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.