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Is All Collaboration Good Collaboration?

Posted by EddiePrentice on October 6, 2014


The ability for people in organisations to collaborate more effectively is a basic tenet of successfully implementing a social business software platform. Technology provides a number of benefits: the ability to cut across organisational silos; communicating across different locations and time zones; reaching all people wherever they are in the hierarchy; and mobile access. However, it is still the behaviour of your people which will make or break your social business strategy. Technology is the enabler not an end in itself. Better collaboration does not necessarily mean more collaboration.

The rhetorical question in the title of this post gives a clue to my thinking on the subject. Perhaps the best place to start is to quote from the first line of a book I read about 18 months ago and just returned to for reference a couple of days ago, Morten T. Hansen’s book “Collaboration - How Leaders Avoid The Traps, Create Unity, And Reap Big Results”.

“Bad Collaboration is worse than no collaboration.”

Hansen’s premise is that people scuttle around from meeting to meeting to coordinate work and share ideas and that very little actually gets done as a consequence. It can often manifest itself in political in-fighting and the focus moves away from the project goal to meeting personal agendas. Very few organisations have not suffered from this affliction. There are also people who feel comfortable just passively being involved in multiple meetings and on the face of it are very busy but in fact are very unproductive. These issues exist offline and online. Technology doesn’t change people’s characters and personalities.

So what’s the difference between good and bad collaboration and how do we harness the technology for the better? Hansen’s answer to the first part of this question was to examine the difference between good and bad collaboration and come up with a set of principles he refers to as “disciplined collaboration”.

Disciplined collaboration starts from a point where you properly assess when to collaborate; you then instil in people both the willingness and the ability to collaborate when required. Hansen suggests three steps:

  1. Evaluate opportunities for collaboration. The key thing to remember is that the goal of collaboration is NOT collaboration. It’s better results. To be disciplined about collaboration is to know when not to collaborate.
  2. Spot barriers to collaboration. People don’t collaborate for various reasons. Don’t assume you know. Analyse this and devise a solution.
  3. Tailor solutions to tear down the barriers. This means crafting compelling common goals and building nimble inter-company networks so that collaboration runs more through them and less through formal hierarchies.

Step one is about the mindset of your organisation’s managers. It’s about making judgements about why collaboration across boundaries will have a beneficial effect. Steps two and three are where technology can have a profoundly positive impact.

I would sum up by quoting again from Morten Hansen’s book:

“Good collaboration amplifies strength, but poor collaboration is worse than no collaboration at all.”

See Social Business In Action at Leeds Business Week