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]

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You Can Lead A Horse

You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make it … collaborate.

That was my initial reaction when I read Michael Sampson’s post, Who Owns “Collaboration” in Your Firm? He describes ownership of collaboration in the following ways:

  • has the responsibility for analyzing work processes and recommending ways of improving those through collaboration technology.
  • has the responsibility for analyzing specific collaboration technologies and recommending or deciding on which ones to use.
  • has the responsibility for helping staff use new collaboration technology effectively in their work.

The reality is that while it might be tempting for the KM, IT or HR departments to start explaining to other departments how to collaborate, offering those explanations is a far cry from actually initiating meaningful collaboration.  Collaboration occurs when people are ready to collaborate — not a minute before.  For collaboration truly to take hold, you need people in each area of the firm who approach their work with a collaborative mindset.  This means people who are willing to give up some turf and even credit for good ideas in order to foster teamwork for the benefit of the enterprise generally.  Without these kinds of people, it’s very hard to achieve any meaningful collaboration — regardless of the brilliance of the collaboration plans offered by your collaboration owners or consultants.

[Photo Credit:  tibchris]

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Persistence Pays

Persistence pays … when applied correctly.

We all know someone who just keeps at you like a battering ram until you throw up your hands and agree to whatever they are asking. This application of persistence is not dissimilar to the modus operandi of many three-year olds. It may provide short-term benefits, but it invariably takes a toll on relationships and may well jeopardize long-term gains.

By contrast, there is the story I heard recently of how a friend of mine (a knowledge manager at another law firm) obtained the cooperation of the head of his firm’s technology committee who had become a roadblock to necessary change. At issue was integrating into a single user interface the firm’s intranet with an enterprise search tool. My friend made his case to the partner and asked nicely for cooperation. It was not forthcoming. So, my friend waited a while (presumably checked his own assumptions to confirm they were correct) and then went back a second time. No dice. My friend is famous for his persistence, so he went back a third time and was successful.

What made the difference? Here are my observations: It wasn’t a typical battering ram approach. Rather, between the second and third visits, my friend worked on his relationship with his colleague. In a natural (not manipulative) way, he got to know his colleague better. And, his colleague got to know him better. As a result, when that third conversation occurred, each had a deeper understanding of the other’s concerns and in the process put more capital in the bank of their relationship. This foundation allowed the partner to step aside and permit the proposed change, despite his own misgivings.

When seeking collaboration or cooperation, it is not enough merely to be persistent or to impose your views through sheer determination. By doing so, you undercut the very ground on which collaboration is based. Rather, take the time to establish understanding and trust with your proposed collaboration partner. We’ve heard time and again how critical trust is to collaboration. It’s equally important for good professional relationships which, in turn, are critical to your success.

So be persistent … at building trust. You’ll reap the benefits sooner than you imagine.

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Innovation is a Team Sport

A recent New York Times article touted the benefits of collaborating to innovate. Debunking the myth of the lone genius who creates in solitude, the article suggests that the best innovation comes about through collaboration — where many people and perspectives intersect to create and refine ideas. However, it isn’t enough just to put a group of people in a room and ask them to brainstorm. In fact, according to the article, brainstorming is not nearly as productive as we’d like to believe. Instead of asking folks to “solve a problem” or “devise a new strategy” (favorite brainstorming topics), the better path is “systematic inventive thinking” in which the participants are asked to identify products and processes that work, break those down into their components, and then think about how those components can be put to other productive uses.

When I read this description of systematic inventive thinking, I realized that it appeared to share some of the principles of appreciative inquiry, which encourages us to build on our strengths. What a difference from the traditional approach of focusing on what does not work! (In a prior post I talked about the benefits of asking What Went Right rather than What Went Wrong?) Further, when you ask a group to focus on what’s good, you stand a better chance of avoiding some of the negative dynamics that emerge in problem-solving sessions such as refusing to speak up out of fear of failure or a desire to hoard ideas.

Whether you attempt innovation in solitary confinement or through a group process, research has shown that innovation isn’t a flash in the pan. According to Keith Sawyer, a professor of psychology and education and author of Group Genius: The Creative Power of Collaboration:

Innovation today isn’t a sudden break with the past, a brilliant insight that one lone outsider pushes through to save the company …. Just the opposite: innovation today is a continuous process of small and constant change, and it’s built into the culture of successful companies.

So what would it take to build innovation into the culture of your company? Sawyer believes that even the lone genius is part of a wider web of ideas and people — the people the genius talks to, the people who write the things the genius reads, etc. This suggests that a company that wants a robust innovation culture has to build robust social networks that facilitate the cross-pollination of ideas.

How can knowledge management help? KM knows all about social networks and social media tools. KM knows how to reduce information silos and enable information sharing. KM knows how to foster collaboration. We’ve often said that the whole point of knowledge management is innovation. With this focus on group genius, it’s becoming clearer how the things that knowledge management does well can be deployed to build a vibrant culture of innovation within every company.

[Thanks to Kevin O’Keefe at LexBlog for pointing out this article.]

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Collaboration — All or Nothing?

In my prior post on Culture and Technology, I talked about the need to match carefully the social media tools you are offering in your law firm knowledge management program with the organizational culture of your firm. Now we need to go a little deeper. Many discussions on this topic treat collaboration in a binary fashion — either you’ve got collaboration or you don’t. And, if you don’t, you get a free pass on deploying social media tools. In reality, your choices are not just wide open collaboration or nothing. As Andrew Gent points out in his post, The Alternatives to Collaboration, there are several ways of working that result in productivity. We need to be sure we take account of all of these and provide the appropriate tools.

Here’s how he identifies two different modes of working that are alternatives to open collaboration:

Conspiring is very common among senior contributors within a team. Conspiring is simply a form of collaboration where the”community” is limited, usually to select members who the contributor trusts. Rather than speak out or agree during meetings, this individual will seek out others who they feel will understand and appreciate their contribution and work with those people to flesh out their ideas. They may even strategize privately about how to bring the rest of the team “around” to their way of thinking. (This is the conspiratorial part of the equation.)

[…]

Competing, on the other hand, happens out in the open. Competing is founded on two basic assumptions:

  • Ideas reached by consensus are not necessarily the best ideas. Rather, they are ideas that sound most agreeable or that provide the least resistance to current conditions (in other words, ruffle as few feathers as possible).
  • By openly pursuing multiple approaches in parallel, you can test more possibilities and (the key to competing) inspire each group to reach farther and develop a more complete and creative solution.

If you have wide open, top to bottom collaboration, then you’re closest to the internet model of social networks and should be able deploy the standard tools (e.g., blogs, wikis, forums, distribution lists) with minimal adjustment for the realities of corporate life. If you have a significant number of productive “conspirators” then you need tools that allow wide open collaboration within this very small group of trusted colleagues (e.g., IM, limited access wikis and blogs). For competitors, you need to provide a forum where they can battle their way to victory (e.g., open access wikis, microblogging).

By acknowledging that collaboration may not be possible for all, you give yourself permission to identify other productive ways of working within your law firm. Once you understand how these other methods work, you’re better placed to introduce effective social media tools that fit neatly with established modes of working. This requires moving from a monolithic view of organizational culture to a much more nuanced one. Done correctly, this should result in higher adoption rates within the various sub-groups that exist and thrive within your law firm. Do this with enough sub-groups and you’ll have reached enterprise 2.0 nirvana.

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Getting Serious About Collaboration

A large number of professionals in knowledge management appear to have drunk the kool-aid regarding the value of collaboration. And now, collaboration is the latest buzzword tripping off the tongues of academics, activists, reformers, consultants and web 2.0 vendors. That many people can’t be wrong, can they?

Perhaps it’s time each collaboration advocate put their money where their mouth is. Now is the time to collaborate on a project worth doing. And what is currently the most critical BHAG (Big Hairy Audacious Goal) we could address? How about finding a viable way to achieve a sensible bailout of the US economy? (Is that big enough for you?)

There has been a complete failure of leadership in Washington. Given where we are in the US political calendar, it will take a great deal of leadership and goodwill for politicians of both parties to abandon any perceived election year advantages to help each other (and the world) to a sensible solution. Unfortunately, it’s hard to be optimistic about this after the empty theatrics of the last week.

So how could the rest of us model good collaborative behavior to address the economic crisis? We could, for example, create an “open source” solution for a Better Bailout. How about a wiki to collect and refine the best proposals for reforming and restoring the US economy? What if anyone with a positive contribution to make were able to participate? Could we harness the energies and intellect of a world-wide community to solve this problem?

Clearly, not all of us have the training to conceive effective solutions to the complicated problems presented by the current economic crisis. However, I’ve got to believe that somewhere in our respective social networks, we have friends or acquaintances who could add value to such an effort. Perhaps those of us who did not get past Economics 101 could make our contribution to the solution by recruiting to the effort capable people with the requisite integrity, training and freedom from partisan rancor to make a meaningful contribution.

If you’re happy with the job your representatives are doing in Washington, feel free to sit this out. If, however, you’d like to see a solution that deals honestly and fairly with the US taxpayer who has to foot the bill, now is the time to get involved. And, if you really believe in the power of collaboration, now is the time to prove its value.

[If you’d like to participate in A Better Bailout, e-mail BetterBailout@gmail.com.]

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9/11 and Knowledge Management

It’s cloudy today here in New York City. Even though the sky is not the bright, sparkling, optimistic blue it was early in the morning of September 11, 2001, there are plenty of other reminders of the events of that day.

In the aftermath of 9/11, we learned that the government in fact had much of the information that it needed to be aware of and counteract the 9/11 plot. However, some of that information was located in silos and protected by departmental rivalries. According to the 9/11 Commission’s Report:

The FBI did not have the capability to link the collective knowledge of agents in the field to national priorities.

The missed opportunities to thwart the 9/ 11 plot were also symptoms of a broader inability to adapt the way government manages problems to the new challenges of the twenty-first century. Action officers should have been able to draw on all available knowledge about al Qaeda in the government. Management should have ensured that information was shared and duties were clearly assigned across agencies, and across the foreign-domestic divide. … The U. S. government did not find a way of pooling intelligence and using it to guide the planning and assignment of responsibilities for joint operations involving entities as disparate as the CIA, the FBI, the State Department, the military, and the agencies involved in homeland security.

If there was ever an instance in which knowledge sharing and collaboration could have made a difference, that’s the one.

If we are fortunate, we’ll never again have to face so grave a test of our government’s knowledge management capabilities. If we are wise, we’ll take the lessons to heart and do something to increase the culture of collaboration and knowledge sharing within the government and within our own enterprises.

Since 9/11 and Hurricane Katrina, some have spent time thinking about how to improve knowledge sharing and thereby improve our ability to respond to disasters and emergencies. David Bray, a doctoral candidate at Emory’s business school, is one such person. On 9/11, he was the information technology chief for Bioterrorism Preparedness Response Program at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). In that role, he saw first-hand the KM failures within the government. This experience deeply informs his research. Here is a glimpse at what he is studying, as reported in Knowledge @ Emory:

“I saw several instances where this workforce of 1.2 million government workers, not counting contractors—which is probably another 800,000—had significant disconnects. In fact that’s what the 9/11 report specifically comes out as saying: the United States did not connect the dots across multiple agencies,” explains Bray, currently a doctoral candidate at Emory University’s Goizueta Business School. “There were times with our program where we knew something at the trench level, tried to pass it up the hierarchy, but unfortunately it never got anywhere. Events like Hurricane Katrina, 9/11, anthrax, occur in part because organizational structures in which we trust, particularly for government—but also for most large businesses—aren’t built to respond quickly to turbulent environments,” contends Bray. “And now, in part because of globalization and also because of technology, things can change so quickly half a world away.”

In his paper “Exploration and Exploitation: Managing Knowledge in Turbulent Environments,” Bray, along with Goizueta co-author Michael J. Prietula, a professor of information systems and operations management who also researches responses to disasters, develop a theoretical model about knowledge management in organizational hierarchies. Bray extends an existing model of exploration and exploitation to consider the context of multi-tier hierarchical firms faced with environmental turbulence, and then considers whether a knowledge management system that enhances knowledge exchanges across the organization alters the ability of the organization to match the conditions of a turbulent environment. Bray’s model considers different management approaches, such as a bottom-up cultivation strategy or a top-down command-and-control strategy.

“We wanted to explore whether having a top-down or bottom-up strategy would help or hurt organizational hierarchies when faced with environmental turbulence” says Bray. “We specifically were testing the idea that while top-down hierarchies may be great at command and control and maintaining internal control and reality, they’re bad at addressing a changing outside environment; a change in the marketplace, a change in competition, or an emerging national security threat.”

Bray’s research finds strong evidence that top-down hierarchies that stress command and control are ineffective in managing knowledge in turbulent environments because they decrease a hierarchical organization’s ability to maintain accuracy with its outside environment. [Emphasis added]

The work of David Bray and Michael Prietula suggests that bottom-up collaboration and knowledge sharing is the most effective way of keeping knowledge silos and human rivalries from hoarding critical information in times of change. And, because of the culture of collaboration, this sharing allows us to make better decisions and respond more effectively to the unexpected.

On the anniversary of September 11, 2001, it’s good to know that we’ve actually learned something and are headed, albeit slowly and fitfully, in the right direction.

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Do You Have What it Takes to Collaborate?

Basic web 2.0 allows us transparency, a window into another’s life. Multiplied over many people, web 2.0 helps them connect with each other and strengthen an existing or emerging social network. Providing these connections is helpful, but it isn’t collaboration. True collaboration is more than just getting along. It’s working together towards a common goal. Unfortunately, in this world of competitive achievers, it’s hard to find someone who really knows how to collaborate.

Like many other things, collaboration is an orientation as well as a set of skills. Deciding to be more intentional about collaborating is a good first step, but it takes more than that. According to Shawn Callahan at Anecdote, there are seven critical personal skills necessary for effective collaboration:

  1. “How to apologise
  2. How to advocate your point of view without harming your collaborator’s feelings
  3. How to spot when a conversation gets emotional and then make it safe again to continue meaningful dialogue
  4. How to listen and get into the shoes of your collaborator
  5. How to define a mutual intent that will inspire action
  6. How to tell and elicit stories
  7. How to get things done so you have something to show for your collaboration”

Based on this list, collaboration requires more than mere technical knowledge. It requires drawing on sometimes dormant interpersonal relationship skills — listening, empathy, consideration, etc. These are skills that have been undervalued within businesses for far too long.

So take a close look at this list of necessary skills and then take a closer look at yourself. Do you have what it takes to collaborate?

[My thanks to John Tropea‘s Delicious links for alerting me to Shawn’s blogpost.]

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Knowledge Management’s Secret Sauce: Trust

Fortunes have been made in the food industry through the development and use of “secret” sauces. These are the seemingly-magic ingredients that chefs use to elevate a simple food item into a must have (or must eat).

Knowledge management has a secret sauce — it’s trust. Trust is the magic ingredient that reliably increases user participation. Where there is trust there is a perceptible decrease in anxiety. With that reduction of anxiety comes a willingness to create, contribute and collaborate.

Knowledge managers have always known this. It drove our KM 1.0 efforts to build large databases of vetted content. In a web 2.0 world, trust is even more valuable because we are asking users to create, contribute and collaborate in a more unmediated way. This permits access to a wider range of content more quickly, but it may also be perceived as risky if the content doesn’t have the “Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval” that comes from the vetting built into KM 1.0 business processes.

Neil Richards (Knowledge Thoughts) provides an interesting analysis of the critical value of trust with respect to wikis. In his post, How trust & risk affect wiki adoption, he takes the concept of trust one step further and discusses the “trust threshold, ” which is the point at which trust and risk intersect. Here’s how Neil describes it:

Trust thresholds! It’s not just about trust; it’s also about risk of each task. You need to earn enough trust to overcome the risk. Therefore, wiki use is dependant on how much a user trusts the content. …when using a wiki to execute a task which involves risk, the trustworthiness of the wiki needs to exceed the risk of it being wrong.

Neil goes on to suggest ways of increasing the level of trust so that lawyers in your firm can get comfortable working with wiki content. If you’ve got a trust deficit in your law firm, also consider implementing some of the suggestions for increasing trust in the workplace contained in Shawn Callahan‘s recent post, Trust creating behaviours.

Trust may be the most valuable asset a knowledge manager has. Take the time to develop it in your workplace and then guard with your life!

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Collaboration and Equity

In his recent discussion of Charles Heckscher’s book, The Collaborative Enterprise, Larry Prusak notes that while collaboration may be the latest buzzword (with all the attendant shallow writing and commentary that regularly accompanies business fads), Hecksher’s book is a material improvement over most of the other available analysis of collaboration. One striking observation is reported by Prusak in the following way:

[Heckscher] knows well that collaboration depends on trust, and trust depends on a sense of shared equity within the organization. In situations of gross disparities of power and compensation how can one expect collaboration? The real class conflict that exists within most organizations strongly inhibits real collaboration.

These notions of “shared equity” and the perils of “class conflict” raise some interesting issues for law firms, which tend to be highly hierarchical and often lack a sense of shared equity between the partners and their employees (including associates and the non-lawyer staff). If Prusak and Heckscher are correct, will it ever be possible for law firms to develop a true culture of collaboration?

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