Q: Are we not collaborating? A: We are documenting products!

Devo hats make more sense the collaboration as the ultimate goal of product development processes

I’m not exactly sure why, but when I read this interview with the vp of marketing from Right Hemisphere, the title of the old Devo album, Q: Are We Not Men? A: We are Devo! popped into my head.

Devo used to describe its music as  the “sound of things falling apart“. That’s what I hear in my head when software vendors talk about collaboration in the product development space: the crash-and-burn sound IT infrastructure makes when it’s deployed for a concept instead of a real workflow.

Let me say for the record that I truly do believe in collaboration. I think people across departments do need to work together better and that technology can assist them in doing so. But I don’t believe those users care about collaboration as such…they care about getting work done. In this case, producing product deliverables directly from digital product definitions.

IOW, a technology solution that won’t fall apart focuses on enabling users to get to the end product (illustrations, animations, service procedures, etc.), not an amorphous “collaboration” process or file translation.

Right Hemisphere says:

What’s becoming apparent is that every company has information that lives on different systems, in different formats. So there’s a great need to normalise that information so that every part of the business can work with it.

This is precisely the kind of IT-outward approach that so often fails. It sees the problem as a file-format or centralized-store/access issue. But, in truth, it’s never been a file conversion problem or an access issue that has stymied collaboration in product development. And internal politics that inhibit effective sharing are beyond the reach of any technology.

What’s needed isn’t a collaboration infrastructure or a standard file-transmission format. People can — and do — solve those problems themselves. The problem is a content creation challenge. Users want to make deliverables themselves from the digital product definition. The problem is a desktop, not server problem. Plumbing is necessary of course, but not hard. The real challenge is to come up with a system that uses any plumbing — transmission and/or file-format — that also creates what users want.

We think that focusing desktop-in (as Seemage does) is the right way to stop the sound of well-intentioned collaboration technology falling apart.

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2 comments to Q: Are we not collaborating? A: We are documenting products!

  • Mike Gilronan  says:

    Hi Alex-
    I read this article with interest. Your writing style (and references to Devo, of course!) make your blog an entertaining and informative read.

    I come at the collaboration problem from a different angle from yours. I have several years’ experience in the CAD industry (around the time PLM emerged as a TLA 🙂 and now work closer to the “collaboration platform” space, with tools such as Microsoft Office SharePoint Server. (full disclosure!)

    I agree with your contention that users just want to get work done, but I think that you underestimate the value of the plumbing between those users as they work collaboratively.

    I have seen several customers with a need to collaborate across engineering, product design, and manufacturing teams (among others) who found a rich, PLM-centric set of desktop tools to be far too much overhead to meet their relatively generic needs (check-in/check-out, file version control, audit history, access control security model, etc.). In circumstances such as these, the right solution was much more “collaboration platform-centric.”

    That’s not to say there aren’t lots of scenarios where rich desktop tools are not the better solution — there absolutely are. I just don’t think it’s valid to discount collaboration infrastructure (“plumbing”) as an important component of many solutions, especially as the line between the plumbing and the rich desktop apps continues to get grayer and grayer.

    Beautiful job on the blog — I look forward to more great content!

  • Alex Neihaus  says:

    Thanks for your comments, Mike.

    I am not against infrastructure…just opposed to it being the raison d’etre for a collaboration system. IOW, the system should conform to user behavior, which is ad hoc and loosely coupled.

    PLM systems are typically hierarchical and workflow-specific.

    At the end of the day, many collaboration systems can’t handle simple things that real workers to all the time, like set up and break down teams for short duration projects.

    There’s a fundamental mismatch between an enterprise system — with its need for high reliability and distributed work — and the creative juices of humans, which often create ideas collaborative systems cannot manage.

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