Collaboration is not a remedy, it is an outcome
The Xpragmatic View #185
December 17, 2011
by Marc Buyens, Xpragma
In this on-going collaboration debate, too many people view collaboration as a solution to a problem. It is not. Collaboration is the behaviour that emerges in contexts that invite for collaboration.
A couple of days ago, Dan Samper of bCommunities sent us a Twitter message telling us that we should have a look at Future of Collaborative Enterprise, a recently started initiative by Frédéric Gilbert and Thierry de Baillon.
We don't know Frédéric Gilbert, but we follow Thierry de Baillon on Twitter, we read his blog and we value very much his thinking and analysis. But here, we are sorry to say, we think that he is wrong.
The Future of the Collaborative Enterprise. The expression suggests that collaboration is some kind of objective, a purpose, a remedy to a problem, since more collaboration will cure the many flaws of today's enterprises.
This thinking is at least partially incorrect. Collaboration is rather an outcome. It is the resulting behaviour in contexts that invite for collaboration. Sometimes, this behaviour is facilitated by certain tools, such as e-mail or Enterprise Social Platforms. However, these tools are not the determining factor. The context is.
What is collaboration?
According to Wikipedia, collaboration is
working together to achieve a goal. That's fair. We agree. However, the following part of the definition is a bit more stretched:
It is a recursive process where two or more people or organizations work together to realize shared goals, [...] a deep, collective, determination to reach an identical objective.
We don't buy that. Here, we mix up goals and deliverables or matching interests and haves and wants. In most cases, there isn't a common goal. There just is a shared benefit, hence shared interest for working together.
As an example, let us have a look at crowdsourcing, one of the domains where the Enterprise 2.0 promise has really delivered results.
On one side, there is the company, looking for a solution to a problem. On the other side, the expert, having the solution to the problem. The link between? Financial reward. For the expert, getting paid for his knowledge. For the company, freeing the way to a lucrative product roll-out or some other advantage.
Or let us have a look at two employees working together in the same project. Do they have a common goal? Yes, to some extent, the success of the project is such common goal. But is this really what drives them?
Again, in most situations, the project success is not the main driver, but the direct or indirect effect on the career position is. If there was no potential impact on the career, the project might as well go to hell.
The idea of the common goal is something we often take for granted. Why would you work together otherwise? And we also, we make the same mistake. In our 'About collaboration and dog crates' post, we gave the following definition of collaboration:
Collaboration is about engaging in undefined interactions to achieve a common goal in a way that makes that all participants have to leave their comfort zone.
Again the expression "common goal". It seems such a natural thing in the context of collaboration. However, in most cases, especially within the enterprise context, it is not what drives the outcome. The shared benefit is.
Connectedness is not the main problem
Now, this might seem like a bit of hair-splitting, of playing with words and subtle differences in meaning. However, these subtle differences determine to what extent a certain approach can really work.
In the E2.0 discourse, improving the connectedness is often seen as a major step towards more collaboration. It will allow you to find the right expert, the solution to your problem, the serendipity effect, etc. Better connectedness allows for more and better collaboration, which improves enterprise performance.
Well, that is true to some extent. In the crowdsourcing world, improving the connectedness is certainly important since it will increase the number of experts who potentially will be able to solve your problem.
And more in general, in a business-to-business context, better connectedness is indeed a requirement for allowing more initiatives that create a "shared benefit". As we wrote in previous posts, that's the basic reason that we see a bright future for E2.0 in a B2B context.
However, within the enterprise, things are a bit different. Where is the real interest for better collaboration? In many cases, there is none. So, why care? And more and better tools for better connectedness will not change this.
Whatever the available tools, if the right context is in place, collaboration will happen, notwithstanding the challenges that result from the crappy tools we have to use. It will happen.
However, if such right context is not in place, whatever great communication tools we will implement, they will only be used to the greater glory of the vendor, but they will add nothing to the bottom-line.
The collaborative enterprise. It seems a reasonable thing and something we all want. However, in reality, it is an oxymoron. It cannot exist. Apart from a few exceptions, what drives enterprises to invest in collaborative tools has nothing to do with a willingness for creating a context that facilitates getting a "shared benefit", but merely with an intent for maximising profit at marginal cost.
About Marc Buyens
Marc Buyens is analyst, management consultant and owner of Xpragma. He started Xpragma in 1999 after a 20+ years career in the IT sector. Today, he provides advice, training and mentoring services focusing on the intersection of technological evolution, organisational change and business strategy: a messy world of unfulfilled promises.
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