The Dark Side of Collaboration

Every group has its mantra. “Four legs good, two legs bad”  helped underscore the proper social and political order in Animal Farm.  For proponents of social media behind the firewall, the mantra has been “Collaboration good, silos bad.” Like motherhood and apple pie, collaboration is one of those things it’s hard to criticize  — until you meet the dark side of collaboration.

What’s the dark side of collaboration?  Collaboration done badly.  Here’s what McKinsey has to say on this issue in their article, Using Technology to Improve Workforce Collaboration:

Unfortunately, the productivity measures for collaboration workers are fuzzy at best. For production workers, productivity is readily measured in terms of units of output; for transaction workers, in operations per hour. But for knowledge workers, what might be thought of as collaboration productivity depends on the quality and quantity of interactions occurring. And it’s from these less-than-perfectly-understood interactions that companies and national economies derive important benefits. Consider the collaborative creative work needed to win an advertising campaign or the high levels of service needed to satisfy public citizens. Or, in a similar vein, the interplay between a company and its customers or partners that results in an innovative product.

Raising the quality of these interactions is largely uncharted territory. Taking a systematic view, however, helps bring some of the key issues into focus. Our research suggests that improvements depend upon getting a better fix on who actually is doing the collaborating within companies, as well as understanding the details of how that interactive work is done. Just as important is deciding how to support interactions with technology—in particular, Web 2.0 tools such as social networks, wikis, and video. There is potential for sizeable gains from even modest improvements. Our survey research shows that at least 20 percent and as much as 50 percent of collaborative activity results in wasted effort. And the sources of this waste—including poorly planned meetings, unproductive travel time, and the rising tide of redundant e-mail communications, just to name a few—are many and growing in knowledge-intense industries. [emphasis added]

If you continue to read the McKinsey article, you’ll learn about their recommendations for matching tools with types of collaboration work, thereby reducing wasted collaborative activity.  But even as you think about improving the quality of collaboration, you need to remember the emergent essence of Enterprise 2.0 tools and strategies:

Furthering collaboration excellence demands mind-sets and capabilities that are unfamiliar and sometimes even counterintuitive to many business managers. It requires trusting your collaboration workers to arrive at creative solutions rather than enforcing top-down policies. Business managers should allow time and provide forums for collaboration workers to brainstorm solutions to productivity problems. Corporate technology providers will need to provide tools that are flexible enough to enable experimentation, so that usage and adoption are widespread.  [emphasis added]

As you roll out your new Enterprise 2.0 tools, pay careful attention to their impact on collaboration.  Have you provided the means for knowledge workers to experiment and create more productive collaboration?  Or do your systems lead to activity that is no more than wasted effort?

[Photo Credit:  gonzalo ar]