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Collaboration innovation – re-thinking the workplace

By Rob Bamforth

Most organisations are looking for ways to foster collaboration and grow team productivity. How this is achieved is less obvious. For a while it has been assumed that if you throw sufficient communications media (ideally unified into a single tool) at people then they will spontaneously collaborate. This is rarely the case. What happens is either over-communication and information overload if there is a sharing culture, or siloed, secretive, business as usual, if there is not.

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More radical approaches employ smart use of facilities or create collaboration spaces within the working environment. These might simply be comfortable seating in a relaxed and accessible part of the workplace for a few people to ‘huddle’, (such as this novel idea from Nook) or some forced Californian cool of beanbags, table football, bright décor and a limited edition coffee served by an on site barista.

Walking or standing

While a comfortable working environment plays a part, there is something about the posture of participants that affects how they collaborate too. Are they walking, standing or sitting?

For those walking, the chances of meaningful collaboration are low. Already multi-tasking, their communication tends to be focused; issuing commands, some information sharing, but complex interaction between multiple participants? Unlikely. All useful, responsive and timely, but it is not collaboration – it tends to be more command and control.

Standing keeps people (literally) on their toes, and has been suggested as a way of holding shorter meetings. Attendees are less able to relax, so more likely to participate and reach decisions quickly. But does it lead to more or better collaboration?

One area where meeting space technology has advanced and become more widely available, does support the notion of collaboration while standing around. The success of tablets has led to wider availability of touch screen displays. What started as recording and copying whiteboards has evolved into large touch enabled interactive screens. These are often smart and connected to the network, enabling remote as well as local interaction and access.

Is this the solution to collaboration?

It depends.

While this will work well for sharing information – presentations, classrooms – it is not necessarily collaboration. One person presents or shares at a time. They might have their back to their audience while they interact with the screen. It works very well in a one to many scenario, and of course presenters can take turns. But this is not really multiple people working together and at the same time in free-flowing collaboration. Ideas may occur to individuals, but by the time they get their ‘turn’ the momentum has been lost or the discussion has moved elsewhere.

Sitting around

Most meetings involved attendees sitting. Keeping people engaged, especially when their email and favourite social media site is only a glance away, is a challenge. Sit them in remote places with only an audio connection on a conference call and the temptation to be distracted in boring moments might be too great. Being there in person or holding shorter meetings might be better, but that is not always possible. Adding video to the connection might help, but in a group setting, with everyone in the room looking at a distant screen, the situation is similar to a standing presenter.

Two recent product developments put their own distinct twists on how to do it differently and improve interaction.

One is Polycom’s portable video unit, the RealPresence Centro. Four screens with integral cameras and microphones make this connected Dalek the centre of attention in a meeting. Those involved sit, or stand, and talk to each other facing the device, which can be connected to remote participants on any other video device. It might seem quirky, but rapidly feels natural and engaging for everyone, who can participate locally and remotely, facing everyone else across the unit or across the network. With the concept of ‘huddle’ spaces proving popular, the RealPresence Centro might have found an interesting niche.

The other is more unusual, but familiar to anyone who has seen the film, Minority Report. Oblong’s Mezzanine employs a series of large screens and a wand pointing device (not yet holograms and hand gestures, Tom Cruise fans) to share and interact. Participants are surrounded and therefore immersed by information presented on the screens. These are replicated remotely for those beyond the room.

Content on screen can be interacted with, inserted, moved, parked and, crucially, visually presented using a third dimension of depth or distance away. Moving it closer makes it larger, moving in front of other content in a satisfying application of perspective. Everything is coordinated via the wand, but participants can bring and use their own devices to share and integrate into the experience – locally or remotely. Inserting new content, comments and flags is simple and seamless.

Mezzanine definitely has a different feel compared to other systems, and does need the room to be suitably equipped. The approach allows for much more free flowing interaction, avoiding stalling or interrupting thought patterns.

Getting everyone engaged

Technology companies and products have made it much easier to communicate. But this does not always make the process collaborative, engaging or ultimately effective at reaching a desired conclusion. All too often new communications media are dominated by those who ‘shout loudest’ or are restricted to those in senior or special positions. Thinking differently about the process and environment from a human perspective might provide the impetus to make collaboration something that everyone wants to and can participate in and that their contributions are recognised and valued.

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