Collaboration: Have We Gone Too Far?

By Peter Bernstein
31 May 2018

Typically, industry expert opinions take the form of answering a question. However, sometimes we ask questions in search of answers. Inquiring minds want to know. In the case of the question posed in the title, I don’t have answers. What I have is an interest in hearing the thoughts of learned colleagues and readers.

The reason for ruminating about whether we have gone too far in hyping the value of “collaboration” as the Swiss Army knife for the challenges of making the workplace more efficient and effective is a nagging suspicion that knowledge worker productivity from use of such tools seems over-stated. 

I have always felt that compelling knowledge worker output comes from some combination of detailed research, time for contemplation and reflection, and refinements that emerge in iterations engendered by bouncing findings off trusted sources, be they colleagues or third-parties. In short, collaboration is not a goal. Rather it is a strategically applied integral part of project management journeys—from concept to realization—coupled with attention to using experiences and analysis for continuous improvement.

The key to this is strategic application. My apprehension is that in our increasingly connected and accelerating world we put so much weight on collaboration as an end instead of a means that we have given too short shrift to the personal time required to make us more informed, thoughtful and productive. This is particularly the case when it comes to being valued members of what should be high-performance teams.

Since the appearance of word processing and power point (ppt.), I have wondered if the use of digital tools as productivity enhancers has been accurately quantified. For instance, has turning highly skilled knowledge workers, including C-levels, into copy editors really increased productivity and led to better decisions? Given the deconstruction of the language we use on social media only confounds the issue even more as to quote a famous line from the 1967 movie Cool Hand Luke, “what we have here is a failure to communicate!”

By making all of us presentation graphic designers have we allowed the media to become the message?

Think about how much time you spent on your last ppt. presentation. Are you comfortable with the balance between time spent on the message versus the time spent making it “look good”? This is not to underestimate the value of great visualizations. It is a matter of time management for a given project and whether the time spent perfecting the visuals added something more than marginal value.

The same appears to hold for collaboration. After all, a bad meeting—where agendas are problematic, responsibilities and accountabilities are not well-defined, and participants arrive ill-prepared—is going to be a bad meeting. This is the case whether a collaborative session is held with everyone in close proximity or “working” remotely. Indeed, using presence to pull people in remotely can be as much a major distraction as it can be useful. We all need personal/alone time to optimize our contributions.

Reader take note. I am not a Luddite. I am far from it. As someone who works from home, I could not function without my collaboration tools. The numerous studies that show the amount of time saved for scheduling meetings and avoiding travel costs validate that collaboration tools are immensely cost effective are spot on. When the right people, at the right time for the agreed upon purpose use collaboration tools smartly, great things can and do result. The issue is we should not think of use of collaboration as a panacea. Just as we should be careful going forward not to over-estimate the real utility of artificial intelligence, big data, robotics, drones, etc. With rewards come risks that must be taken into consideration. It is why a mutual understanding by an organization’s employees and all of the outside parties they interact with on the proper use of digital tools is mission critical.

Time is a finite resource we cannot produce more of. It is a quantifiable and terrible thing to waste. We must use it wisely. There is no substitute for proper preparation, an understanding of roles and responsibilities and what constitutes success.    

One of the amazing things about the always on/all ways connected world in which we live and work is that we somehow have forgotten that all of the wonderful technology we have at our disposal gives us not just the freedom to communicate when and how we want and with whom/what, but also the freedom and control to not do so.

Judicious use of collaboration capabilities thus should be the order of the day. In fact, if readers have a guidebook that their organization uses to maximize the value of their collaboration tools, send it along to myself or BCStrategies. We know what collaboration tools can deliver when wisely used. What we’d like to do is share the best wisdom of the crowd. 

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