Thursday 22 October 2009

The corporate office - do we need it?

30 years ago, employees had to come to the office to do their work. This happened simply because the office was the place that contained all the tools and resources needed to accomplish work-related tasks. This included computers, telephones, fax machines, meeting rooms, copiers, documents, archives, project files, administrative support and a range of other resources. While we 30 years ago moved people to work, we are now, by means of increased portability of work, able to move work to people. However, offices in a variety of ways still look like they did 30 years ago, despite the evolution of work-related tools available outside the boundaries of the office. The cost of offices has also in many places increased substantially over the last 30 years. If everything else has changed, why are offices still the same?

A little while ago, I gave a short presentation at the third seminar in the Global Mobility Network, hosted by Dr. Marie Puybaraud, Director of Global Workplace Innovation and Dr. Anne Marie McEwan, Director of the Smart Work Company. The seminar took place in the inspirational atmosphere of One Alfred Place, and the topic of the seminar was "Workplace to Zero?". I was asked to elaborate on collaboration, social cohesion and how to design environments which encourage collaboration. This blog post is a short summary of some of the concepts discussed, and how they relate to some of points raised by the keynote speaker of the event, Dr. Frank Duffy, author of Work and the City and founder of DEGW. Some pictures from the event can be seen on Steve Marshall's Photo-Dialogue blog.

30 years ago, the office was a vehicle of efficiency and effectiveness. The office enabled workers to do things they couldn't do at home (related to effectiveness), and it enabled them to accomplish those tasks faster (related to efficiency) than they could at home or in other contexts. Fast-wind forward 30 years and this has all changed. Technology has made it possible to accomplish most work related tasks in multiple contexts outside the boundaries of office, and many knowledge workers state that flexible work arrangements or working outside the office improves productivity - in essence they are saying that for many processes, the office is actually limiting rather than boosting productivity. While not suitable for all, cloud computing solutions, open source software and Web 2.0 technologies represent viable alternatives for many organisations. Wireless Internet is affordable and rapidly becoming abundant, and together with inexpensive hardware solutions such as e.g. netbooks, the required costs for setting up shop is, for practical purposes, near zero. This low market entry barrier represents a major power shift from large corporates to individual knowledge workers. Moreover, it is also interesting how many of the tools that knowledge workers use now belong to each individual rather than the employer. For many people, professional and social relationships and community membership are in many ways becoming the professional "home base" in times where employment is becoming increasingly dynamic.

Dr. Duffy provided a very useful perspective when he argued that the apparent inflexibility in the way we create and operate offices is due to an imbalance between the supply side and the demand side, and that there is a supply side that keeps delivering packaged solutions similar to previous projects, whereas the demand side receives little attention, since projects are more oriented towards delivery than a proper assessment of requirements. Some of the reasoning behind this can be found in his excellent Harvard Design Review article Lumbering to Extinction in the Digital Field.

Dr. Duffy also raised the issue of justification and how one would argue to justify the need for a permanent workplace if one had access to "the perfect ICT solution". This is an interesting perspective, for in many cases, the corporate office functions as a reliable, "last resort" solution in cases where ICT solutions fail to deliver according to expectations. The reasons behind this commonly observed failure include, but are not limited to lack of interoperability, firewall issues, network capacity, policy restrictions, unavailability of shared resources, and a range of other issues. It is interesting how we still in many ways appear to trust physical logistics and even airplane travel to a greater extent than rich virtual forms of interactions, despite the hassle involved with the former.

In my talk, I offered some perspectives on some key characteristics of today's knowledge intensive organisations, and how much time knowledge workers spend on collaborative activities (interactions); typically in the range of 40-80 percent - and rising. Moreover, for leaders, experts and people with a coordinating role, it is most definitely in the upper range. Many executives I have interviewed say these average numbers are actually quite conservative if one includes all types of collaboration and communication activities, including the full range of planned and unplanned interactions taking place in both collocated and technology-mediated contexts. Again, the role of the corporate office becomes the question - as research demonstrates that not only is an increasing portion of our individual work activities becoming portable and computer-based, but this is true for interactions as well.

I would argue that a really good workplace is one that enables you to do something which you cannot do anywhere else. And currently, many workplaces fail to deliver on this criterion. Some very significant examples exist (see for instance the Concurrent Design Facility of the European Space Agency, StatoilHydro's Integrated Operations resource page for the oil & gas industry, the Management Cockpit of Siemens Belux - reported by SAP) and a range of other built-for-purpose solutions that are characterised by distinct collaboration concepts that involve an agreed (but still flexible) process, a set of operating principles, a set of enabling technologies and a service concept that ensures reliability and support when needed. Apart from these examples, offices are fairly generic, and there are few, if any, differences in terms of effectiveness. Some solutions may be more efficient than others, but these improvements are in any case marginal, and add little in terms of creating a competitive advantage. I would therefore like to postulate the following:

The current trend where the office is optimised for efficiency... rapidly making the office obsolete because...

...the things you can achieve in the office you can achieve, often equally well or even better, in other contexts, and...
...the office starts at an efficiency disadvantage due to...
...logistics and commuting times, and because... comes with a hefty price tag, e.g. compared to shared office solutions such as One Alfred Place.

The only viable long term value proposition for the office is therefore... that reinstates the workplace as a place where you do things you can’t do anywhere else...

...which enables new levels of knowledge worker effectiveness...
...or one where the efficiency gains offset the additional cost of the office compared to alternative solutions.

The cost cutting approach is tempting, but not sustainable – because its concepts can easily be copied. The value adding approach requires a systematic investment in analysis of potential benefits from collaboration, team productivity and collaboration barriers, and new technologies and work practices supporting seamless interactions across time and space.

This route is less trivial, but true competitiveness is not, I believe, built on doing the exact same things everybody else is doing. If we want to be different, we actually have to do something differently. Positive differentiation does not emerge out of the blue, it is the result of disciplined, systematic effort.

So, therefore...
...”The future of the office? Improve it, or abandon ship”

Updated 5 November:

Thursday 6 August 2009

12 Theses on Collaboration

Any initiative aimed at improving collaboration internally and / or with external partners is a complex undertaking. These theses on collaboration has been developed to create some structure in the apparent chaos. One could say that collaboration is a little bit like the story about the blind men and the elephant (please come back after reading the story!). Such a list could be made short, or excessively long. The list below is not intended to be exhaustive, but rather list a manageable number of important things to keep in mind when addressing collaboration and collaborative performance. So, without further ado (details and rationale for all theses are provided below the list):

12 Theses on Collaboration

  1. Collaboration is an essential part of knowledge work.
  2. The majority of work is collaborative.
  3. Think, then act.
  4. Collaboration requires disciplined management and leadership to succeed.
  5. While important, technology is not enough.
  6. Work practices should be systematically developed and reviewed.
  7. Usability is too important to be left to the technology people alone.
  8. The importance of awareness and training cannot be overstated.
  9. Collaboration is inherently dynamic and should be treated accordingly.
  10. Get your priorities right.
  11. Find the sweet spots rather than using a forced approach.
  12. Never forget that collaboration is about creating value.
Details, rationale and references

1. Collaboration is an essential part of knowledge work
: Peter F. Drucker in his article "Knowledge-Worker Productivity: The Biggest Challenge" (
California Management Review, 1999. 41(2): pp. 79-94) states that task identification is the most important driver of knowledge worker productivity, and in today's complex projects successful task identification is often collaborative by requiring active involvement from several disciplines and roles. The inherent multidisciplinarity of today's complex products, services, projects and processes implies that collaboration is a cornerstone of knowledge work. Hence, collaboration should become an essential part of company strategies and policies. Collaboration is important, however it is also rapidly becoming a dominant characteristic of work today in terms of sheer amount of interactions taking place.

2. The majority of work is collaborative
: Few, if any, would argue that work is becoming less collaborative. On the contrary, collaborations of all sorts (real time and asynchronous; collocated and in distributed or dispersed teams; with or without advanced technology) are becoming an increasingly dominant characteristic of work today. This is particularly true for knowledge workers, as executives, specialists and subject matter experts now often spend up to 80 percent of their time on different types of interactions. See McKinsey Quarterly's excellent article series on interactions for more information about these trends.

3. Think, then act: Generally, the level of reflection about how we work is limited. As a result, many decisions are made on a weak understanding of key characteristics of work today, as well as desired development trajectories. A bit of reflection before rolling up your sleeves and buying something that fits poorly with the requirements of real work doesn't hurt.

Collaboration requires disciplined management and leadership to succeed:
Morten T. Hansen in his excellent book "Collaboration" makes an excellent case for what he calls "Disciplined Collaboration". I thoroughly like this concept, as he through many case studies demonstrates that collaboration should not be left scattered, unstructured and uncoordinated. In essence, collaboration should be approached systematically - it should be managed carefully. This also involves making someone responsible for promoting sound collaboration. See also David Coleman's "42 Rules for Successful Collaboration" for more guidelines (this book is covered in detail in one of my previous blogposts below).

5. While important, technology is not enough: Collaboration in dispersed teams require technology, and previous distinctions between synchronous (real time) and asynchronous collaboration, and between collocated and distributed (virtual) collaboration is rapidly losing its relevance, as collaboration today may imply a combination of all of these in a single session. Technology play an important role in enabling and sustaining different forms of collaboration, but technology alone does not do the trick, nor does it provide the motivation to collaborate in the first place. Unless complemented by a number of other things (objectives, culture, work practices, awareness, training, ++) collaboration is likely to fail.

6. Work practices should be systematically developed and reviewed: "Build it and they will come" approaches don't work, especially in today's overcrowded business environment (see point 5 above). To put it simply, business is busy. A collaboration culture is required, and work practices should be systematically developed, reviewed and (re-)aligned to make sure they support overall objectives. To ensure compatibility and maximum impact, it is important that work practices are co-developed with ICT systems. Furthermore, as the pervasiveness of interactions and ICT tools increases dramatically, it is increasingly important to consider organizational changes as an integral part of the transition process towards high-performance work practices supported by tools and ICT systems that are fit for purpose.

7. Usability is too important to be left to the technology people alone
: Research shows that knowledge-intensive tasks such as collaborative problem solving and interpretation of e.g. complex visual content such as engineering data are particularly sensitive to interruptions, caused by e.g. setting up a user interface according to process or project requirements. Such interruptions, even when lasting for less than three seconds, can effectively destroy the momentum in a creative process that a team has spent 10-15 minutes to build up. If these interruptions happen frequently, this dramatically reduces the productivity and effectiveness of these processes. Usability for a technology savvy solution provider is not necessarily the same as usability for a busy end user that does not share the same enthusiasm for buttons, components and myriads of customisation options. Get real end users involved in the process, ask the right questions, and listen.

8. The importance of awareness and training cannot be overstated: Organisations may have the desired infrastructure and associated collaborative functionalities and methods available, with no apparent link between the infrastructure and the degree to which it is used. This may be a result of limited awareness of the available tools and methods, or lack of training. Observations suggest that even a small investment in awareness building and training may yield significant productivity improvements. And - allocate a budget for it.

9. Collaboration is inherently dynamic and should be treated accordingly: Over time, most components of collaboration change. They may change at different clockspeeds (e.g. technology changes more rapidly than attitudes), but change is nevertheless inevitable. Prepare for it.

10. Get your priorities right: Labels are less important than achievements. The concept of "Management by canoeing around" is an excellent, low-tech example of successful collaboration covered in the MIT Press book "Distributed Work" from 2002. Great concept (excerpt) from a world without Twitter, Internet, e-mail, telephone, even (in 1670, in the very beginning) without the steam engine!! In essence, some approaches may rationalize your processes, others may enable you to do completely new things. But the focus should always be on the results achieved, rather than buzzwords (although I admit having created a few myself).

11. Find the "sweet spots": You wouldn't use a hammer to unscrew a rusted bolt, nor would you use a screwdriver as an all-around tool for cutting wood, hammering (I mean screwing) nails, or hunting moose. Similarly, using the wrong tool for collaboration can dramatically reduce productivity and a number of other things. E-mail (here it comes) is for example great for certain things, but very, very ineffective for other things. Don't let e-mail be your multi-purpose screwdriver. Make life easier and find the right tool for the job.

12. Never forget that collaboration is about creating value: Collaboration can be a tremendously powerful means to an end, but it is not an end in itself. Focus on the objectives. Feel free to think about collaboration, the point is to never forget why.

All comments are welcome.

Friday 22 May 2009

Collaboration - defining a complex phenomenon

Collaboration is a complex phenomenon, and many have tried to define what it is and what it is not. I have used a number of these definitions over the years, but I have found many of them either too limited in scope, or too focused on technology. In the end, technology can indeed enable new forms of collaboration in distributed teams, but technology alone does not lead to collaboration, and it certainly does not guarantee that the collaboration leads to successful outcomes, e.g. solving business problems. In the famous words of Thomas Davenport and Laurence Prusak:

”What we must remember is that this new information technology is only the pipeline and storage system for knowledge exchange. It does not create knowledge and cannot guarantee or even promote knowledge generation or knowledge sharing in a corporate culture that doesn’t favor those activities.”

When using these definitions in the past, I have sometimes looked at a particular situation, asking myself - "is this thing I'm observing here, really collaboration?" And many times, the situation have satisfied all criteria according to various definitions, and I have reluctantly agreed that "yes, I guess this is collaboration then, at least according to the(se) definition(s)".
Situations such as these have inevitably left myself wondering "then - so what, there has to be more to it" and, as a result, I eventually started elaborating my own definition. The result from this process is a definition that departs from many other definitions. The key elements are highlighted in bold in my (current) definition below:

Collaboration can be defined as value-adding interactions that enable employees, customers, suppliers and partners to achieve business objectives, make good decisions, resolve issues and share knowledge effectively and efficiently.
  • Value-adding: The focus here is on the value aspect. Simply put, collaboration is of little value, if it does not add value. Unfortunately collaboration does not always add value, therefore this is important to keep in mind when working with collaboration, and trying to define sound collaboration principles that assist you in moving forward. Collaboration definitions that do not contain a value element simply do not work when used as a basis for improvement initiatives.
  • Business objectives: This is strongly linked with the value-adding aspect described above. Collaboration is not an objective in itself, it is a means to an end. This point is very important. Collaboration can be a tremendously powerful means to an end, but paradoxially, collaboration loses some of its power when the the collaboration process itself becomes the objective. Stay focused and look ahead on the big issues, the business objectives.
  • Decisions: Decision making is a crucial part of any business, and the importance of decision making skills grows with increasing knowledge intensity. The ability to make good decisions can be an important differentiator, one that really sets an organisation apart from its competitors. Decision making also has a broader scope than e.g. problem solving, as decision making occurs (or should occur) in any type of business activity that goes beyond open-ended explorations.
  • Issues: Issues can be problems, inconsistencies, disagreements, or any other matter that requires attention. Collaboration can assist you in your efforts navigating these issues, including sense making, perspective brokering and consensus building.
  • Knowledge: Knowledge only has value when it is put into action - and, given today's complex, multidisciplinary issues, this to an increasing extent happens through sharing.
  • Effectively: Effectiveness can be described as the alignment between objective(s) and activity or process outputs. Peter Drucker in his article "Knowledge-Worker Productivity: The Biggest Challenge" (California Management Review, Vol. 41, No. 2, 1999) ranked Knowing what the task is the number one factor determining knowledge worker productivity. The reason for this is that task definition is a non-trivial issue for knowledge work, much more so than for other types of jobs. It is therefore critical that activity and process outputs are aligned with precisely defined objectives or tasks.
  • Efficiently: Peter Drucker has also stated that "there is nothing quite so useless as doing with great efficiency that which should not be done at all". Following this logic, efficiency improvement initiatives should be ramped up only after effectiveness has reached a satisfactory level. That being said, when your process produces outputs that are aligned with objectives, performance can be tweaked by focusing on how to produce those outputs efficiently.

Note on the origin of the definition: Based on earlier variants developed for various industrial clients, I introduced the following definition of collaboration in the NTNU Master level class TMM4225 Configuration and Use of Collaborative Working Environments in August 2008 (The class has now, starting in 2009, been renamed to TMM4225 Engineering Collaboration in Distributed Teams):

Collaboration can be defined as value-adding interactions that enable employees, customers, suppliers and partners to achieve business objectives, resolve issues and share knowledge effectively and efficiently.

Tuesday 19 May 2009

New Book: 42 Rules for Successful Collaboration

David Coleman came up with the idea. The idea was as simple as it was beautiful: There is a lack of practical guidelines on collaboration. Wheres a number of recently published books cover the theoretical foundations of collaboration, none of these books offer crisp and easy-to-understand guidelines on precisely what to do and how to handle specific collaborative situations. Let's close this gap by offering a book that does exactly this!

KC liked the idea of such a book and has, as one of 26 contributors besides Mr. Coleman, contributed rule #21: "Collaboration Requires Management and Leadership".

Excerpt from rule #21: If employees represent 80 percent of the cost of a knowledge-intensive organization and these employees spend 70–80 percent on different types of collaborative activities, this should be the focus of attention for business executives.
The motivation for this rule is the observation that most companies tend to address collaboration in a fragmented, ad hoc manner, despite the fact that many professionals today spend most of their time on collaborative activities. The rule has been written to help companies understand why they should approach collaboration more systematically.

Each rule is clear and presented in a stand-alone, two-page format. Bring the book to meetings and - when the meeting starts late (not yours, of course!) because the meeting host has not read the book, you have already worked your way through two or three rules. Compared to many books and even white papers, these rules are ripe, low-hanging fruit ready to be picked.

Mr. Coleman provides a holistic view on collaboration, and through a variety of contributions from his social networks, others have contributed their best rules for collaboration based on their experience. The book takes a holistic view that covers the three areas people, process and technology, and this is also used as the organizing principle for the book. Each rule can be found in the appropriate section.

Most of the rules are good, and many are outstanding and can really make a difference. It is challenging to pick favorites, but here are a few examples of rules that resonate particularly well in my mind, as these rules articulate simple rules that addresses important issues from an interesting perspective:
  • Rule #2 - "Know Why You Are Collaborating"
  • Rule #4 - "You Will Include All of Your Stakeholders"
  • Rule #15 - "Make Someone Responsible for Collaboration"
  • Rule #20 - "Know the Objective Before Defining the Tools"
The book is available as a paperback and as an eBook (downloadable PDF). For those that are interested, the book can be purchased from HappyAbout, or via this direct link:

:: Purchase 42 Rules for Successful Collaboration ::

Commission note: Kristensen Consulting takes pride in transparency. As a contributor to the book, KC receives a 30 % commission when using the link above, or by clicking on the book image at the top of this post (15 % from 2010). If you don't like the idea of this, the quality of the book is equally good when purchased from HappyAbout without using the link above (in this case there is no commission).

Happy reading - and learning!

Thursday 14 May 2009

Collaboration: The Big Paradox

Most companies tend to address collaboration in a fragmented, ad hoc manner, despite the fact that 70-80 percent of managers' and knowledge professionals' time is spent on collaborative activities. The enigma is that these activities are, at large, not managed, led and supported the way companies manage, lead and support other activities.

If employees represent 80 percent of the cost of a knowledge-intensive organization and these employees spend 70-80 percent on different types of collaborative activities, this should be the focus of attention for business executives. Significant productivity improvements can be realized by improving how businesses collaborate, through combining strategic and tactical perspectives on collaboration.

Building a competitive advantage based on collaboration basically involves identifying answers to these three questions:

  1. Why should a company improve the way it collaborates? Answering this question involves identifying an identification of business benefits, opportunities, drivers, bottlenecks and problems.
  2. What should a company do to improve the way it collaborates? What elements are required to develop a set of new work practices? How can the collaborative infrastructures be aligned with strategic business objectives and the desired work practices to improve collaborative performance?
  3. How should a company support and manage collaboration? What specific competencies and support functions must be in place to secure the realisation of expected benefits?

Collaboration should be managed and led on both a strategic and at a tactical level, where tactical collaboration management principles are derived from and consistent with top level collaboration strategies. Addressing one without addressing the other, is unlikely to produce successful results.

Businesses can achieve significant productivity improvements from a systematic, structured investment in management principles, tools and methods supporting collaboration. The realisation of expected benefits require a clear collaborative strategy, and hands-on collaboration tactics. Lack of either (or a clear connection between the two) dramatically reduces the success rate. What is needed is a connected and coherent, multi-level, multi-perspective approach that closes the gap between strategy and tactics and operationalises collaborative strategies based on business objectives.

Tuesday 31 March 2009

Global Oil & Gas Survey - The Future of Collaboration

Together with Cyviz, KC has undertaken the major study The Future of Collaboration on the use of collaborative work environments in the Oil & Gas industry. This survey maps how companies in the Oil & Gas industry utilize collaborative environments (CEs) to achieve business objectives, and how technology is applied to support these structures and work processes. The survey further identifies and explores common shortcomings and bottlenecks experienced by companies trying to realize the potential value of collaboration. The survey concludes with a discussion of mission critical capabilities for Oil & Gas companies that are interested in using collaboration as a strategic enabler of productivity, decision making and knowledge sharing.

Some major findings include the following:
  1. CEs are mission critical - a majority of survey participants view CEs as mission critical, and they also expect to see a higher demand for such facilities as the number of known uses and benefits continue to increase.
  2. Audio conferencing, video conferencing and data sharing are the most important functionalities provided by CEs, but many respondents find the applications difficult to use.
  3. Current and anticipated use is higher than expected. More than 75 % of users expect to see more CEs in their corporations, and in excess of 30 % work in CEs more than 6 hours per week.
  4. Integrated operations and related concepts are reaching a stage of maturity, resulting in business objectives driving investment decisions rather than AV integrators running the show based on technology driven opportunities and proprietary knowledge.
  5. The major challenges often lie within the organizational structures, work practices and implementation capabilities, not necessarily with technology as such. Many users believe standardization will speed up the introduction of CEs.
  6. Multi-purpose CEs are increasingly becoming popular. Layouts and solution offerings must handle a number of different locations, user groups, processes and settings in a flexible manner.
  7. The failure rate of CEs is too high. This is partly due to poor reliability and partly to poor usability in real life contexts. Intuitive user interfaces, standardization, reliable service concepts, awareness and training are identified as key remedies.
The complete survey report is available for purchase.
Download The Future of Collaboration - Executive Summary]

Participating oil & gas companies have complimentary access to the survey report for internal use only. Contact KC to find out if your company participated in the survey. Additional findings will be presented at the 71st EAGE Conference & Exhibition
in Amsterdam at the Data and Information Management session 9 June 2009. See EAGE Amsterdam 2009 web page for more information.