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.

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