There are a couple of articles that have sprung up in the business press in recent weeks that have highlighted challenges with collaboration within organizations that have piqued my interest given my current work with #sharingorg.

The first, the cover article in the January/February Harvard Business Review, talks about problems of collaborative overload. Specifically, authors Rob Cross, Reb Rebele and Adam Grant, describe how in most organizations, the collaborative work of value is performed by a tiny number of individuals. In a quote that will no doubt be on PowerPoint slides across enterprise social network sales decks in the near future:

Up to a third of value-added collaborations come from only 3% to 5% of employees.

I can almost smell the ESN sales pitch.

It’s a good article that counsels that organizations should first identify staff most at risk from such overload and try and protect them (presumably they are predominantly Givers in Grant’s excellent Givers, Matchers, Takers model).

Once that’s done, organizations should try to “encourage behavioral change” (easier said than done when so many software tools for “collaborating” create highly-addictive, reinforcing Skinner cages), “leverage technology and physical space to make informational and social resources more accessible and transparent” (I’ve got an awesome research report looking at that in detail!) and finally “consider structural changes”.

All good advice.

In turn, last week, the Schumpeter column in The Economist was entitled The collaboration curse. The article referenced Cross et al.’s HBR piece, but irritatingly as a justification for saying that it was an example of academics saying that there was too much collaboration going on (not their argument at all to my reading). But then mostly was a diatribe against enterprise social networks, open plan offices and email.

There is no doubt that working with others in a sharing style is not always the appropriate thing to do. But confusing the wrong tools for the job with the tools being bad is very dangerous, and that’s how The Economist article felt to me.

Open plan offices are a great example. The origins of open plan can be traced back to innovations in office design in the 1950s and 60s. Of particular note was the release of Herman Miller’s Action Office suite of furniture in 1964.  As Nikal Savil described in Wired in 2014

The cubical you call hell was designed to set you free

(Savil’s book Cubed, A Secret History of the Workplace is highly recommended).

The ergonomics behind open plan thinking was never that it was suitable for all sorts of working. In many ways, as typified by Action Office, the thinking required multiple workspaces for an individual to enable them to perform multiple types of knowledge work. Unfortunately, in recent years, the primary driver of open plan and “hot desk” office spaces has been to maximize floor space utilisation – nothing at all to do with providing effective places for work.

It’s now not uncommon, in the perverse world in which we work, to find floors of open plan space empty but for the coats of workers who find themselves crammed into meeting rooms either individually to take conference calls or en masse to have meetings. I still am amazed at how many meeting rooms have no facilities for taking notes. It’s also no wonder that it seems that people flee for their home if flexible working arrangements are offered.

The Schumpeter column goes on…

Why have organisations been so naive about collaboration? One reason is that collaboration is much easier to measure than “deep work”: any fool can record how many people post messages on Slack or speak up in meetings, whereas it can take years to discover whether somebody who is sitting alone in an office is producing a breakthrough or twiddling his thumbs.

Now I am as quick as anyone to point out where stupid metrics are driving stupid behaviours, but I just don’t see evidence of “posting messages on Slack”-type behaviours going on within big corporations. If that were the case then surely increased volume of email would be a key performance indicator in every organization? (There again, I bet it is or has been in some…)

Within all of this, my key observations are that:

  • there is no clear consensus about what “collaboration” means, and that is a cause of huge confusion – for IT people it’s a class of software product, for everyone else it can mean anything from a Taylorist production line to the bean bags and free wheeling of a tech startup or ad agency
  • those definitions are all valid – putting some consistency of definition around this is vital – here’s one of the ways I’ve been thinking about it

    Screenshot 2016-01-26 at 15.42.20

  • different styles of collaboration are appropriate for achieving different outcomes – you might want to innovate, to sell, to get better relationships with or between your staff or customers, to just get on with the day job…
  • technology in of itself isn’t the answer, but might form one lever alongside structures, reward and recognition, culture and behaviour, environments, management style…

The #sharingorg research will be being published later this Spring by the Leading Edge Forum.

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