Transparency, privacy becoming necessary in collaboration tools

Earlier this month, Teambox, the online collaboration and project management platform, recently added private elements to its feature set. Private elements are like Google+ circles for your work and are another signal that control over transparency and communication is coming of age.

In a press release, Teambox said that private elements “allows users to conduct private conversations within a project that can be restricted to certain individuals. This new functionality is ideal for internal teams that want to bring outside vendors into Teambox for project and task management, but also need the flexibility of private internal conversations.”

Screen shot of Teambox project

This is an eye opening combination of a collaboration tool supporting modern organizational practice – creating circles of communication. Transparency design choices are explicitly in the project management mix with the addition of private elements. Information can be transparent across all members of project — or not — as deemed appropriate by the project administrators and the task at hand. Karl Goldfield, Teambox vice president of sales and marketing, explained it to me with an example:

Wedding planners, like an Internet marketing lead, or any other general contractor, have lots of clients and subcontractors.  When it comes to certain things, you want open collaboration. A wedding planner doesn’t always want to filter [limit] information to clients and the florists or the caterers they work with. They invite the client to a project where they understand the different subcontractors they  can work with (for example, seeing all the information for all four possible caterers) — they all get to see things and discuss. Everyone is in this open place focused on working on what the client wants.

Think about that: The client, and all the bidding florists, caterers, etc. get to see the information from the others, though this level of transparency isn’t fixed. The conversation can go private, tighter circles can be created, perhaps as the bids come in, or perhaps only after particular bids are accepted.
Screen shot of private elements feature

I asked Karl about the response from the subcontractors.  Are they comfortable with this cross-organization, cross-competitor transparency?

Karl responded with a perfect Enterprise 2.0 answer:

People can already contact a [competing] caterer and find their pricing — and if [the competitor] wants to keep it private they can just not answer. But, if I’m a good wedding planner and work with a specific set of caterers and do 100 weddings a year and 25 percent of the projects come to you — I’m the caterer’s best buddy — even if 75 percent of the business goes to others. The caterer knows the final decision (the clients’) will be personal preference. This isn’t a question of the technology system, but one of the relationship.

Makes sense to me. Yes, I’d be giving information to my competitors, but I’m also learning through the process. If this work process brings us into a community, the benefits may outweigh any costs. We all become better caterers or florists.  We learn our own competitive advantages.  We have community members to cross-sell with and or to ask for help.

But not all wedding planners, Internet marketing teams, or other Teambox users may understand these community issues straight away. I asked Karl how Teambox helps people come to understand this. How do you help users learn how to manage all these options and strategic choices?

My goal for 2012 is an education campaign. Online videos, best-case scenarios. Eight to 10 core [types of users with demos on] how to make Teambox the central resource for communication…. We want to find ways of keeping the noise off your plate.

Karl had me think of two different types of project collaborators to clarify the information noise issue. The first is a highlevel manager who doesn’t want details. This manager just wants to follow a dashboard and a timeline — no drill down — as clean and quiet an interface as possible. That manager wouldn’t be part of the private elements until he or she asked for details and then the manager could be invited in. The second type might want a more micro understanding of how the project is going. It would take too much time to play middle-man with this manager so nothing in the project should be private; let him or her see everything as it happens.

Karl also talked about the evolution of how Teambox is used and how this helps people come to understand the value in their particular setting. Initially they might manage Teambox information completely from their email inbox (using Teambox’s notification and response systems). As their use becomes greater they will find value in managing Teambox content from the activity stream. But Karl suggests that you don’t push this approach to happen overnight. Let circle techniques evolve as use grows.