Collaboration as it really is - Working together, alone


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Collaboration is the participation of independent actors in mutual interactions to deliver a specific result, either chosen or not. The so-called collaboration is the outcome of the interactions that occur, initiated by the different participants for their own good reasons, but collaboration is not the purpose.

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Collaboration as it really is - Working together, alone

  1. 1. Collaboration as it really is Working together, alone
  2. 2. Collaboration is the participation of independent actors inmutual interactions to deliver a specific result, either chosen ornot. The so-called collaboration is the outcome of the interactionsthat occur, initiated by the different participants for their owngood reasons, but collaboration is not the purpose.
  3. 3. IntroductionOver the past months, we have been writing and thinking frequently about“collaboration”: what it is, what it means, how it can be used, how it can be improved.Most of this was done in the context of discussions about Enterprise 2.0 and SocialBusiness, where more and better connectedness is often preached as being the HolyGrail to get to more and better collaboration.To some extent, that is true. However, it does not tell the complete story. Therefore, insome of our posts, we have been arguing against such “jump-to-conclusions” thinking.However, after a while, we had to discover that also our own ideas were not always asaccurate or as complete as we initially thought.So, this paper is essentially a thinking exercise about what collaboration really is. Thepurpose is not to get the ultimate proof for our own ideas, but simply to get to a betterunderstanding, a deeper insight into what collaboration really is and therefore, to get amore correct view on how this might create more value for our organisations andmore meaning in our life.This is a discussion paper so, as always, we welcome your comments and ideas.Key observationsThe following gives a brief overview of the most important observations that resultfrom our analysis. Understanding these will help you better understand the potentialsuccess or failure of so-called “social” initiatives. Collaboration is an outcome, or if you want, a side-effect of the act of “working together”; it is not a purpose, nor objective. The key variable for collaboration is the “collaboration intent”, the willingness to engage in a joint effort based upon our perception of the potential risks, inconveniences and rewards that the collaboration will bring. This perception is largely function of our “context” as an employee within the organisation, a context which, in most situations, allows for little manoeuvrability allowing us to adjust our context for a better collaboration intent.
  4. 4. Consequently, solutions such as social tools that essentially address the “ease of working together” itself by improving connectedness, find-ability and share-ability, add little to improve the real level and the quality of the collaboration since they have hardly impact on the collaboration intent. In addition, above mentioned “context” is also a “protection frame” that further reduces the need / willingness to fully engage in collaboration. Again, social tools do not provide a real alternative for this protection frame. Finally, collaboration remains a thing of humans that interact and therefore, the outcome is largely function of the personalities of all participants. Again, no tools or workarounds will fundamentally change this. Same as for most situations of real knowledge work, you simply need the right individuals for the right job.The collaboration “system”Like most things in life, collaboration is a simple thing. However, we humans havetendency not to think too much about simple things and then, they sometimes seemto become complex, since they rarely work out as planned. This paper is an exercise insimple thinking about simple things so that we might understand what makes themoften complex.What is collaboration?As some have argued in the comments on our blog, collaboration has many facets andconsequently, the inner workings of collaboration are not always the same.That is true. When thinking about how people work together when facing a disaster, itis clear that this has little to do with the way we work together in the context of abusiness project.So, for the present paper, the scope is limited to collaboration in a "regular" businesscontext, either within a single company or between companies and therefore, thestarting point for the discussion is this Wikipedia definition:
  5. 5. Collaboration is working together to achieve a goal. It is a recursive process where two or more people or organizations work together to realize shared goals, (this is more than the intersection of common goals seen in co-operative ventures, but a deep, collective, determination to reach an identical objective)This definition is OK, but as we will see, it is really insufficient to clearly understand thereasons why collaboration sometimes does work and why it so often doesn’t work atall.The collaboration "system"To get to this deeper understanding, we must look at the larger picture, at the"context" of the collaboration, at the "system" that drives the interactions between allparticipants and doing so, determines the success or the failure of the collaboration.We’ll do so by looking at how and why two companies work together. For the reasonsthat will become obvious later on, this is a more simple and straightforward modelthat we then can extend to understand why individuals work together (or not). Company A Objective / Deliverable Company A GOALSAs always, the basic premise is a company looking for a solution. In this case, CompanyA that has its corporate goals and ambitions and that has identified an intermediateobjective or deliverable that will help it on its path towards success.If Company A can get itself to this intermediate objective or deliverable in an efficientand effective way, there is no need for collaboration. Of course, reality is different andoften, a company has to reach outside to complement its own capabilities.
  6. 6. So this brings us to the next picture where we see our Company A working togetherwith Company B, in some way, in order to jointly get to this intermediate objective ordeliverable. Company A Company B Joint effort Objective / Deliverable Company B Company A GOALS GOALSAs the graph suggests, only the intermediate objective or deliverable is shared.However, there is no need that the corporate goals of both companies are identical. Intheory, they can be completely different and even conflicting.Moreover, even the notion of the “common intermediate objective or deliverable” is abit stretched. For Company A, this really is a deliverable it wants to have, because itwill help the company on its path towards success. However, for Company B, mostlikely, this deliverable has no further importance for its own strategy. Only the act ofparticipating in the creation of the deliverable is important.Still, both companies view the intermediate objective as something that adds value,something that will help them on their path to success and therefore are willing towork together, be it perhaps for very different reasons.The dirty little secret of collaborationOK, most likely, the above will seem rather obvious.However, is it really?For most of us, collaboration is seen as a very positive act. "Working together toachieve a common goal". Could it be nicer?
  7. 7. However, reality is that in most collaboration acts "nice" is only a "nice to have"characteristic. For collaboration to succeed, it isn’t really necessary that all partiesinvolved really like each other. In most cases, they don’t. Just have a look at how youwork together with your colleagues. Do you really like all of them? Are they realfriends?If collaboration would require that all parties involved really "like" each other, littleproductive would happen in this world. But fortunately, collaboration is a rather selfishact that you participate in because it will bring you closer to your GOAL, your ownchosen GOAL. And that behaviour is essentially what we call "economy".Collaboration and trustAs we described above, the basic concept of collaboration is simple: working togetherto achieve a common goal or objective. In addition, we also have the reassuringunderstanding that we still can collaborate, even while more or less disliking eachother. So, why is it still so difficult?The thing called "confidence"Collaboration is a fundamental human behaviour. The human race wouldn’t havesurvived without it. So why is it often such a problem in a business context?Well, the answer is quite simple. Technically speaking, collaboration in a businesscontext is not really more difficult than it is in our private life. Only, our perception ofthe level of control we (think to) have over the situation is completely different.Also in our private life, our level of "real" control is limited. To a large extent, we are"lived" by our context: the family we are part of, the society we belong to, theneighbourhood where we live, our education, our job. Still, in most cases, we do notreally feel constrained by this context and we are willing to take the necessary risks:getting married, getting kids, buying a house...In general, in our private life, we have a rather low awareness of potential risks andhigh confidence that we will manage, even when things go somewhat wrong. In abusiness context, which is by definition a much more controlled and plannedenvironment, we have a much higher awareness of potential risks and a much lowerconfidence that we will manage.Why this difference?
  8. 8. Well, the main reason for this is that a company is not a natural system. A company isan artefact, which existence is governed by specific laws and rules that allow it to existas a whole at the size and the level of complexity that it has. By definition, every non-natural system is fragile since it does not exist close to its natural "balance point" andevery uncontrolled change can make it collapse. It’s an elephant on long thin legs.To some extent, collaboration is an act of being open for uncontrolled change.Stepping into a discussion with a strangerThe collaboration "system" that we presented above is simple enough. However,applying this in the business context of a company with a high degree of "need forcontrol" introduces quite a number of perceived risks. inability / dependency uncertainty - - decision to act - loss of diversity control + - joint effort objective / + deliverableInability / uncertaintyFirst, and this is not something the company has full control of, there is the challengeof finding and selecting the right partner. This problem cannot be completely solvedtoday. Despite all our communication capabilities and our access to companyinformation in various forms, finding and selecting the right partner remains achallenge.
  9. 9. This challenge will not be easily addressed. A main issue here is openness. Having agood partner is an asset that you do not readily want to share with everyone.DependencyA second challenge is dependency. Companies do not want to depend too much uponother parties. Although many of them have grown to large collaborative ecosystemswith suppliers and subcontractors, most of this is strictly hierarchical and allows forlittle mutual influential interaction.Loss of controlA bit in the same context, there is the aversion for too much loss of control.This concern is of course completely expected in the context of the discussion we havehere but to a large extent, it is a false feeling. Indeed, most companies that want tohave a high degree of control will in reality overdo it, adding unnecessary layers ofauthority, procedures and rules that only slow down the pace of activity withoutsubstantially improving the "safety" of the system.Having to loosen up some part of the formal control can improve the operationalperformance of such company.DiversityFinally, there is diversity. Differences in the mutual "culture" of the collaboratingcompanies can be a significant burden for success. Bringing in a partner that cancomplement your own capabilities or that is more efficient in the delivery of certainservices, will by definition mean that this partner will be "different" in some way and,most likely, this will necessitate some changes in your own default behaviour in orderto make the collaboration succeed.At the same time, such confrontation of different cultural views can also be anopportunity to detect new possibilities, new ways of addressing certain problems,which can benefit both parties.Alone, togetherOK, this is only a very brief and incomplete overview and much more can be said aboutthis. In essence, none of these perceived risks really should be a major problem.However, they become problems to the extent that we want to keep our "context"identical.So, this brings us to this interesting dualism:
  10. 10. • On the one hand, as we described in above, collaboration is perfectly possible while both parties have completely different visions about their final destination. They only have to agree on the intermediate objective or deliverable. • On the other hand, if we want to maximize the value that the collaboration can bring, we cannot restrict our context to what it was before, which might mean that we have to review the vision we have about our final destination.It is a bit like marriage, but without the pheromones.Social collaborationIn the first part of this paper, we briefly described the "system" of collaborationbetween two companies. This was a very high-level overview that didnt touch onmany of the specifics of business collaboration, but it is sufficient to identify some ofthe basic rules: • In order to collaborate, the companies do not need to have identical world views. • For most companies, collaboration will introduce elements that are seen as risks or inconveniences, which can be a burden to act and to perform. • By definition, collaboration is a confrontation of different perceptions, which is both a nuisance and an opportunity for learning and improving.Now, lets move on to individuals. However, we will not yet examine how individualscollaborate in a business context. Instead, we will look at how individuals "collaborate"in a social media context or, as it was previously coined, in a Web 2.0 context. As we allknow, the visible success of Web 2.0 platforms has been the incentive for people suchas Andrew McAfee to wonder what marvels would happen if similar tools weredeployed within the enterprise. And he coined it Enterprise 2.0, the dawn of emergentcollaboration.As we all know meanwhile, Enterprise 2.0 wasnt really a homerun. And the reason forthis is, once again, very simple: we thought that we saw expressions of realcollaboration in the Web 2.0 space, but in reality, there were none.
  11. 11. It is about the individual, not about collaborationWhat follows here is not new. We already wrote this in July 2009 in our Enterprise 2.0- Enter the dark force post: Individual B Individual A Individual C participation participation participation Individual A Individual C GOALS GOALS Individual B GOALS "The essence of Web 2.0 is about individuals who make use of some form of technology (wiki, social network, etc.) to gain a personal advantage. With Web 2.0, we are always talking about social networks, social media, collaboration, but in reality, the main driving force of the social web is not social. It is selfish personal interest. People want to participate because it fulfils some of their desires. This can be a desire for contact, self-expression, self-promotion, recognition, escaping the daily rut, whatever. However, always because they want to, because this participation delivers a direct, personal benefit. When multiple individuals participate using the same platform, interactions will occur. The individuals can/will mutually influence each others experience and this will result in "something", in some kind of side-effects. It will create a new context for each participant that will influence the willingness for further participation. In addition, once a platform reaches a certain level of participation or starts delivering sufficient "side-effects", this can become the reason for non- participants to get attracted to the platform anyway. But, of course, it can also work the other way.
  12. 12. So, the expressions that we commonly use such as "social" or "collaborative" are in fact not very well chosen. They refer to our perception of the potential outcome of the joint participation, but blur our view on the real mechanism behind."OK, that was 2009, but these statements are still equally valid today. Web 2.0 or socialmedia are not about collaboration, they are about participation for a personaladvantage and all these participations create a "context", some form of deliverable,which, such as in the case of Wikipedia, can be seen as valuable.However, we must not confuse this participation with real collaboration. Thedifference might seem subtle, but think about the risks and inconveniences associatedwith collaboration that we discussed above.Are you experiencing any such things when participating on a social platform? Ofcourse not! The nice thing about social networks is that they are essentially opt-in. Youparticipate because you choose to and if the thing doesnt suit your needs, you quit.No questions asked. It is essentially a zero-commitment environment.Unfortunately, business is not exactly a zero-commitment environment and that iswhere it all starts to go wrong. The power of "social" is enormous, but social does notwork unless a) you have the authority to decide whether you participate or not and b)the final deliverable is not set beforehand.As we all know, none of these conditions fits very well with the reality of todaysenterprises.Participative collaborationAbove, we described how individuals participate on Web 2.0 platforms or in socialnetworks and how this sometimes, such as in the case of Wikipedia, delivers tangible,valuable outcomes. This "participative collaboration" model also exists in businesscontexts and to some extent; it has proven to be one of the more successful models inthe Enterprise 2.0 space.One of the best known examples of such participative collaboration model in abusiness context is crowdsourcing. Crowdsourcing, the act whereby a company,directly or indirectly via a platform such as Innocentive, tries to attract an expert withthe right knowledge and expertise to address a specific business problem.
  13. 13. For the company, finding this expert with the right solution allows it to move furtheron its road to success. For the expert, being able to deliver the solution means afinancial reward and perhaps, some form of recognition. Both sides win. Company A Company B participation participation Objective / Deliverable Company B Company A GOALS GOALSThis model has been proven successful and therefore, it has been used at length (orshould we say: abused?) as the "proof" that the Enterprise 2.0 concept really deliversresults.Well, nothing really wrong with that. We dont mind that we see crowdsourcing as partof the Enterprise 2.0 space and we dont mind that we call it "collaboration". However,as we have written before: "Words are an extremely poor representation of our realityand it only gets worse when we write them down." And well add to that: "especially inPowerPoint".The problem with putting everything under the same umbrella or calling it all"collaboration" is that it clouds our view on what makes a certain model successful orwhy it simply can work.In this case, we see "a form of" collaboration that delivers results simply because thismodel avoids many of the obstacles that we experience in "real" collaborationcontexts.
  14. 14. Same as for the individuals participating in the Web 2.0 space, the "participativecollaboration model" introduces few of the risks or inconveniences that we discussedearlier in the context of the collaboration between companies. The only one thatessentially remains is addressing the problem of finding and selecting the right expert.However, this is largely addressed by the platform and since the expert brings the rightsolution, this is not really a big issue.For the rest, there are very little consequences. After the deal, both parties continueon their own path. No questions asked. "That expert really was a bit weird!" "Yes, but now hes gone. Glad I dont have to work with him!" "Anyway, he would not fit in this company."A nice solution indeed, but therefore, also very little interaction and mutual influence,hence little opportunity for learning and for improving. Somehow, a missedopportunity.But it works.This thing called “employee”OK, let us finally start talking about the individuals who collaborate in an enterprisecontext: the employees.And before doing so, let us further clarify our view on what we think “real”collaboration is. As we wrote before, the word collaboration can be used to refer tovarious flavours of "working together". However, for the sake of this discussion, wewill assume the following characteristics: • The task at hand requires the involvement of several individuals; no single person is able to deliver the final outcome on his own (within the required timeframe). • The final outcome is largely undefined; there might have been similar tasks before and there is certainly some form of "high concept" definition, but it remains a unique deliverable, not done before. • The path to the final deliverable is largely unknown. There might be past experiences, best practices, methodologies, etc. that provide guidance; however, the real path will unfold as the group proceeds.
  15. 15. • Due to the above, there is the need for intense interaction between all participants, exchanging information, making decisions and agreeing on next steps.OK, this is a bit challenging, but it is also the type of collaboration that can deliver thegreatest value for the company. The more everything is known and predefined, theless there is potential for a real breakthrough.The "collaboration system" that is shown here isnt much different from the one wediscussed earlier for the collaboration between companies. Instead of companies, wenow have a number of employees who have been assigned to the task of realizing thisobjective / deliverable, likely chosen based upon their skills, previous experience, etc.The successful completion of the task will bring all parties closer to their individualgoals. That’s the theory.However, we all know that things arent always as simple as they look. So, why is therethis feeling that collaboration within the enterprise often doesnt work as easy as itseems to work in other social contexts?Of course, all risks and inconveniences that we listed in the context of thecollaboration between companies are also present here in some way: uncertainty /
  16. 16. inability, dependency, loss of control, diversity. However, that doesnt yet explain thedifference. There are always risks and inconveniences in any context.No, what is different here is our perception of these risks and what we can do aboutthem, hence our willingness to really take on the challenge.In the inter-company context, we essentially have collaboration between autonomousagents. Most likely, that is not completely true, but certainly, to some extent.However, in the above scenario of collaboration between individuals, these individualsare employees. We might think that they also are acting as autonomous agents, but inreality they are well aware of their restricted context as an employee.And that restricted context as an employee means two things: • First, their perception of risk will be heavily biased because they will be held accountable for the result, without however having final authority. • Second, their ability to adjust your "collaboration context" is limited. Unlike the individuals participating in the Web 2.0 space, they did not really opt in and they cannot opt out. Its their job. In addition, many of the easy options that are otherwise available, such as avoiding the individuals you dont like, are not really an option here.In addition, unlike the scenario of the inter-company collaboration, here the partiesinvolved havent really chosen the intermediate objective or deliverable. In most cases,it is a given horse. It is part of their job. Therefore, the likeliness that this objective isreally aligned with their personal goals is small. At least, for most employees in mostcompanies.Companies are artificial constructs that do not adhere to the laws of normal complexsocial systems. Within the enterprise, collaboration is a complex social system trappedin an artificial context that disables most of the agility that is really needed forcollaboration to succeed.Is Enterprise 2.0 a game changer?In this paper, we have examined the “system” of collaboration, first, betweencompanies and then, between individuals within an organisation. And we assume thatthe Enterprise 2.0 fans who have read this often have wondered: “When is the meatcoming? When are they finally going to talk about Enterprise 2.0?”
  17. 17. Indeed, enabling more and better collaboration has always been the mantra of theEnterprise 2.0 message. What is happening? How to collaborate? How can I influence? How to share? Who knows what? Where do I find…? When should I contribute?These are just some of the questions and issues that we picked up from a presentationgiven at a recent Enterprise 2.0 event. Questions and issues that Enterprise 2.0 issupposed to address.And of course, to some extent, it really does. Some of these tools can really bridge thecollaboration gaps that exist in today’s global enterprises, streamlining informationflows and, in general, making information more available and findable.However, in the context of our discussion about the “collaboration system”, we alsomust be well aware of the fact that the advantages of Enterprise 2.0 essentially play atthe level of the “collaboration act”, but that it adds very little that will address the“collaboration intent”.Collaboration intentWhatever the Enterprise 2.0 evangelists might claim, the success of collaboration isonly to a limited extent a function of the quality of the tools that are being used, of the“ease” of collaborating. Instead, collaboration success is essentially a function of the
  18. 18. matching of the collaboration intent, of the commitment of the various participants.And that collaboration intent is the resultant of their individual perception of the risks,inconveniences and potential rewards that the collaboration will bring. When the rightintent is there, the available tools don’t really matter. Even e-mail will do.In addition, as the countless adoption discussions of the past have clearly shown, theintroduction of collaborative tools is only a minor trigger for participation and for morecollaboration. The greatest “successes” are essentially seen in contexts where the toolscan really be used (or have to be used) “in the flow” of the daily tasks, streamlininginteractions and information flows.However, that is what we call “improvement”. While valuable, does this give us thetransformation that will create the agility that is needed in today’s fast-paced, complexbusiness environment?Reality is that Enterprise 2.0 tools can surely improve the “technical quality” of thecollaboration act, but they do not fundamentally change the “depth” of thecollaboration. For that to happen, individuals must be allowed to reach outside theirrestricted context as an employee, enabling them to adjust their perception ofpotential risks, inconveniences and rewards, hence, their collaboration intent andcommitment.However, that also means exploring new paths, trying new approaches, doing differentthings. To what extent is there room for this in today’s organisations?Especially in the larger corporations, where Enterprise 2.0 tools are often essentiallyused to “patch” the deficiencies of isolation, poor information flows anddisconnectedness, resulting from the size and the geographical spread of theorganisation, there is little room for exploring new paths. Such companies areessentially focused on the replication of existing capabilities, not the discovery of newcapabilities and therefore, they leave little room for reaping the benefits that realcollaboration can bring.So, Enterprise 2.0 will not be the game changer for collaboration. It can be an enablerto support new forms of organisations, but it will not transform the enterprise into a“social enterprise”.For the social enterprise to exist, companies have to be organised and managed basedupon other values and principles than what we have today. And getting there, if everwe can, will not be a matter of tools or technology.Fundamental change is never a matter of tools, always a matter of people.
  19. 19. EpilogueIn this paper, we identified "collaboration intent" as the fundamental variable forsuccessful collaboration. Collaboration intent, the resultant of our perception of therisks, inconveniences and potential rewards that the collaboration will bring.Of course, creating the organisational conditions that make that such collaborationintent is maximised is not a straightforward undertaking. Too many rules, roles andstructures in todays organisations are roadblocks for creating such conditions.However, that is a discussion that would lead us too far. So, let us assume that wehave the right conditions for our collaboration intent. Will collaboration then happenseamlessly?Unfortunately, it does not. At least, not always. After all, collaboration remains an actof a group of individuals and these individuals all have their own individual "ability tocollaborate".Collaboration ability
  20. 20. If there is one fundamental flaw in nearly everything that is said or written aboutEnterprise 2.0, social business and other social enterprises, then it is this thinkingabout groups and not about individuals. In nearly every discourse, there is thisunderlying assumption that the workforce is like a set of communicating vessels whereknowledge will automatically flow, be replicated and be absorbed by all that areinterconnected. Give us more connectedness and we have a better enterprise.Well, that is absolute nonsense.It is not because a group consists of multiple individuals that we must start thinking interms of averages. That only blurs our view on what makes things really work (or not).We ourselves are old enough to have worked in a company, be it also large andgeographically dispersed, with nonetheless a great, open spirit. All conditions for greatcollaboration intent were there. Never seen better. However, was it perfect?Of course not! Even in such organisation, there were colleagues that were a real painto work with. Nothing about social networking or social tools would have ever changedthat. It was hard-wired.Therefore, we must stop thinking about "social" as something that raises the "average"competence level. Mathematically, it does, of course. However, that improvement willnot at all be distributed equally. Same as for Nielsens "participation inequality" theoryor the so-called "1% - 9% - 90%" rule, competence improvement will be distributed in avery unequal way.Digital and networking and connectedness are great amplifiers and therefore, offergreat opportunities for learning. However, it is not because all these posts, statusmessages and tweets get into your timeline that it makes you any better or smarter.Its not about what you get, but about what you do with it. And finally, that remainsthe decision of the individual and not of the group.And most likely, it is also better so.An Xpragma white paperJune 2012 Xpragma bvba Mechelsesteenweg 254Frontpage picture: Kevin Dooley 2820 BelgiumTags: BIM (Business Interaction Management), +32-(0)15-340 845collaboration, Enterprise 2.0, social business