The proliferation – and devaluation – of collaboration

The world seemingly emerged from the GFC huddled around a meeting table, pontificating with colleagues at a whiteboard, fighting over the drywipe marker in a groupthink session, or clambering to be part of the latest project team (there is a project, got to be on it). We talked about collaboration it like it was a new idea. From chatting to a friend in a coffee shop (of course, the most vogue of collaboration centres), asking a workmate if I could borrow a memory stick or just phoning for a team pizza, it seems that according to the Collaborati I am always and everywhere “collaborating”. And if not, I should be.

The Collaborati are a new breed of enforcers. You see them lurking in coffee bars and workplace breakout areas everywhere, latte in one hand, smartphone in the other, eyes flitting around looking for the next opportunity to “engage”. If they catch you working alone, reading a paper, or staring out of a window, you will be hauled into an interaction, because it’s good for you. And at the end of it, there will inevitably be another creative idea.

Yet our repeated over-use of the term “collaboration” has devalued its meaning and importance. Collaboration does not mean all forms of working together, and never has it done.

We have worked together for all time. Hunter-gatherers did not prowl alone by moonlight, it was a team effort with clearly assigned roles. The first farmers tilled the soil together. Pre-industrial artisans gathered in guilds and workshops for mutual benefit and support. The industrial revolution was the result of a massively interdependent group effort. Even in the early mechanised Taylorist offices, scientific management recognised the importance of people combining to produce the required output. In reality, virtually everything we see around us and with which we interact is the result of people working together. It is hardly something new, it is and has always been a fundamental necessity. It is part of being human.

We can now work together in real time using technology that goes some (but certainly not all) the way towards replicating physical presence – that is, we can work together while being in different places and time zones. If anything at all emerged from the GFC it was that the development of this technology continued, to the extent that it is now mainstream.

Unlike working together however, collaboration in the true sense has particular qualities. To help explain, the Economist Intelligence Unit’s 2008 paper is helpful ( Beyond just simply talking to each other in the workplace, our actual “working together” is separated into three pyramidal strata:

  • Co-ordination – “get this done” – driven by directive, value accrual unlikely, trust is not required
  • Co-operation – “we need to….” – driven by either a directive or a business need, creates incremental value and requires some degree of trust
  • Collaboration – “I wonder if we could….” – driven by mutual self-interest, creates new value and requires high levels of trust

There is nothing at all wrong with admitting – even if the terminology is less glamorous – that the majority of the time we spend in interaction we are, in reality, either co-ordinating or co-operating.

We should however recognise that genuine value-adding and trust-based collaboration is more scarce, and hence precious. Special things usually are.

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