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How Technology Enhances Collaboration Wed 20 Jan 10

The unheralded benefit of tech collaboration: resolving disagreement.

Disagreement_tanakawhoPadmasree Warrior, Cisco's chief technology officer, wrote a thought- provoking blog post recently entitled "The Next Generation Collaborative Enterprise". While the NGCE label sounds like just another marketing package (Cisco is a hardware vendor, after all), Warrior's article is definitely worth reading.

One comment she makes almost as an aside is particularly noteworthy. "It is important to point out that collaboration must not be confused with consensus or teamwork. Collaboration does not mean everyone must agree before any decision is made. Nor does it suggest that there is no room for individual creativity," Warrior writes. So true, and so very well stated.

I would take this a step further and say that a prime role of technology in collaboration is to highlight and even foster disagreement. Rephrasing Gordon Gekko in the movie Wall Street, I'll go as far as making the seemingly incongruous statement, "disagreement is good."

Disagreement makes us carefully examine our positions. It challenges us and tests the power of our convictions. Although sometimes painful, disagreement can take you and your team to a better place by strengthening the solution or your conclusion. Disagreement can be your friend.

While many believe disagreement is bad, it is really unresolved disagreement that is problematic. How often have you been surprised in a meeting when someone disagrees with what you thought was an uncontested statement of fact? The surprise of this revelation can be shocking, but at least it gives you the opportunity to address it. You can't address issues you don't know about.

Disagreement can also be unresolved because the situation is allowed to fester without a full airing or consideration of everyone's position. This is perhaps the most dangerous type of unresolved disagreement. Often by virtue of position, reputation or strength of personality one argument prevails without a full airing of opposing views.

Most people recognize that they won't always "win" every discussion and will still actively support a project even if their point of view wasn't accepted. However, everyone does want to be heard. They want to have a chance to explain themselves. They want their opinions valued even if not accepted. To use a sports analogy, it is better to strike out than to have never gotten an at bat.

This is where technology can help collaboration. A fundamental requirement for collaboration is communication. Technology can aid this by providing platforms to disclose what people are working on and thinking about. This can help minimize the "surprise" disagreements.

Collaboration technology can also be a vehicle for people to put forward their opinions and allow others to comment and discuss the merits of someone's positions. Technology doesn't care who you are or what your rank in the organization is. It dispassionately publishes your position to all, where it must stand on its own merits. It can be a great leveling device. Warrior states that NGCE "captures global opportunities, while eliminating the barriers of time, location, culture and language." I hope it also helps to eliminate barriers of power, position and the reluctance to voice your opinion.

The interesting thing is that NGCE could easily be something that employs many of the aspects of social media such as blogs, Twitter and even Facebook. The possibilities for improving communication and the exchange and discussion of ideas are especially intriguing. I don't know if this is what Warrior had in mind with her concept of NGCE, but it is what I see as its great potential.

Lastly, I should mention that Warrior points out, "we all know collaboration is not just about the technology." Amen! Technology is a tool that can help us do many great things. It is up to us as leaders to understand that it is not the solution, and to use it wisely.

This article is also posted on Forbes.com.  Feel free to join in the discussion either on this site or at Forbes.com

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