Better collaboration does not mean better results for the organization

Summary : when we try to explain the new way of collaborating that’s expected in the workplace, it often looks like a lot of flows and interactions that has to form around every employee. But that’s overlooking one essential point : context. If interactions flows around employees, employees are organized around a production flow that aims at turning a request into a solution or answer. That’s the difference between collaboration to meet one’s goals and collaborating to create value. That’s essential because it makes us put individual actions into perspective and measure their usefulness and added value not in relation to the person performing them but to their contribution to the production flow, even if intangible and made of information. Conclusion : the value of any collaborative system does not rely on generic approaches but has to target the weakest link of the chain. The latter is not only weak because of the lack of collaboration tools but also because of organizational constraints that are peculiar to him.

Let’s take a few minutes to wonder about the sense, the goal of one’s activity in the workplace. We collaborate, exchange, solve problems (more or less efficiently)…but it’s only the micro part of a wider system. We tend to focus on individuals who “should” and “need to” without paying attention to their context.

At the beginning there’s an input, a request. It cames in the form of a simple question, a request to get a deliverable, a problem to solve. This input needs an output in return, that may be an answer, an operating model, a methodology to apply. If we have a closer look it appears that the whole organization is working this way, the input being either ‘can our product do such thing”, “how to fix this machine”, “what communication plan for our new product”, “designing our new intranet” or “how to hire someone with such or such skills”. It comes from someone who can be called customer, who can be either internal or external.

What does happen when this input is sent ? There are two possible situations : either it exists a methodology/process/procedure to manage the input or not.

In the first case we have a linear intangible flow with defined steps (creation, problem solving, design, validation etc…). Each of these tasks needs specific actions that themselves need information, knowledge, experience, expertise that that the owner of the task seldom have. If he can identify the right information/resource, he’ll use it to create/design/decide as fast and good as possible. If not he’ll do with what he has and push the work to the next person in the chain and so on until the final deliverable is issued, what is the output. Behind something that looks linear we have, in fact, a something that quite different and looks like a network even if, officially, things are supposed to be linear.

In the second case, the person that receives the input has to manage to find the way to process the input before starting to work. So he immediately falls into a network logic that, in the end, looks like the result of the previous case with on difference : there was no predifined role.

Let’s call “flow” the processus that ensures the transformation of the input into output (solution, answer), should it be linear or not. What is the major and most legitimate concern for any business ? (note that even if the matter that is transformed and the role of humain being has evolved, the problem has been the same for ages).

Improve both the output (that impacts created value and revenue) and its pace (productivity). Not more not less. But that’s already a lot.

Now, let’s find what’s needed to meet this goal.

Repeating one more time the argument that was already explained on this blog and on hundreds of others : to improve both the value and the pace of the flow, we need that every person that acts along the flow to be able to access to the right people and knowledge to think, design, innovate and decide quicker et better.

To know how to achieve that, we need to know what harms both the pace and quality of the flow :

• Finding the right people is hard

• Finding the right knowledge is difficult become few of them are expressed and capitalized…and even less searcheable.

• Few links between people and between people and knowledge. Even if one can find the information, he can seldom know who issued it and would be able to explain it in context and help the seeker.

• Opposite flows : organizations often rely on the principle that everything is predictable and, consequently, assign taks and maximize employee’s workload. Consequently, the latter have few time to handle less predictable issues that are a growing part of their activity. Moreover, even when the input is predictable for those who receive it, it is not for those whose participation will be needed because of their specific knowledge.

• Employees’ workload that prevent them or helping of makes them priorize less valuable ones.

What did we do with social tools within organizations ?

• We created platforms that made easier to find people, share information, identify the link between knowledge and its owner as well as connecting with the owner.

With my well know drawing skills, I tried to reprensent how inputs are handled.

– A receives the input. He asks I his opinion. I lacks specific knowledge but, fortunately, he’s a member of a community where several feedbacks can be found. He finds pieces of answer and comes back to A.

– A forwards the work to B. B as the person who can help him to to his part of the job. H helps him.

• C has nothing to do but validate. He likes what’s been done. He validates and forwards to the next on the chain.

• D is helpless in front of the task. He knows F who had helped him in many occasions. But this time F does not know what to do but he knows G that helps D to solve a tough question.

• E checks that the work that’s been done meets the request…and the story is over.

Meanwhile, other flows related to other inputs mobilize the same persons but with differents roles. In fact, everyone has a role on one of serveral “master flows” and one ore severla “adhoc flows”.

The blue and red arrow represent master flows, the black ones the adhoc flows, that are not predictable but are triggered to help with a specific task. The difference between master and adhoc flows is that people are responsible for the first and evaluated on their contribution to these flows while they only participate in the second to help their colleagues.

We can even imagine the same with a tooled processus. B finds H because his CRM or ERP tells him that, for this customer/case/product, H is a relevant person.

With this example we demonstrated that a social software approach cumulating in the flow and over the flow activities was the best way to achieve our goal while overriding everything that was slowing the flow down before.

Sure ?

– Imagine that not everyone will play the 2.0 game. Profile not filled, no feedback shared.

– Imagine that C and E who have nothing to do but valudate have other priorities. There are many chances that one may be the team manager and is overwhelmed with all these supervision activies.

– Imagine that I would like to help but have no time to. That his manager prevents him from making himself available.

– Imagine that E is an overwhelmed manager that has nothing to do with all this stuff and keep on working “the old way”.

In system where everyone is free to change or not, if the right people don’t change all the rest is useless. In our example, If E est always overwhelmed and is the limiting factor of the whoe chain, helping others to collaborae better will be useless. If E is free to change or not, the success of the whole system will only rely on his goddwill. Even if we wants to change, he may be blocked by organizational constraints. Let’s also add that if everybody speeds up and E remains the limiting factor, the mass of information to process, email to read and the size of the to-do list will increase to such an extent that E will either collapse or both his work. At this level, the more the ones increase their productivity the less others suffer from a negative pressure, while the output is not improved at all.

But also..

– what matters is not to see collaboration and networking in a static way, being their own goal, in a closed system of people collaborating but in the context of a flow they have to work on and push.

– the performance of collaboration can be measured with only two indicators : value and pace of the output.

– value is created via flows that go through many “nodes” where they are processed. The word done by each node depends on the its processing capacity.

– the processing capacity of a node is impact by

  • Access to information
  • Access to a peer/experts network
  • Job description
  • Workload
  • How the person’s work is evaluated

    All these elements impact both the created value, the time consumed to create it as well as what makes that nodes perform a given task immediately, put it on a waiting list, refuse it, or priorize a flow versus another, focus on master flows and refuse adhoc ones.

    – the performance of the whole system depends on the performance of its weakest compnent.

    What are the consequences for what we call enterprise 2.0 or social business. I let you wonder…and will deal with that in a next post.

    Bertrand DUPERRIN
    Bertrand DUPERRIN
    Head of People and Business Delivery @Emakina / Former consulting director / Crossroads of people, business and technology / Speaker / Compulsive traveler
    Head of People and Business Delivery @Emakina / Former consulting director / Crossroads of people, business and technology / Speaker / Compulsive traveler

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