Six Principles for Making Collaboration Work

Collaboration happens. The only remaining question is how well it happens and what value your tools add.

Collaboration happens. With that understood, the only interesting questions are how tools add value, how well organizations support it -- and how well this "pry bar" loosens IT's grip on data and tools.

Collaborators in self-service BI are the newest type of information workers, according to a new report for TDWI Research by veteran BI experts Claudia Imhoff and Colin White, Self Service Business Intelligence: Empowering Users to Generate Insight. They start with analysis and add feedback, commentary, tags, ratings, and whatever else they find meaningful. They tend to be domain experts or researchers. They also relate differently to IT, which in self-service BI monitors and oversees more than it controls.

In late July at the Pacific Northwest BI Summit, six experts, 12 vendor representatives, and three industry reporters jammed into the Weasku Inn conference room in Grants Pass, Oregon for a two-hour discussion on collaboration, along with self service and social media.

Even among this moderate crowd, an old tension showed itself. BI has always had what I've thought of as "data police," those who stress data quality, security, and process at the expense of natural workflows. On the other end, "data libertarians" have used self-service tools to wrest control of their data analysis and data itself -- an approach that has made more sense to me. If BI is about business, why leave it up to a cabal of technicians?

Many at the discussion have consistently appreciated the wider view, including organizational politics and other human factors. Baseline Consulting co-founder Jill Dyché, for one, spends Sundays at TDWI conferences teaching a course on it, "BI From Both Sides." Mention culture to most BI experts, however, and they steer the talk back to technology.

This time, there was little drift. Collaboration will happen, and all principles follow from there. In observations of how people actually work, I heard several principles for letting collaboration work well.

Support from the organization is crucial. How well people collaborate, said Dyché, is directly proportional to the support from the organization's culture. "Show me a corporate culture that fosters collaboration -- not just between people but between departments and across processes," she wrote in an e-mail to me later, "and I'll show you a great candidate for collaboration."

Let users decide which tools to use. Collaboration is all about communication, and business users are the best judge of tools for that purpose. IT wants to standardize, she said, and business people are rejecting its heavy hand. "I don't see IT standardizing tools," said Dyche. "I see these cropping up more organically."

Dissent came later from Colin White's followers on Twitter. When he tweeted that perhaps users would determine tools, he reported to me later, immediate objections came back. "You have to be joking," they tweeted. "Organizations will define what tools can be used."

Tools have to be part of the workflow. Tools will either enable or hinder, wrote DataFlux product marketing manager Dan Soceanu to me in an e-mail after the event, depending on the corporate culture and specific needs. For example, can a tool be "mashed" with other tools? People will adopt the most flexible technology. Donald Farmer, product advocate at QlikView wrote in an e-mail, "Almost every vendor in the room was inventing their own collaboration features, none of which worked together."

Don't over-govern. The parental hand too easily over-reaches. One result was a participant's former employer that established a "viral video approval committee."

Governance can be prescriptive or descriptive, observed Farmer. For example, organizations control credit card use by prescribing proper use. "They trust us with Amex cards," he said. "You don't have to phone the finance department every time you want to take someone out to dinner for a $300 advance. … It's the same with collaboration. You can monitor it but not control it."

Collaboration isn't for everybody. Colin White cited a medical unit that tried collaboration. It seemed to have a good start, but six months later it was dead. The doctors, nurses, and other medical workers didn't want collaboration. He said, "They just wanted to know what to do."

Collaboration is messy and hard to control. It may have spectacular results, mediocre results, or none at all, yet it's probably appropriate more often than not. Composite Software executive vice president of marketing Robert Eve aptly paraphrased Winston Churchill: "Collaboration is the worst form of BI," he said, "except for all the others."

Ted Cuzzillo is a journalist and industry analyst focused on analysts' tools and needs as well as the environments in which they work. You can contact him directly at