Short version: I argue firstly that collaboration is a human activity where the use of technology removes restrictions. Secondly that the role of the organisation in collaboration is to guide and support people who are assumed to be trying to work more effectively. Finally, I argue that if we want people to learn to use the tools at their disposal so that they can be truly effective, we also need to assure them that the learning time will be well spent.
I recently attended a pair of talks which led me to think that we often get collaboration wrong. With a dizzying array of apps and tools, not to mention increasingly dispersed workplaces, it’s easy to focus on the tool and the process, when we should rather be focusing on people.
Collaboration has become a catch-all term for how people work together. It encompasses how we interact with suppliers and customers as well as within companies and project teams. If current trends continue, we are likely to need to quickly form teams which involve multiple disciplines and companies, ensuring that information is both shared and secured appropriately.
So, what’s the problem?
I have identified three problems. Each of these is a problem of culture, which is to say how we relate to our business environment and each other.
1) Drop the E
The first thing I noticed was a discussion focused around “E-collaboration”. This is a popular current buzzword working as shorthand for “any collaboration involving technology”. You can see how this came about: way back when, there was “collaboration”; over time people started using email and Sharepoint to collaborate remotely, and keep project files secure; finally this technological collaboration seemed increasingly important so it got its own name.
Today, “E-collaboration” is nonsense. That’s because the technology has become pervasive and is used even when everyone is in the same room. Just as remoteness is no longer a barrier to collaboration, proximity does not preclude technology. I encountered a great example of this with one of my MBA project teams: of the six members, three were in a meeting room while the other three were elsewhere in the world. It didn’t matter where they were, only that we had all made the time to come together, exchange information, set tasks, and move on.
The point is that there is no such thing as “e-collaboration” today. There is just “collaboration”. But by insisting that the technology is more important, this is what we focus on rather than the human interactions, motivations and requirements of team members. The more we focus on people, the happier, more motivated and “teamlike” our interactions become.
2) Cannot be top-down
I’m sure we have all encountered work environments where well-meaning people have created policies on how teams should collaborate. I don’t have a problem with this as such, because these policies are usually created with the intention of promoting collaboration, and that’s a good thing.
Top down attempts to foster collaboration are doomed to be strange, even if they don’t fail. Again, we have the problem that collaboration is an inherently human activity, and that means it needs to be flexible and driven by the participants.
The danger with top down policies is that they can put up barriers to collaboration. When you have mobile people, ad-hoc teams, and the need to include customers or suppliers who you might not want to provide full information access, mandating certain tools or processes could lead to insufficient or too much sharing.
Trust your people, ensure they understand the full picture, and let them make decisions. They are trying to do their jobs better and more efficiently. Help them, support them, and by all means guide them, but don’t put up walls around them.
3) Don’t force adoption
Another discussion which bothered me was around tool adoption. The view was that companies or teams should say, “this is the tool you must use to collaborate”, and that a team member who wants to contribute should have no objection to learning to use the tool.
I strenuously disagree with that last point as stated, and I say this as someone who has gone to great lengths to continue using tools that I am familiar and productive with rather than (as I see it), wasting time and effort learning to use yet another productivity app.
This idea stems from a pernicious view of the workplace: that people are there to do their time, and they should put up with whatever their employer deigns to give them, and even be grateful for it. This is a Theory X perspective in a world where employees are increasingly saying that they are Theory Y people.
Note: These are Macgregor’s HR theories: Theory X states that people are inherently lazy and unmotivated and only work because they have to; whereas Theory Y states that people are inherently self-motivated and want to do good work. As always, the truth is somewhere in between but the more you treat people one way, the more they will resemble that theory.
There are two problems: exhaustion and predictability.
Exhaustion is very simple: the modern technological landscape and hence workplace contains a plethora of tools which are barely distinguishable yet function in different ways. These are constantly being changes, updated, and thus we can no longer be sure that our tool will work today the way it did yesterday. This puts huge stress on the brain, because we’re having to constantly re-learn such basic things. There comes a point where it’s too much and productivity drops. It’s only natural for people to resent having to waste so much time learning systems when they could be being productive. Exhaustion is reduced by consistently using the same tools.
Predictability refers to how consistently we work across multiple teams, projects and with different companies. Predictability is important not only because it helps us know what we’re doing, it also allows colleagues to support one another and the company to support all of them. However, predictability is also important for information security. Predictability is enhanced by consistently using the same tools.
This brings us to an interesting point: my objection at the top of this section isn’t to the idea that people should be willing to use a tool well, but to the idea that one should be willing to learn to use any tool that is flung at the team.
In conclusion, I argue firstly that collaboration is a human activity where the use of technology removes restrictions. Secondly that the role of the organisation in collaboration is to guide and support people who are assumed to be trying to work more effectively. Finally, I argue that if we want people to learn to use the tools at their disposal so that they can be truly effective, we also need to assure them that the learning time will be well spent.