Change Management

Dev Collaboration: Not All Talk is Cheap

Bola Rotibi examines challenges and opportunities as social media concepts transition into the dev space.

Thomas L. Friedman in his hit book "The World Is Flat" tells how globalization and technology are leveling the playing field, allowing organizations across the world to be "part of the global supply chain for services and manufacturing." Social computing Web sites and applications, a broader range of communication networks and wide proliferation of mobile devices means that it has never been easier to collaborate and communicate. Now anyone can tune into thoughts and opinions shared across the globe and take part in the conversation, no matter who they are or the value of what they have to say.

Talk and the ability to communicate is certainly cheaper and more pervasive, but are we in danger of drowning in all the noise?

With everything being measurable (the number of friends you have on Facebook or the followers you have on Twitter), we have become a culture that has become obsessed with volume at the expense of quality.

A Modern Twist on Alexander Graham Bell's Invention
It is hard to know what the equivalent social media moment would be for Alexander Bell's first telephone transmission of "I want to talk to you Mr. Watson." However, were he to carry out the same exercise today, Mr. Bell would have a variety of methods at his disposal to command Mr. Watson's immediate attention.

In fact he needn't bother waiting to actually talk to Mr. Watson at all, instead delivering his message and countless more without waiting for a reply. More importantly, he could let his friends and acquaintances in on the conversations and let them have their say -- required, relevant or not. And should the hapless Mr. Watson fail to act on any of the messages delivered, there would be an evidence trail to remind him of his negligence.

Seen through Mr. Watson's eyes, having multiple means for the eminent Mr. Bell to converse with him might be useful, even important. But imagine this multiplied across all his own acquaintances and their network of friends and contacts, and he might just have missed the fact that Mr. Bell had just invented the telephone!

The Collaborative Touch
The simplicity and intuitiveness of social media sites like Facebook, Twitter and YouTube adds to their attraction and adoption. But it is their ability for connecting and sharing thoughts, information and content across one's community of friends and acquaintances instantly and in unison, that makes them compelling. Having your community and network to independently take part in the conversation at their discretion deepens the engagement.

The speed at which Facebook and Twitter have built up their user base is phenomenal. So it is no wonder that many businesses and teams want to attract that same level of interest and engagement within their organization.

Business Focused Collaboration
A lack of communication is often cited as a root cause for failure across the IT and software landscape. Silos of working practices and the challenges of communicating information and getting involvement from the right people continually hampers the processes for delivering software. It is a recognized problem that many vendors are actively addressing.

Right across the supply chain for software development and application lifecycle management, tools vendors and service providers are employing social media technology and the networks to improve communication and collaboration across the team and within the organization. The results are both promising and encouraging.

Players like IBM Rational and Microsoft have made collaboration a central tenet of their ALM portfolios. IBM's Jazz technology, the heart of its collaborative ALM platform, underpins products such as Rational Team Concert (RTC). RTC uses social media technology, but also allows communication and content within teams and across the organization to be effectively cross-referenced, shared, traced and filtered. Many development tool providers are being smart in the way they use such communication technologies, enabling users to access features at points where it is most relevant and appropriate.

Salesforce.com at its Cloudforce conference in London at the start of September launched its Chatter application for mobile. Chatter brings many elements of the Facebook and Twitter experience and functionality to business relevant communications and collaborations. Just as importantly, it offers additional facilities to ensure that connected conversations or communications happening in other applications (social media or otherwise) are linked and made aware to the appropriate personnel. Greater power comes from the ability to make connected communication visible and searchable, with additional features to allow for more sophisticated monitoring and management.

There is much to recommend the strategies taken by the likes of IBM, Salesforce.com, Microsoft and others in providing tools that capture the essence of the social computing phenomena, but offer them with more business-relevant filters and features.

Right Kind of Talk
The road to better communication and collaboration is not, surprisingly enough, simply a technology one.

Educating and training people as to the benefits that a culture of collaboration can deliver is vital. But so too is having a management team that is appreciative and supportive of the time and effort taken by its staff to collaborate and communicate. There is a danger that with everything being measurable, the wrong focus for rewarding collaboration or penalizing the lack of it will be applied. For example, if one rewards based on volume rather than quality, the results can be rather grim. Not only does this approach promote the wrong type of communication and collaboration, it distracts from truly meaningful interaction.

The ability to cut out irrelevant white noise is just as important as capturing conversations in the first place. There is a difference between having the ability to talk to your audience and having things to say that are worth hearing or offer meaningful value. Not everyone needs to be part of every conversation. It is frustrating to have to wade through useless or irrelevant information to get to the important nugget. Not only does this have a cost and time impact, it can cause important information and connections to be missed.

While better means for collaborating and communicating are important, having the right people involved in the process is even more so. Agile development processes have taught us this much and more. Making it easy for people to participate and collaborate, offering them features to filter communications and content to relevancy, and allowing them to make links, trace and record is the icing on the cake that technology delivers.

Five Issues to Consider
Here are five key things to think about when looking into collaboration tooling for your development and delivery team.

  • Simplicity of Use and Intuitive Engagement: This is even better if it's aligned to a role or task function
  • Cross Application/Platform Integration: This integration is better when paired with either out-of-the-box support or an easily configurable interface that supports common or widely adopted standards and architectures
  • Strong Management Services: These can include filtering, content linking, versioning, traceability and reporting
  • Education and Attitude: It's important to have the right attitude, strategy and culture for rewarding meaningful collaboration, as well as to establish a well-understood framework for penalizing shortfalls in collaboration.
  • Value Physical Interaction: Managers must recognize the continued strength and value of physical relationships and face to face interaction. Technology is not the only solution.

About the Author

Bola Rotibi is research director for market analysis firm Creative Intelligence Consulting and an award-winning analyst focused on the areas of software development, delivery and lifecycle management. Rotibi can be reached at bola@creativeintellectuk.com.

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