Andy Blumenthal, CTO, Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives Andy Blumenthal, CTO, Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives Photo courtesy of Andy Blumenthal, CTO, Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives

Information technology has traditionally been about "communication" of information -- capturing it, processing it, moving it, storing it, finding it and using it. But now, with Web 2.0, we have evolved from communication to "collaboration." Well, what's the difference?

When we communicate, aren't we collaborating (and vice versa)?

When I posed this question recently to some peers at a council meeting, I received a couple of different responses. One person said when we communicate it's one way, but when we collaborate it's a two-way conversation. Well, not really in my mind, because communication can be one-way or two-way. So this doesn't seem to be the differentiator.

Then, I was given the anecdote that in the "olden days" when we just communicated, we would put information out there and ask people to provide input, but now that we have collaboration tools like wikis, other people can actually work on the document themselves.

My response was -- OK, but regardless of whether you enter your own input or send me your input and I enter it -- it's still collaboration. It's nice to have the tools so that others can actually work on the document themselves, but it's not like we weren't reaching out to and collaborating with others previously.

To me, the real difference between communication and collaboration seems to be related to an organizational and cultural transformation taking place -- and the technology is an enabler.

We've always communicated. But much of the communication was within our own stovepipes -- particularly within our own chain of command -- to our bosses, staffs or peers primarily within the same organizational function. That was where most of our communication took place -- in our organizational verticals.

Now, however, we are transforming from mainly vertical communication to the horizontal collaboration. We are breaking down the stovepipes, which one of my colleagues euphemistically calls "silos of excellence," and we are instead working across organizational and functional boundaries -- hence, we are doing some genuine collaboration!

In the process of moving from vertical to horizontal information sharing and collaboration, we are flattening our organizations. The hierarchies are less important and are shrinking, and the intra- and inter-agency sharing and collaboration are being elevated and growing.

Before, we had information or "dots" that we communicated about in our verticals, but now we are connecting the dots, by sharing and collaborating on the information horizontally, across the verticals.

Another way to put this is that when we have two-way communication, it's 1 + 1 = 2. But when we collaborate, there is a synergy that is greater than the sum of its parts, and the equation changes to 1 + 1 = 3.

Of course, with Web 2.0 and social media software, we now have a vast toolkit in which to communicate, share, and collaborate with others. But we must remember that the tools are the enablers; the real change is happening in the transformation of our organizations and culture to abandon the notion that information is power and information is currency -- something to be hoarded, and instead that information is helpful and information is collaboration -- something to be shared.


Andy Blumenthal  |  Contributing Writer

Andy Blumenthal is a division chief at the U.S. State Department. He was previously chief technology officer at the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives. A regular speaker and published author, Blumenthal blogs at User-Centric Enterprise Architecture and The Total CIO. These are his personal views and do not represent those of his agency.