is the key to improving virtual collaboration.
Clearly then, virtual worlds are the next frontier for online collaboration and the most promising way to replicate the experience of a face-to-face collaboration in a virtual environment. We have a long way to go before enterprise use of virtual worlds becomes mainstream, but I believe adoption will increase as the technology improves and as younger people enter the workforce. However, now is the time to start thinking about how and where to use virtual worlds in the enterprise (and between organizations) to improve virtual collaboration, so you are ready to pilot and deploy for competitive advantage before the tipping point is reached.