Effective collaboration – Importance of a shared language

November 22, 2010 at 9:53 am | Posted in Blogroll, Organizational Excellence | Leave a comment

Effective collaboration is one of the key components of organizational excellence. Effective collaboration requires an open mind and a shared language. Today I want to focus on the shared language.

Recently I came across an article by Eugene Eric Kim at http://eekim.com/blog/2006/06/developing-shared-language/ according to which

“Shared Language is a prerequisite to collaboration. Without Shared Language, we can’t collaborate. It’s as simple as that. When a group tries to collaborate without having Shared Language, the group will try to create it, whether it’s aware of it or not. This creation process is often frustrating and painful, and as a result, people sometimes try to skip this step or belittle the process. This is a problem. You can’t skip this step. When designing collaborative spaces — both online and face-to-face — you have to build in time and space for developing Shared Language.

There are two myths regarding how you create Shared Language. The first is that ‘shared’ is equivalent to ‘same’. They are not. Shared Language means that you understand how others around you are using terminology. Some level of sameness is obviously useful, but when you’re dealing with something relatively complex, sameness is both impossible and undesirable.

The second myth is that creating Shared Language consists of creating a dictionary. That’s certainly one way to approach it, but it’s not the only way, and often times, it’s not the best nor the fastest way.

Developing Shared Language is an ongoing process. Doing actual work is one of the best ways to build shared context, which in turn builds Shared Language.”

I have experienced that we often don’t pay specific attention to consciously build a shared language; be it in the context of family, social circles or work environment. Lack of shared language leads to confusion misunderstanding and waste of efforts; the distinction between shared & same is also critical.

Coming to the specific domain of software development, last week I was watching an interview with Elizabeth Woodward of IBM about “Distributed team collaboration” at http://www.infoq.com/interviews/elizabeth-woodward-scrum she identified the problem as,

“It’s one thing to be able to go and sit next to somebody and both of you be at the keyboard and you’re working through a difficult problem. Maybe one person is working on the keyboard and then you trade over to where the other person is working and you have that discussion. Walking up to a whiteboard and you’re diagramming and you are able to understand very quickly what the other person is trying to communicate through those very visual, tangible methods. When we’re working in a distributed environment, those can be real challenges if we don’t have ways to overcome those situations.”

As a solution she went on to say,

“When you are working in a distributed environment, you really need to have the tools in place that will help you to be successful. Things like a desktop sharing tool so that you can transfer control, so that you can both be on the same page. Some of the cool tools that are out that allow you both to edit a document at the same time or multiple people to edit a document.”

As I was listening to rest of the interview I felt that absence of visual clues in distributed collaboration is very real but having effective tools is only part of the solution. The other part is building a shared language so that a few words convey precisely a lot of information because of the shared understanding built over extended interactions designed specifically for this purpose.

Distributed collaboration may be required between different locations of the same organization or between a client & vendor. In either case, distance creates space; both physical and mental. We should use whatever tools are available and appropriate. For example, video conferencing – especially in the initial interactions in a group – go a long way in building the shared language. When members of one location visit the other location, all available time should not be used up for same kind of work. It may give a false impression of having completed lot of work. But covering different aspects of work and with different individuals or groups would round out the exposure and build a much richer shared language.


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