Some perspectives on collaboration

by | Dec 11, 2019 | Collaboration, Digital workplace, Information Management

Over the last couple of months, I have come across a number of excellent commentaries on the art and science of collaboration. First up come two contributions from Michael Sampson, whose Twitter handle is @collabguy. Back in 2011 Michael wrote a book entitled The Collaboration Roadmap and this book remains as relevant today as it did at the time of publication. Last month Michael published an excerpt from this book which sets out a definitive statement of the downsides of collaboration. More recently Michael has published a perspective on collaboration that highlights three pre-conditions for collaboration

  • When the human practices of working together are lacking, people irritate each other and can’t get beyond their personal conflicts to settle into a productive way of working together.
  • When there is no agreement about the processes for working together, the work suffers at the hand of methodological arguments.
  • When potential is lacking, there’s no driving reason to collaborate in the first place. It’s merely a nice sounding idea, rather than anything of substance.

If any one of these pre-conditions are missing, then in Michael’s considerable experience invariably the collaboration fails.

Over the last few years there has been a dramatic growth in the amount of high-quality academic research that has been carried out into the benefits and challenges of collaboration. My own collection of research papers now totals over 300. Unfortunately, much of this research (and the briefing papers from application vendors) tends to take research carried out in a single organisation and scale this up to a generic model for successful collaboration. Back in 2017 Dan Bang and Chris Frith published a paper in which they systematically analysed the outcomes of over 200 research papers that have focused on the whether or not working in groups results in better decisions. After all this making better decisions is the true measure of working in a group. Improvements in productivity are irrelevant, as has been cogently argued by James Robertson. Their 22 page paper highlights some of the biases in group decision making.

The Fall 2019 issue of MIT Sloan Management Review includes three very good papers on the topic

  • Collaborate Smarter, Not Harder (Rob Cross, Thomas H. Davenport, and Peter Gray)
  • Improving the Rhythm of Your Collaboration (Ethan Bernstein, Jesse Shore, and David Lazer)
  • It’s Time to Tackle Your Team’s Undiscussables (Ginka Toegel and Jean-Louis Barsoux)

Rob Cross and Thomas Davenport in particular have been working in on the achieving of effective collaboration for many years, and so have a significant amount of experience to offer. Rob Cross and his colleagues have written is a very good paper (download) on avoiding collaboration overload. A good source of advice on collaboration are articles published in of Harvard Business Review. The September-October 2019 issue has a very insightful view of backchannels in the boardroom by Heidi Gardner and Randall Peterson. The point that they make is that outside of the board room directors invariably have a series of smaller 1-on-1 meetings to resolve points of detail and agree common ground on actions to be taken. In my experience this behaviour happens at all levels in an organisation and can be a core reason for slowing down decision making.

The cover of the November-December 2019 issue refers to Cracking the Code on Collaboration – Six New Tools. You might think that this is a review of Teams, Slack et al but in fact it is about six training techniques that enable leaders and employees to work well together, learn from one another and overcome the psychological barriers of working together. The issue also includes an article on the reasons why open offices so not produce the desired interactions. One of the authors of this article, Professor Elmer Bernstein (a Professor at Harvard Business School) has also written a longer version of his HBR paper.

 This list of research papers is far from comprehensive. If you are going to take collaboration seriously then you should be keeping a close watch on research about collaboration optimization.

Martin White