Collaboration has been a topic of consideration for me this week. What is it? How is it done right? When should it be done? With whom should it be done? When is an attempt at collaboration a failure and when is it a waste of time?

On Monday, we had a Nuru Directors’ call. I suggested to my colleagues prior to the call that we discuss what collaboration tools we should invest in, come up with a list of our favorites by the end of the call, write up a proposal to the CEO as a result of our findings, and end up with some brand new collaboration tools for ourselves!

One unexpected question was posed: Why search for additional collaboration tools when we already utilize so many? See, we’re all over the world wide web. We use Skype all the time, we have conference calls on tokbox, we use Google Apps and Gmail, we share documents on Google Docs, we use mobile phones, and we even get to see each other face-to-face from time to time. We are a pretty fully functioning virtual organization with people all over the U.S. and where the real magic happens, in Kenya.

I brought up the issue of more collaboration tools because operating virtually doesn’t give the same collaborative feel as I experienced in a previous job as a consultant. Back then, I used to walk into a cubicle every morning with calendars and Gantt charts lining the walls, see some good friends, sit down within mere inches of them, and start my work. We chatted, went to lunch together, shared information, and worked together. Basically, we knew what everyone else was up to. We did all of our work with help available for it within mere inches. When we couldn’t talk to each other, we put on headphones and said, “I’m going under.” (Code for: “don’t talk to me.”) I want to create collaborative environment with my colleagues at Nuru like the one I experienced from a cubicle. Cubicle life is SO great! Believe it.

But why try to solve a problem that isn’t perceived to exist? We have all the means to communicate, free and at our fingertips at all times, but what doesn’t exist amongst this group of people is a reason to be all up in each others’ business every minute of the day as my consulting colleagues and I were. I saw their point. In consulting, when life was as I described it above, it was because there was a hot deadline and a deliverable to meet for a client, and all of those bodies within inches of each other were working on different aspects of that same deliverable. Here, the HR Director and I are not typically working on similar deliverables, so there is not a real need for more collaboration between us or another collaboration tool.

With full realization that I was creating more work for us by trying to find a solution to a problem that was not there, I turned inward to try to create more collaboration: to my colleagues on the Research Team.

I read an amazing blog post a few weeks ago from one of my favorite bloggers (Duncan Green from Oxfam) on how to do good research in development. I was inspired by the post, and then I had the idea that it would be a great post to discuss with the research team…perhaps a chance for some collaborative brainstorming.

I sent the link to Stephanie and Lindsay, our two domestic staff members on the research team, and scheduled a time for us to discuss it. Unfortunately, I didn’t go any further in my explanation of the discussion other than to say to them: “let’s discuss this.” So when the call started (on tokbox no less), I was looking at two rather blank faces without an idea of what exactly we were supposed to be sharing related to this post.  We managed to get things started though and have a very fruitful discussion with some great ideas that led to Lindsay finding this great post on a similar topic.

So, some collaboration happened. I was reminded of two lessons though, in reverse order: define your question, and don’t supply an answer to your question until you’ve done so.

See you next week!