Monday 13 April 2009

Is collaboration bad, really?

In a HBR article (and discussed in an interview for CIO mag), Morten Hansen argues that some internal collaboration can be bad for organisations.

He puts forward a relatively simple equation that weighs the projected return on the results of the collaboration against the opportunity cost and direct costs of collaboration as the basis for a managerial decision making aid - in effect you can calculate the “collaboration premium” to determine if its worth proceeding. As you might guess from the provocative title, in Hansen’s view the cost of collaboration often doesn’t add up.

On closer reading, I found Hansen really only talking about a specific level of organisational collaboration - specifically project-based collaboration between business units, where there is a defined beginning and end to the initiative (e.g. writing proposals, creating a new product line). In this context Hansen’s examples really simply point at the root causes for failure - that is, internal politics, organisational structures and management systems (both technical and organisational) are all factors that can create barriers to effective collaboration. In other words, if people in your organisation are pulling in different directions, then collaboration is going to be difficult. No kidding?

In doing this he also neglects a whole level of strategic collaboration above this formal business unit project-collaboration and emergent social networking or tactical collaboration below. It also ignores the benefits of collaboration to ongoing operational processes that span internal boundaries. Unfortunately, my concern is that this paper might convince some managers to block all kinds of collaboration without a quantifiable short-term business case.

In this sense the article is particularly disappointing because it fails to look at the bigger picture of collaboration in organisations. For example, he describes a solution for bad collaboration in one organisation as the appointment of a manager with “a broad personal network within the company”. However, its this very kind of beneficial below the line informal collaboration that Hansen omits from his discussion and risks blocking

He also confirms that while the experienced teams they evaluated found the cost of collaborating on proposals provided no direct benefit, “novice teams at the firm actually benefited from exchanging ideas with their peers.” So shouldn’t we factor in the total organisational costs and benefits of collaboration when evaluating a single project?

The other issue that Hansen fails to address with his collaboration premium calculation is the benefit of both experience and systems that can help to reduce the cost of collaboration - which is exactly why some of us are excited for the potential of social computing to contribute to collaboration and knowledge management in large or distributed organisations. Unfortunately, as Clay Shirky discusses in his book, the return on investment of social computing is hard for organisations to see.

At a high level Hansen is right when he calls for cultivating the right kind of collaboration, but by then encouraging managers to add up the pros and cons of each project in isolation sends the wrong message.

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