Writing by Peter Hilton

What is a collaboration platform?

Collaboration is a tag - not a category - 23 July 2014 #collaboration

A few years ago, I got into a discussion about the merits of a few collaboration software products: Confluence, Microsoft SharePoint and Sametime. The discussion seemed reasonable, but excluded all of the software we use that isn’t called a ‘Collaboration Platform’, which is a bit like a discussion about blog authoring tools based on word-processors. Collaboration is broader than that.

Bug tracking - a collaboration example

Once upon a time, I worked on a software development project that used a so-called Observation Report Database for bug tracking, implemented using Microsoft Access. The tool’s scope, and its central role in the project, make it more accurate to say that it managed the project’s ‘business process’ - implementing software ‘work packages’. This was a collaboration tool, in the sense that it was a tool for sharing and managing information about who was doing what, among other things. However, it was a terrible collaboration tool, compared to what we might expect from a collaboration platform today, simply because it was so limited in that dimension.

I later worked on software projects that used JIRA to track who was doing what, and for generally the same purpose as that Observation Report Database from way back. Although JIRA has the same purpose, in principle, it works as a full collaboration platform in that it helps you know who is doing what, discuss issues, share files and search for earlier project ‘documentation’. In practice, some stuff spills over into a wiki, but that’s what hyperlinks are for.

More recently, I worked on smaller development project and used Trello instead, because these projects did not need JIRA’s complexity. Trello lacks vertical functionality that specifically addresses software development leaving only the collaboration features. There is no overlap between Trello and that old Observation Report Database, while JIRA’s functionality spans both.

What a collaboration platform is

My experiences with more or less collaborative bug tracking tools raises a few questions.

  1. Was the old Observation Report Database a collaboration platform?
  2. Is JIRA a collaboration platform?
  3. How is Trello different in this respect?

Instead of thinking of a collaboration platform as a general purpose application for finding people and knowledge, and sharing information and ideas, it makes sense to turn the question around. Asking how to say ‘A collaboration platform is defined as…’ is the wrong question; instead ask ‘Is this application a collaboration platform?’, for some application that has some specific purpose beyond unspecified ‘collaboration’.

For example, is Toggl - an electronic timesheet application - a collaboration platform? No, but it could be enhanced to more readily show who my colleagues are, what each person is currently working on, which project just started, and to let us discuss this. These would be useful collaboration capabilities.

Zawinski’s law of software envelopment (roughly, that software tends to grow until it can read e-mail) is perhaps satirical, but in this era of special-purpose SaaS applications, becoming a kind of collaboration platform is far more reasonable.

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