The Collaboration Conundrum

The Collaboration Conundrum


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A WorkShift White Paper by Dr Nicola J. Millard

With technologies becoming more decentralised and disappearing into the cloud, is it also time for traditionally centralized and hierarchical organisation structures to follow?

Logic (and technology) would say yes, but human nature often stubbornly disagrees. A whole host of collaboration conundrums, challenges and contradictions rear their heads as we have employees (and customers) who are connected by communication networks rather than real face-to-face ones.

Some organisations that have virtualised are now bringing people back together (at great expense to both the wallet and the environment). Employees can work anywhere, but many still come into an office and sit at the same desk every day. Social media means that we can more openly communicate and collaborate with each other, but many efforts to introduce social media within organisations have failed. We work more hours whilst often becoming less productive. Diverse teams are more innovative, but are more difficult to manage because they can argue and fragment.

Technology is untethering us from our desks, but is our inner caveman holding us back?

Offering options as to how, where and when we work is a good thing. Classic psychology tells us that high demand and low control will result in a stressed employee. We can look at reducing workload but, as workforces become leaner, more work is often being done by less people. Providing people with more control over the ways that they do their work can have beneficial effects on health, wellbeing, motivation and productivity.

The dilemma is the more choices that we give employees, the higher the risk of fragmentation. Organisations with lots of virtual workers may find that individual levels of productivity may go up but cohesion and trust between employees goes down (because no-one ever meets each other face-to-face). Co-location to improve collaboration isn’t often a viable option either – it can lose you valuable talent who don’t want to be tied to a specific geography and constant travel and longer commutes can create grumpy and exhausted people.

And there lies the collaboration conundrum – distance reduces trust and cohesion but choice increases wellbeing and individual productivity.

Does it matter, though? Is collaboration actually that important to organisations? If it is, how do we ensure that collaboration is central to the way that we architect businesses?

This paper is part of our WorkShift series on the future of work. Based on the latest academic research, it explores a number of these ‘collaboration conundrums’.

Conundrum One: Too many cooks? Is collaboration actually important?

Collaboration is always easier when there is an obvious common cause – which is why crisis situations often generate more effective collaboration behaviours.

The trouble with many organisations is that shared goals can be more diffuse, complex and, sometimes, not in evidence at all.

Collaboration might not be vital to everyone all the time, but it is important enough to warrant an increased focus within the majority of organisations.

Conundrum Two: From Command & Control to Connect & Collaborate - what skills do collaborative leaders need?

Forty percent of the global workforce already work virtually. Trends towards partnering, shared services, outsourcing and offshoring means that virtual teaming has become integral to the way that we work today. But when people are strangers, have spent little or no time with each other, and have very little in common beyond their ability to connect, they are unlikely to trust each other.

Traditional leadership is being challenged by these new ways of working. Leaders can’t rely on strong ties in teams to get them though anymore – because most ties are weak now. They need to create and encourage collaboration behaviours. They need to understand the dynamics of their teams and reward and recognise collaboration behaviours without creating collaboration overload amongst their best people.

Conundrum Three: Diversity, size & selfishness – motivating collaboration behaviours.

Most large, global organisations are very reliant on teams of highly talented, distributed and diverse individuals who, because they are highly talented, distributed and diverse are less likely to naturally display co-operative and collaborative behaviours towards each other.

If collaboration is critical to organisations, we need to recruit, encourage and create cultures of collaboration.

A combination of trust and a collaborative mindset is essential for collaboration to be effective in a world where most work ties are weak.

Conundrum Four: “We” versus “Me”: If we are constantly collaborating, when do we have time to get anything else done?

We are increasingly working with others rather than working individually, but constant collaboration does not necessarily equate to productivity.

Tracking down employees who could be anywhere and working anytime can make things more difficult. Fred might not be working a nine to five day at a desk on floor two anymore. To find Fred you need presence technologies that give you an idea of his availability, his diary and his current location. However, if this information is abused by leaders and used to gauge whether people are working or not, Fred is unlikely to freely share it.


It’s difficult to change the world on your own. Collaboration is a team sport. It would be difficult to collaborate by yourself – so the ability to collaborate clearly isn’t a pointless obsession amongst large corporates, as some futurists claim. It is good for employees and it’s good for the bottom line.

Technologies allow us to collaborate in many different ways and change the ways that we work. Unlike Kevin Costner in ‘Field of Dreams’, though, if you build it, people may not come. To change the way that we collaborate, we need a better understanding of how collaboration works.

Like any great party, you need a reason for people to get together. You need a physical or virtual “common ground” to gather them on. You need to make sure that everyone knows each other so that they can start to talk, create and build “fast trust”. This is why leaders need to become perfect party hosts rather than making sure that the beatings continue until collaboration improves.

We also need to acknowledge that, although most of us think collaboration is a good thing, we aren’t all naturally good at it. Recruitment needs to emphasise collaboration as a key skillset but leaders also need to recognise and reward contribution (and be good at it themselves). We also need to make sure our top collaborators don’t spend so much time collaborating that they burn out.

We also need to recognise that work isn’t exclusively about collaboration. We need to balance “we” and “me”. We need to give people the time and space that they need to do individual work. This means that a one-size-fits all solution to work doesn’t necessarily work anymore. We need to give an increasingly diverse workforce choices as to how, where and when they work. This includes rethinking one of our key collaboration tools – the office.

If we start to view work as an idea distribution factory, would we engineer the way we do work in a different way? We would need to nurture and value ideas. We would need to give people the space to develop them. We would need to get contributions from teams of people who know stuff to make them happen. We would need leaders to invest and champion these ideas. We would then need customers to value these ideas. Collaboration and collaboration technologies would be central to the business model of such an organisation. Most organisations are now in the ideas business, especially as innovation and agility become key to survival.

If collaboration is so core to business success, the final conundrum is: who owns it?

Internal comms should encourage it. HR might recruit for it and reward it. Property might design it into the physical infrastructure. IT will put in enterprise collaboration tools to enable it. Finance might fret about productivity costs. In most companies, though, no one actually owns it, co-ordinates it or really understands how it happens. Maybe we need to have a new breed of executive to make sure collaboration really works for the future of work – perhaps we are looking for Chief Collaboration Officers to take on these collaboration conundrums?


White paper

The Collaboration Conundrum

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A WorkShift White Paper by Dr Nicola J. Millard.

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