COMMENTARY

Are smart phones bad for collaboration?

Dennis McDonald is an independent management consultant in Alexandria, Va.

Sometimes I think smart phones are bad for collaboration. Here’s why.

When you’re working with a group of people, you often need to develop and review a document or image file together. Having one file to work from makes that process more efficient because attachment proliferation is one of the things that makes e-mail such a poor collaboration tool compared with other systems developed for that purpose.

Typically, members of the group participate via a mix of devices, such as land line phones, smart phones, desktop computers with fast connections, and laptop and tablet PCs. Some of those devices provide nearly the same access to electronic files. Therefore, those folks will be seeing and reacting to the same things when the real or virtual meeting takes place.

However, people using smart phones can be hobbled during file viewing and manipulation because of the devices’ screen size or performance limitations — no matter how well the user interface supports image manipulation or object navigation in real time.

Consequently, whoever is running the group must accommodate smart-phone users by providing support and time-consuming explanations, sometimes in one-on-one sessions that take place before or after the meetings. Best case: Those special accommodations complicate the work effort. Worst case: The quality of the collaboration suffers.

As project managers know, keeping everyone on the same page requires constant attention. Accommodating someone’s less-than-ideal access to a file in development can add an inefficient layer of overhead to group interactions in terms of time, cost, delay, and, worst of all, the potential for mistakes and confusion.

For example, if a senior executive is using a hands-free device while driving, it might be impossible to get good feedback on a particular image or phrase in a document without taking time to describe the item under review. Even then, you can’t be sure everyone is responding to what’s intended.

It's hard enough accommodating executives wedded to e-mail messages and attachments for contributing revisions, corrections and updates. Now we must add another collaborative complication that makes the pre-Internet Windows vs. Mac wars tame by comparison.

Can the increased mobility and flexibility provided by smart phones outweigh such potential problems? Many times, the answer is yes. Being able to review e-mail messages, text messages and tweets while on the subway or waiting in an airport line can be a definite productivity enhancer.

But that productivity can plummet when the incoming message contains a link to a Web page and your connection dies because you just drove into a tunnel. What do the other team members do then — wait for the connection to come back up? Or go on to something else? Also, some people who use handheld devices won’t see that juicy document or Web link you're providing in an e-mail message because they never scroll down that far.

Devices that can be used to collaborate and communicate are increasing in number and variety. I’ve usually viewed that as positive and look forward to universal access, lightning-fast download speeds and total network neutrality.

In the meantime, we could be entering a new Tower of Babel age in which the proliferation of devices and standards makes it harder, not easier, to collaborate. If that happens, we might need to return to the communication gold standard of the face-to-face meeting.

About the Author

Dennis D. McDonald is an independent management consultant in Alexandria, Va. His website is www.ddmcd.com.

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