Collaboration Tools - Are Information Silos a Problem?

October 22, 2007 · · Posted by Jordan Frank

James Robertson's article Collaboration Tools are Anti Knowledge Sharing? discusses the pros and cons of collaboration tools, with particular emphasis on the problems associated with proliferation of 100's or even 1,000's of information silos. Michael Sampson's response nicely vouches for the pros, while cautioning against having a hodgepodge of disparate collaboration tools.

The Information Silo Problem

The information silo problem which Robertson rightly describes is, I believe, the result of 4 key issues:

1. That traditional collaboration workspaces are created for short lived projects

2. The workspaces are permissioned on a "need-to-know" basis, for reasons having to do with privacy requirements, cultural privacy preferences, and a desire to reduce noise for other workers not directly involved in a project.

3. A closed groupware technology model which does not encourage communication and collaboration activities across collaboration workspaces.

4. Lack of time as a key organizing variable in the workspaces, making it increasingly difficult to manage and sort through information in a collaboration workspace as the content load gets larger.

As a result, teams deploy new workspaces every time there is a new task. More workspaces than are needed are created, with ever-more permission variations, and "knowledge" content is dispersed and forgotten rather than aggregated and maintained.

But 100s or 100s of 1000s of information "silos" a problem?

Not necessarily.

The web has billions of web sites, some small and some large. And it works. The web works, however, for 2 reasons that cut in the other direction against traditional groupware platforms:

1. The web (the part we usually search and navigate) is mostly open, so most websites aren't sitting behind a password box.

2. The web is mostly made of up of pages, links and tags vs. documents and folders

Enterprise Wikis and Blogs like Traction TeamPage change the rules of the game. They reorganize enterprise users around pages, links, tags and attachments in permission aware spaces that can be selectively shared and indexed locally or globally. They change the working model in Greg Lloyd's Enterprise 2.0 Letting Hypertext out of its Box.

By working almost exclusively in hypertext, you can make your business work more like the web. In so doing, the proliferation of content and the spaces for that content can grow, and disperse, while still being manageable. Permissions can still play a large role, as search, tagging, linking and page relevance make content findable.

Best Practices

However, while it may be OK to let hypertext based collaboration tools proliferate, at least three best practices still apply:

1. Move from a "need to know" to a "can know" culture, reducing the boundaries on information and, thus, the leverage you can achieve from having shared it in the first place.

2. Design wiki and blog spaces for long term use. A simple example could be an IT team like the one at ShoreBank which uses a single space, rather than 100's, to collaborate and communicate about hundreds of milestones. Each space will ideally encompass the largest amount of people and activity possible without expanding beyond a key area of interest for that particular group of people who will work together over a long period of time.

3. As discussed in Pros and Cons of Emergence, provide scaffolding, at least in the form of suggested tags or labels for new wiki or blog spaces. This is one step that lets enterprises take advantage of the fact that they are one coordinated entity vs. the web which is the opposite.

So, Robertson was right. Proliferation of collaboration spaces was a problem. With new technology models for collaboration and implementation of best practices, the door is open to Enterprise collaboration, at web scale with dispersion across resources.