Is there a Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle for Collaboration?

At a recent collaboration conference in Boston, I listened to various users, vendors and consultants talk about implementing enterprise collaboration systems. A lot of the focus was on how technology tools can improve the flow of business processes; simple HR workflows to Six Sigma and ISO 9000 stuff.

The conference discussions got me thinking about whether collaborative processes are subject to some sort of Heisenberg uncertainty principle; a business version.(Though I figured out by the end of freshman year in college that I wasn’t meant to be a physicist, I’ve long kept an interest in the subject.)

For those who haven’t dabbled in physics, Heisenberg’s is an often quoted principle that’s a highly specialized case of what’s known as the “observer effect:” the measurement of any parameter in a physical system changes one or more other parameters in that same system. In other words, the act of measuring touches and affects the system in some way. The application of technology to business processes isn’t a perfect analog, but I hope you’ll grant me a little license.

Wikipedia talks about the observer effect as it applies to information technology: “In Information Technology, the observer effect refers to potential impact of the act of observing a process output while the process is running. For example . . . observing the performance of a CPU by running the observing program on the same CPU . . . will lead to inaccurate results.”

For a system built on information technology to be successful, you have to get a bunch of things right (call them “essentials”) that have nothing to do with the technology: strategy, processes, content, roles and responsibilities, change management.At least, that’s been SiteScape’s experience with team collaboration initiatives.I suspect IBM agrees.Dan Carroll, a biz school classmate of mine and long-time IBMer told a class gathering that IBM now considers itself first and foremost a consulting firm, not a hardware or software vendor.Consulting implies a focus on these same essentials.

What does this have to do with Professor Heisenberg or the observer effect? When we set out to help a customer collaborate better, we examine and codify the “essentials” to form a snapshot of how things are getting done today. Then we think about how they should be done if those things are going to improve.Without that understanding, we don’t know where and how to apply our marvelous technology.But, when all the essentials are overlaid with technology, don’t the essentials themselves change?My collaboration version of the observer effect.

Except in a pure self-service model, IT professionals become involved when software technology is applied to a business issue or process.By construction, the roles and responsibilities component of the essentials has now changed.New people, influences, reporting relationships, activities have been inserted into the collaborative process. An analog to one of Heisenberg’s physical systems?

If our notional implementation involves a shift from a predominately paper system to one built on software, the content changes.Paper folders can hold different kinds of stuff from software folders. Invariably, people do put different kinds of objects into those software folders.

There are lots of degrees here, to be sure.The steps to get a vacation request approved are not going to change much because you automated the system.But, in a complex business process made up of hundreds, even thousands of “states,” (Six Sigma and ISO 9000 come to mind) subtle shifts accumulate.The underlying business processes that we so carefully evaluated at the start of the project are changed as a result of our attempts to optimize them.

We’re now saddled with a moving target.As we use technology and the other essentials to optimize how different parts of an organization work together, what we need to optimize shifts.

The implication for organizations of all types and sizes is that improving collaboration and related workflow processes needs to be iterative.It can’t be one giant leap. To work, it needs to be a series – often a constant, on-going series – of steps, adjustments, reworks, additions and deletions. It’s a consultative process of listening and observing, applying lessons learned, then listening and observing some more.

At the beginning of any project or initiative, it’s critical to put in place the people and mechanisms you need for this iterative, consultative approach.Hmm, doing that kind of changes things, too.

—-posted by Tom Witkin

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Posted in Blogroll, Collaboration, Email, Marketing, Workflow
4 comments on “Is there a Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle for Collaboration?
  1. Waylon Smithers says:


    Interesting article. What are your thoughts on collaboration as it relates to chaos theory? It would seem that collaboration would be a nonlinear dynamical systems.


  2. Tom Witkin says:

    Intriguing question. Unfortunately,my understanding of chaos theory isn’t deep enough to give you a meaningful response.

  3. yugui says:

    hi Tom

    Great article. Other than IT, are there any other domains that Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle can be used?


  4. tovorinok says:


    Great book. I just want to say what a fantastic thing you are doing! Good luck!


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