Defining Productivity and Collaboration

The opportunity that COVID-19 provides

Good morning. I was trying to get up and running with the narrated version of this newsletter, and it took a little more time than expected which is why there was no issue last week. It is now available through Apple’s Podcast Library so you can subscribe directly through your podcast player of choice. That’s the good news.

The bad news (for me) was that I’d started this article quite some time ago, but recent events, namely the impact of COVID-19, have forced me to rewrite significant portions of it. So much for pre-planning!

On to the issue.

Productivity and Collaboration

Picking up from where I left off in Collaborative platforms the new hotness, you’ll have noted that I didn’t go into too much detail about collaboration and productivity. I wanted to, but frankly, the article was already too long at publication. I prefer reading long-form, but I appreciate that not everyone is like me and hence I try to cut these articles into bite-sized pieces when it’s appropriate.

For this issue, I thought I’d go into detail about the link between productive and collaborative platforms and what may lie in the future. If you’re looking for a how-to article, this is not that. I suggest you search through your chosen search engine to get copious articles about implementation design and planning.

This article is not a scientific report either. It simply attempts to show how collaborative platforms have helped in business productivity, sometimes in a surprising way. Firstly, let’s try to answer the question of whether collaboration has an influence on productivity, or if productivity requires collaboration.

What is Productivity?

The first at-scale uses of the term was in the production of the Ford Model T by Henry Ford. Ford understood when he observed the build processes involved in making cars and other things. He observed them in their entirety and not in isolation, eventually concluding that efficiencies could be gained by splitting them into component parts and focusing on simplifying and accelerating each step as much as possible.

That simplification was in some cases extreme; famously Ford would let you buy a car in any colour as long as it was black. A funny anecdote, of course, however, restricting the colour choice meant the process was standardised and simplified gaining significant efficiencies in the manufacturing process.

The assembly line was born with each worker stationed at a particular point along the line, each contributing to the evolution of the build of the item. In the example of a car, the start of the line concentrated on processes dedicated to the basics of the car, the chassis, the wheels and the supports necessary for the bodywork, interior and engine. Progress down the line steadily adds parts and the car slowly takes its final shape, as do the type and skill of the jobs on the line.

Each task was timed, and tools that required for each type of task were analysed, so that minimum time is lost when grabbing the drill or spanner required. This timing enabled Ford to build a detailed picture of how long it took to build a car from start to finish. It also helped Ford speed up tasks in places where inefficiencies were identified. Modern car factories are not that far removed from this original vision by Ford.

Productivity, in this sense, is the ability to breakdown, analyse and render efficient processes that make up the finished product or service. Productivity can be increased by lowering the time taken or decreased by increasing the time spent. But this is a one-dimensional definition of productivity.

The OECD defines productivity as:

Productivity is commonly defined as a ratio between the output volume and the volume of inputs. In other words, it measures how efficiently production inputs, such as labour and capital, are being used in an economy to produce a given level of output.

What is often under-appreciated, is that for productivity to work efficiently all constituent parts need to work together well so that each transition from process to process work smoothly together. Collaboration begets productivity. If there is no collaboration, productivity takes a huge hit.

Defining Collaboration

According to various sources, the Cambridge English Dictionary, Wikipedia amongst them, collaboration can be defined as:

The process of two or more people or organisations working together to achieve a common goal or task.

When people in a team of people inter-organisational or extra-organisational work together to achieve the desired outcome, we call this collaboration. The definition is intentionally loose because collaboration can take on many forms. A trading contract across two nations may be considered collaboration; they collaborate to enable trade to and from each other. 

Possibly the most common form of collaboration in existence is Project Management. Henry Gantt first introduced to the world of project management with his bar chart structured to visualise who does what and when on a large-scale endeavour. Initially, it was limited to use in construction, where hundreds of people were tasked with building offices, warehouses, homes and other buildings. Gantt developed a simple way of representing each task aligned by date/time with its length determining the duration required for completion. The structure is self-constructed because Gantt’s model requires links between tasks that show if tasks could be started or not, or if a particular task requires another to be completed before commencement; you can’t fit the windows in the house until the wall is built. These links are called constraints and often expressed as F➔S, or Finish ➔ Start.

Modern collaboration is a little different but broader in scope. As described in the definition above, working together is the basis by which people today collaborate, but what has changed is the amount and channels of communication used to achieve desired goals together.

In businesses today, people use email, Instant Messaging, WhatsApp, SMS, as well as specific applications like ERPs to achieve the tasks required of the organisation, and they switch between each of these frequently and freely. The inherent problem with this is that you may start a conversation in email because of something you saw in the CRM, then finish the conversation in WhatsApp, having passed through two or three maybe more applications in the process. This can be confusing to some, and potential loss of information is inevitable. But worse still, a loss of context may cause bad decision-making or cross-pollination of information to those whom the information should not be exposed.

Modern collaboration tries to solve these issues by grouping as many channels of communication together as possible, thereby furnishing a one-stop interface to achieve optimum collaboration.

The current landscape of collaboration tools

There are essentially two players in the market that have offers adapted to efficient business collaboration; Microsoft Teams and Slack. Although similar in their basic functionality, they differ somewhat in execution and the way they integrate to productivity ecosystems.

A third player seems to be positioning itself in the market. From The Information:

Google is working on a mobile application for businesses that brings together the functions of several standalone apps the company already offers, including Gmail and its online storage service Drive. The move could help it compete more effectively with application suites from Microsoft and others, according to two people who have used the application and three people briefed about it.

Google is lagging behind Microsoft on its productive suite, and as this recent development shows, its communications and collaboration strategy too. A handful of utilities were required in the Google ecosystem to perform what are ostensibly tasks with a common link. When you email a Contact or send an instant message to the same person because you are discussing the same project, that link is broken in the Google ecosystem, and it is this the Google is trying to resolve.

Microsoft, Slack and Google are all trying to provide a one-stop-shop for your productivity needs, but integrating (obviously) their own ecosystem directly into the application and in some cases providing the necessary tools to link external SaaS applications. Microsoft literally stated as such a few years back at one of its conferences I attended; Teams was to become the first thing you open when you got to work, and the last when you left.

COVID-19 and the opportunity to do more with collaboration tools

If anything, existing collaborative tools are held back by two competing forces; their usefulness in a society that likes to meet and work together physically and the willingness and expertise of tech companies to develop better and more seamless collaborative tools.

For the latter, I think there is no doubt that with the right incentives, tech companies could develop better tools to provide even better experiences. Whether it be integration in existing tools or the simplification in the initiation of collaborative sessions like voice and video. There are, no doubt, lots of other technological innovations in labs and around the corner that will appear on the timeline of these increasingly incontournable apps. Tech companies have only just started developing tools that push collaboration further.

One of the most significant needs across the globe currently, is the response required to prevent the spreading of what is clearly a highly communicable virus. Despite low mortality rates and being concentrated on the old and sick, the fact that it is spreading fast around the globe and that most people will have little or no symptoms at all — many will never know they were a carrier of the virus at all — has forced businesses to halt all non-essential travel. If you’re interested, the MIT Technology Review has a list of some of the best and worst data dashboards to feed your COVID-19 paranoia.

But as the risk is to the old and infirm, it is wise policy to isolate as much as possible to prevent the unnecessary spreading of the virus. To that end, many businesses around the globe have implemented travel bans for employees, and several high-profile conferences have been cancelled, F8, Google I/O and Mobile World Congress, to name a few.

This then is the opportunity for collaborative tools to come into their own. Microsoft reports a 500% increase in use of its Teams platform and others such as Slack and Zoom are also reporting increases in use. Microsoft has additionally developed a Crisis Communications App free of charge, to help businesses coordinate their response to this virus and other crises.

Teams and Slack are still quite rudimentary, but massive development initiatives have kicked off at Microsoft and others to enhance their functionality. We, as users and businesses, will significantly benefit from this — if we don’t all die, of course. But as always in these situations, there are winners and losers. Airlines, for example, are bracing for huge losses over the coming weeks and months.

It is not clear if, after the COVID-19 pandemic is over, if collaborative software will have had enough time to change the habits of business and their employees permanently. But what is sure is that collaborative software will not be the same again.

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