Guest post written by Education writer Gerald Haigh
The more I come into contact with Office 365 the more I realise the importance of the two ‘Big Cs’, ‘communication’ and ‘collaboration’. They’re linked, of course, but not completely, because you can, for example, have communication without collaboration. So when I was serving the Queen on National Service, the orders pinned on our notice board were models of clear communication, as in, ‘Signalman Haigh will report to the guardroom at 0600 carrying a rifle, a banana and a feather duster’.
OK, I made some of that up, but you get the drift. What the orders did not say was, ‘Gerald, could you look at this document about your guard duty and suggest any changes you’d like to see? Signed, your friend and colleague, the Regimental Sergeant Major’.
Orders represent communication without collaboration, and they’re common enough even, dare I say it, in schools. Collaboration, on the other hand, cannot happen without communication, The people intent on collaboration need to be in easy contact, and up to recently that meant being together in a room, or, if that wasn’t possible, passing papers around by mail or fax, or email, or by being available to each other by phone or other electronic means.
Of those options, the number one choice was to have everyone in a room. That’s why highly paid decision-makers have spent hours on motorways and trains in order to have face-to-face meetings. The other options – phone, fax mail – were always second best.
Then came digital communication, the cloud and a whole new way of improving communication in the cause of efficient collaboration. And right there, at the cutting edge, is Microsoft’s Office 365. And what’s the key difference between Office 365 and more traditional channels of remote communication?
I’d say the clue is in that word ‘channels’. Phone, radio, fax, all provide channels – lines, along which communications can buzz happily to and fro.
Office 365, though, allows several kinds of communication to proceed alongside each other, looking sideways as well as out and back. People can hear and see each other, interacting, intervening, showing, sharing, editing and creating documents, generally doing what an IT director described to me recently as ‘Collaborating and connecting in a digital space.’
That move from ‘channels’ to a ‘digital space’, to which everyone involved has anytime, anywhere access is crucial. While good channels provide efficient and speedy zooming to and fro, a digital space gives elbow room, choice and flexibility. Costs are lowered, efficiency goes up. Face to face meetings are still often the best, but now there are viable alternatives, which carry advantages of their own, especially when it comes to organising, tracking and recording what’s happening.
All of that is undeniable, but then I remembered something I wrote for the TES in 1998, in a history ‘special’. It was about the Great Exhibition of 1851, and the way the organisers pulled together in the specially built magnificent Crystal Palace in Hyde Park , 100 thousand exhibits provided by 14 thousand exhibitors from 28 countries across the world. I was knocked out by the achievement of those Victorian administrators, and when I wrote the story, I described it as,
‘A tour-de-force of enterprise, vision and courage in an age before telephones and when postal services in many parts of the world were often indifferent to say the least.’
That was collaboration at a distance with knobs on I’d say, given the difficulties. And why did it work? Because there was, said the organisers (led by the tireless and highly able Prince Albert, Consort to Queen Victoria) enormous tolerance and good will on all sides. Everyone wanted it to succeed. Delays, glitches, misunderstandings were dealt with calmly, always with an eye to the greater good.
And there you have it — the easily overlooked essential ingredient. Collaboration is not first and foremost about technology. It’s about people working together willingly and purposefully. So, just as the Microsoft message has always been that learning comes before devices and software, so collaboration won’t be transformed by technology if hearts and minds aren’t in collaborative mode in the first place.
‘Great Expectations’ TES 17 July 1998