Should organizations limit collaboration ?

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Summary :with the coming of social media in the workplace, organizations began to dream of a spontaneous self-driven collaboration that would get rid of rules and organization frameworks to deliver outstanding results. Today we all have to acknowledge that reality is quite different. Facing an impressive amount of possible options, employees are lost, all the more since the value proposition that’s been made to them made no sense regarding to their daily goals and constraints. Tom Davenport suggests us to limit the scope of collaboration in order to reinforce sense and focus : specific tools for a specific goal for a specific amount of time. But even if this way of doing things was proven successful with average uses, we should not throw the to throw the baby out with the bath water and forget community and serendipity principles : both can work together but are not about the same tasks, the same needs. However, Davenport’s idea may work for most people and, mot of all, directly applies to what’s key for them and impacts value creation.

With the coming of social media in the workplace, came the myth of a global, organic collaboration where everyone would collaborate with others not only to do their job but also to do awesome unexpected extra things, out of organizational silos. Years after, we have to acknowledge that it does not work. Or, at least, not the way we expected to.

The reason is quite simple to get and has been dealt with many times on this blog and many other ones. Everything started with the supposed universal and inevitable nature of networks and communities. But…

– networks shoud not be mistaken for communities…that are not teams either…

– communities are communites…and only exist by the will of people who want to more than their work, go beyond, out of the flow of their work. What is not what organization usually mean by collaboration.

– unlike the web where people using a given tool and sharing the same practices gather to do things together, most of work in the workplace happens in structured teams with known and defined people what implies that practices and tools have to be standardized within these teams There’s a big difference between gathering those who changed and change those have been gathered.

So, the “2.0 paradigmp” is still incomplete in the context of traditional production activities if not slightly improved. What reminds me of two things :

– What I call the “supermarket parking lot paradox”. Did you ever notice that it’s very easy to park one’s car between two others on a large parking ? Only need to aim between the cars and it’s done. Try to do the same early in the morning when the parking is empty. You hesitate, don’t know what place to chose and, at the end, find yourself make a lot a manoeuvres to put the cars between the lanes. That’s the same with collaboration : immensity makes people feel lost because they’re used to have landmarks. Bottom line : they don’t know what to don whith whom and they  do even  less than in the old constrained world.

– I was talking about innovation with a few colleagues to benchmark best practices. I remembered of a project I ran a couple of years ago. The platform that was open 365 days a year delivered an acceptable flow of ideas but, in order to boost things, we used to focus people on a given topic for a limited amount of time, sometimes organizing things as a challenge with rewards. It used to boost idea creations, made them more targeted and more aligned with what the issues the company was facing. It was not an alternative to the usual way of managing things but a second one that coexisted with the first. That also explains the success of the famous IBM Jams : a defined topic, a limited time and a couple of experts to energize things. The difference is the same as between being in a community and being involved into a project, nearly like a commando.T

That brings us back to Davenport’s post. For those who were not into the 2.0 thing a couple of year ago, Davenport is what I call a rational skeptic. He was not denying the 2.0 concepts, admitted that organizations needed to work differently but was unsure it could really work in today’s organizations.

So Davenport is coming back with a quite disruptive idea : should collaboration be framed or even limited ? Surprising idea in the all-social, all-networking and all-collaborative era. In fact it’s not at all.

Davenport only points out that, for many employees, too many tools and options cause more wait-and-see policies from employees than actions. Certainly for the above mentioned reasons. Hence the idea to limit and frame collaboration, providing a given set of tools to a defined group of people, for a known duration in order to reach a defined goal. This is something that works.

So there’s no surprise to see Davenport back on the 2.0 scene while, contrary to what people thought in 2006, most agree on the need to apply social to day-to-day business processes rather than relying on the invisible hand. Such an approach brings the focus I talked about above.

But this approach can be discussed if it’s supposed to replace the previous one. As I suggested above, here and there, there’s no rivalry between above the flow community activities and in the flow ones. The first involve a few people based on their will, their interest, the second can involve nearly everyone because being the way work is done everyday. Both are compatible, the only point being to keep in mind that a workgroup or a team are not communities and have to be managed accordingly.

The alliance between networks and communities makes sense because it helps to build and strengthen communities based on affinities, a topic (even if out of people’s job description). The alliance between networks and projects helps to put the right person at the right place at the right time.