Humanity: Digital collaboration’s missing ingredient

Guest post by Anurag Chakradhar, Founder and CEO of Blrt

25 years ago, a man called Michael Schrage wrote a book called Shared Minds: The New Technologies of Collaboration.  At the time, it represented landmark thinking around how people would work together to get things done, and predicted that new technology would inspire new forms of collaboration. Like communication, collaboration would have to become more networked and more digital.  That same year, Tim Berners-Lee developed HTML, and the year after, CERN introduced the World Wide Web to the public.

All at once the world became both larger, and smaller, than it had ever been before, and the way we work changed forever.

Fast forward to today, and it’s hard to imagine a world without constant connectivity.  Dizzying advances in technology and the light-speed consumer adoption of mobile devices are transforming the way today’s workers and businesses behave. Indeed, the very structure of the modern company has changed: It’s flat and highly interconnected, with accountability spread through every level.

Even the way companies are staffed is changing rapidly.  Today, 30 percent of Australians and 34% of Americans are freelancers, with that figure likely to be 50% by 2020. The notion of working in an office from nine to five is quickly being replaced by the new digital workplace, which can be anywhere workers choose to hang their hats.  Our colleagues are almost as likely to be interstate or overseas as at the next desk, and tools that make this possible have given birth to the enterprise collaboration market, which according to Gartner, serviced 700 million users around the globe in 2013, and will grow to 1.2 billion by 2022.

All this connectivity, however, has given rise to a new phenomenon called Virtual Distance, which was first observed by Karen Sobel Lojeski, an organisational behaviourist.  Virtual Distance is best described as the unavoidable perception of distance between individuals, team members and organisations, due to the pervasive and persistent use of communications and information technologies to facilitate the work we do.  The greater this perceived separation, the greater the chance that projects based on collaborative efforts will fail.

Online collaboration tools, like most digital solutions, are often good at solving very specific kinds of problems: time zone problems, distance problems and information problems can all be solved relatively easily, some of them with a device as simple as an email. It’s when the demands of a project become more complex, or the number of people required to work on it expands, that the limitations of our most commonly used tools become apparent.

True remote collaboration via digital channels must involve far more than just exchanging data with strangers.  Genuine collaboration is only possible via meaningful exchanges between groups of people who truly understand and respect each other’s points of view and goals, and who see each other as real people.  It is critical, therefore, that any new tools that are developed can humanise the collaboration process.

Indeed, when considering how the World Wide Web has evolved, we come to realise that humanisation is the order of the day. Initially conceived as a massive tangle of interlinked slabs of text, the web lacked dimension until such time as it developed to accommodate multimedia as objects.  Things such as photos, videos and voice recordings could be shared and consumed, and this was a big step forward, but they were still somewhat static.  Now, the web is far more focused on enabling transactions between humans, and both hardware and software are shifting to empower interaction, largely to satisfy the hungry gods of social media, some cynics might say.

One company leading innovation in human digital interaction is Apple, and as much as it’s tempting to commend Apple’s success to incredible branding and marketing, it must also be acknowledged that there are few companies more committed to usability and accessibility, and therein lies their genius. Just as Apple has made its mark through human-device interaction, the creators of digital collaboration services and software need to prioritise human-centric collaboration experiences. Now that we are surrounded by devices that encourage us to talk through them and touch them, we need collaboration tools which respond to these basic human behaviours. And this needs to go beyond tapping away at the screen as though it’s a keyboard – that’s what we were doing 25 years ago.

The human voice is set to make a massive comeback via technology, and there is immense opportunity for communication incumbents and start-ups alike that are willing to push the edges of the envelope and treat voice as more than just a waveform object. Technologists who are thinking about how to develop tools that digitise and enhance the most important components of personal interactions (such as talking and body language) are in effect helping to bridge Virtual Distance, by amplifying and extending natural behaviours. This in turn enables people to achieve better outcomes when working in distributed teams, and expands their capacity to achieve more.

For many people, these advances can’t come soon enough. In a recent study conducted in the UK, called Humanising the Enterprise, it was revealed that nearly four in every five people were frustrated by the technology and collaboration tools provided to them by their employer. Many people tough it out, accepting that email shifts time and place, but has little emotion, and that video conferencing can shift place but not time. They use SMS and chat for speed, even though its utility is limited, and they explain things to others over the phone, trying to compensate for the lack of visual dimension.

The group that’s making a stand is the Millennials. They’re the newest wave of knowledge worker to enter the workplace, flipping seamlessly from device to device without raising a sweat, and they bring their own technology to work, in the form of smartphones, tablets, wearables and hybrid computers, introducing new ways of cloud connected working and collaborating due to their frustrations with enterprise mandated tools. The charge of the Millennials has made it clear that organisations need a BYOD management policy. Simply banning devices is not a policy.

It’s on this basis that the mandate for CIOs and CTOs has shifted dramatically – from resisting the cloud to fast tracking the cloud. They need to become the champions of the user, both inside and outside the organisation, supporting the new ways in which people want to interact and do business.  For this to happen, a certain amount of experimentation will be necessary, enabled by open minds and sand-boxed environments.  They will need to innovate around collaboration, so that people have the freedom to work effectively, and collaborative teams can deliver real results.

About Anurag Chakradhar

Anurag Chakradhar is the founder and CEO of Blrt, a mobile collaboration platform that humanises digital interaction by allowing people to talk, point and draw over documents, images and websites.  Download Blrt for free at

This article was first published in the CEO Magazine.

Comments (0)

Skip to main content