The word collaboration is derived from the Latin word "collaboratus" meaning "to work together". Collaboration is one of those words thrown around at job interviews along with "team" and "fit".

Most companies claim to have a collaborative culture, an environment where everyone's input is valued. Few if any would admit to having a top-down or dictatorial culture. How an organization uses (or chooses not to use) collaboration software can tell you a great deal about the real culture there.

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Twenty-one years ago I was teaching programming and database theory at a small technical college. One day the boss dropped a CD on my desk and said he had a new project for me. The CD was an installation disk for Lotus Notes 4.5 and Domino Server. He wanted a Notes/Domino system to replace the smorgasbord of applications being used to handle the school's administration. In a few months we had two Domino servers replicating, a dozen or so Notes databases in use — even a Notes form online for taking applications directly from the website (a big deal at the time). While learning about the Notes Access Control List, I hit upon the idea of creating a Notes database to which everyone working at the school had access, a place where one could post questions and ideas and others could reply with their own comments and ideas using the Notes threaded discussion model. I called it "The Water Cooler". I still remember its old eight dot three file name: "watrcool.nsf". When all was ready, I circulated an email about the new Notes database explaining its purpose and inviting people to start posting. Nothing happened. Puzzled, after a week or so I went around the office and personally showed people how to use it and even reminded everyone about it at a meeting. Still nothing. Miffed by now, I took a couple of my closer co-workers aside and asked them why they weren't using the new database. The responses were all the same: management might take exception to an idea or comment and then there could be "trouble". Not exactly a collaborative environment. I left a few months later and as far as I know, the collaboration tool was never used.

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Fast forward ten years. The Internet and social media were now a part of everyday life for most people. I had just started work as a data analyst at an organization with about 160 networked employees. I was happy to learn that SharePoint, Microsoft's off-the-shelf intranet tool, was in use. As I had spent a few years doing web development, I was eager to put my skills to use. I soon found out that one person, with very little web experience, administered SharePoint and controlled everything that went on it. SharePoint was mostly being used to push out Office documents and post a few links. When I joined a departmental group I noticed that some members had avatars but I could not create one for myself. I was told that the existing avatars had been created before management found out about and turned off the ability to create personal sites. Marketing had quietly gone about learning and using workflows, but other than that SharePoint was strictly top-down. The way it was deployed and used mirrored the corporate culture. Lots of potential, no collaboration. I no longer work there.

The generation just entering the workforce has literally grown up with social media. Facebook has 2.8 billion active users. That is 37% of the entire human population or one in every three people on planet Earth. Twitter has roughly 271 million active users. LinkedIn reports over 259 million users in over 200 countries. It is safe to say that not only is the Internet here to stay but so is social networking. The Internet's powerful decentralized model has rolled over the music industry, the publishing industry, the entertainment industry, the retail industry and the financial industry. The Internet model flattens hierarchies, viewing all connections as peers. Will your industry be next?

Deploying collaboration software at your workplace can transform the way you do business –- if you let it — or you can throttle it, restrict its use and dumb it down until it is largely ineffective. What is your collaboration software deployment going to say about your workplace?