Why I hate comments (or: Musings on workplace collaboration – Part 1)

"Facebook and twitter will win out in enterprise" investor says. Well, I respectfully disagree.

 

So pondering over why the tools we might use for workplace collaboration suck, I have generated a list of things I truly dislike. In this first installment I intend to tackle comments – the sloppy way to communicate.

 

I believe that comments are an unnecessary evil in a working environment. We comment about things all day. We comment about the driver in the car next to us. We comment about the weather. We comment about an ad we see on the street. This way of communication has become prevalent on the internet because it is a no-commitment type of environment where people can simply “drive by” something they see and post a comment on it. Anonymity also plays a part in the free and uninhibited nature of such comments.

 

When I comment about something, my state of mind is one of criticism. Do I like this thing I’m commenting on? Do I hate it? Do I simply want to say something unrelated? I just post my comment and move on to greener pastures. And what about  the subject of these comments? That person can respond with a dynamic of either “thanks for the comment” or “here’s why you are wrong”. Commenting has nothing to do with getting things done as a team. When we work with others towards a common goal do we comment to each other? No we don’t. We communicate.

 

I mean, try to imagine yourself in a roon with your team and how the conversation would sound like if it were a post-comment pattern in the real world. Ridiculous, right? So why are we being forced to adopt this pattern in various tools that are out there today?

 

As long as this anti-collaborative pattern existed solely on the internet I didn’t have a real beef with it since my relationship with it was mostly about expressing my opinion and hearing what people have to say. However, to my great dismay, I see this dynamic venturing into the workplace in various formats and this blog is a cry of “no-mas!”

 

The existing comment based communication pattern of the internet cannot migrate as-is to the workplace intranet simply because the two serve different purposes. I’m using the terms internet and intranet loosely to designate a no commitment environment of individuals vs. a place where people have to team up and actually get things done together.

 

“But Ahi”, you may think, “what about office documents, for example? People do collaborate through comments there - don’t they”? Yes they do. However, I claim that even that is not a good way of doing things. When I send out a document and colleagues comment on it the dynamic is a one-way street of person X commenting to me on something in my presentation, for example and myself having to decide whether I want to accept the comment, reject it or ask for further clarification. Think for a moment about the commenting feature of MS-Office. Does it allow a two-way communication channel? No it doesn’t. So eventually, many of the comments have to be reviewed and responded to either by email or by a voice conversation. This testifies to the incompleteness of comments as a solution to this challenge of collaborative document creation.

 

Granted, a nested commenting structure similar to the one used in forums is useful when working on a document as a group but let me challenge this pattern in a few ways.

 

Multiple document related work – When working on several related documents simultaneously, how can we relate to them without opening separate interactions? With comments, I would have to start each one with a statement regarding which document the comment refers to and even which part of it. This is far from ideal. This is not a theoretical case by the way. In an enterprise IT environment, one may want to share with colleagues a problem, the incidents that caused its creation for the purpose of creating an RFC that will fix the problem. How can this be done through a single interaction in a convenient way? Not by using comments.

 

Cross referencing – When teams collaborate in the real world, this ongoing interaction is seldom compartmentalized to the extreme that a post-comment model enforces. We add associations to previous interactions and objects we worked on in the past. An internet commenting environment offers links at best and jumping back and forth between strings of comments is not a convenient way to mimic a natural group conversation.

 

Interaction related action items – When a team interacts and action items are created as part of the conversation, the person carrying out the action item often refers back to the original conversation either through note taking during the meeting or the email summary sent at the end of that real world interaction. Action items are a part of the original interaction and cannot be considered a separate and independent part. How would you implement action items in a post-comment world without building a separate mechanism for them? Oh and please don’t tell me that there will be action items that people can post comments on. Barf.

 

What is the role of conversations in the workplace? Let’s pause for a moment and ask ourselves, at the most basic level in our physical world – do we break our world into distinct and unlinked objects and communicate on each one separately or is our work life an ongoing collection of interactions that refer to the various things we do and create? Might sound like I’m splitting hairs here but this distinction in my opinion is fundamental:

 

Is our work about the “things” we do and interactions serve those things or is it about ongoing communications with things we do as an outcome?

 

I think that the world is starving for a workplace collaboration tool that will better reflect natural communication patterns.

 

Any ideas?

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About the Author
I'm a 20 year veteran in the software industry with experience ranging from control systems, communications systems, RAD systems and for the...
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