Do we have to roll our own collaborative tools?

beach-officeJosh Catone does a very nice round-up of freely-available collaboration software this week in Rolling Your Own Online Office.  Though our xPERT eCampus is a pretty comprehensive online collaboration tool, we at Q2 do use a few of the tools he mentions – email, obviously, but also Google Docs and instant messaging, and some other stuff too.What really caught my eye about Josh’s post, though, was the picture he used to illustrate it, which I’ve used here, as well.

This guy has been around for a *long* time, as is evidenced by the tiny screen and great thickness of his laptop – looks like my first laptop, circa 1994 or so.  He’s been around long enough that most of us have seen him before, and long enough that we all probably need to admit to the erm, stretching of the truth this image puts forward.

First of all, today’s screens are much better, but squinting at a screen in the blinding light reflecting from sand and water at the beach is still a fast track to migraine-ville.

Secondly, what kind of a dufus leaves his shoes and socks and jacket on while he hauls a beach chair into place?

But on a more important level, there’s a real conflict between trying to appreciate the natural wonder that is a beach and doing serious business analysis. Heck, I’m not even sure it’s possible to type good poetry at the beach, though it might be possible to write it if one were a poet and had a pen and a pad of paper handy  Ubiquitous computing may make it possible to appear that one is working just about anywhere, but all too often, appearance is all that is achieved.  I’m all over working near a beach, and I do love the technology which makes doing so possible, but if I’m honest with myself, I have to admit that for me to be effective, I need to do my computing work where the call of the wild is muted, and treat myself to fully enjoying the environs during my breaks.

I think there’s a similar disingenuousness around the joys of rolling one’s own office.  For those of us who thrive on checking out the latest shiny new tool, these are heady days. It is wonderful to be able to play with a new tool, find that it does just what we need it to, and have the freedom to incorporate it into our work style.   If we’re honest, though, I think most of us might admit that a lot of that time spent futzing around with new stuff to do that evaluation is not very productive.  And to the extent that we are playing with collaborative tools, the utility of a new tool is primarily a function of the extent to which our collaborators also adopt it.  If we’re working together, and I’m trying to manage the project in Basecamp and you are accustomed to using Project, we’re going to have a problem until one of us accommodates the other’s choice of tool.

Generally, when people need to work together, they meet at somebody’s office, where they can count on finding the basic tools they will need – telephone, copier, computers, white board, markers, conference table, chairs. While there might be a call to check that there is, say an LCD projector available, nobody has to spend any time at all on these basic things, they are just assumed to be the fundamental toolset.

Similarly when we work together online, it’s more effective to have at the ready a suite of tools in the online office than it is to negotiate over which tools we’ll all be using.  We think our xPERT eCampus makes for a pretty cushy online office,  though it’ll be better when we work out the coffee thing!