Thinking about collaboration

There is something in me that makes me pretty relaxed about “sharing” per se. Maybe it was caused by growing up in a large “undivided” family: when I lived in India, the class of family I was part of was referred to as a Hindu Undivided Family or HUF. This was seen as distinct and different from other families where formal division had been applied for, ostensibly to take advantage of tax advantages that accrued as a result.

Or maybe it was because I grew up in Calcutta. Access to material goods seemed a lot more important than ownership of the same goods; possession was a transient concept. It wasn’t your bed, your book, your park bench, your air. You just had passing and temporary rights to it, and the rights would fade as easily as they came to exist.

Maybe it’s something in me, maybe I don’t like the sheer palaver. One way or the other, I have always found it easy to share.

Which is probably why I assumed that failures in collaboration were usually caused by people not having this facility: by people finding it hard to share. Sometimes this was caused by insecurity, sometimes it was cultural. At least that’s what I assumed.

More recently, as I’ve been continuing with my investigations into intellectual property law, patents, copyrights, trademarks and their burgeoning digital equivalents, I’ve begun to wonder about something else.

And it is this. When you look at the Agricultural Revolution you notice something. Scale happened when the participants understood division of labour. When you look at the Industrial Revolution, something similar happened. Ford and Taylor could not construct an assembly line unless there was something to make a line with. Division of labour again.

Collaboration takes place when you do what you are good at, and when you let other people do what they are good at.

Sometimes I wonder whether we as knowledge workers have learnt this. Somehow I don’t think so. Over the last thirty years, working primarily in service industries, working solely as a knowledge worker, I see something different.

I see people unable to respect the skills of others. Of wanting to be all things to all men.

I see no division of labour within knowledge workers.

Which is a shame.

Collaboration has many payoffs. These payoffs tend to increase when there is a shortage of the “resource” being shared. We live in an age where the war for talent is likely to continue. Knowledge workers have the most to gain from collaboration.

But we’re not going to get there. Not while we limit ourselves, not while we try and pretend there is no division of labour.

Each of us has to learn to do what we are good at, and to let others do what they are good at. Even if we think we’re good at those things as well, we have to choose to do the things we are disproportionately better at. That’s not just a prerequisite for collaboration. That’s not just a prerequisite for teamwork. It’s a prerequisite for being a human being.

Collective stewardship requires respect for others. Respect for others requires respect for their skills and abilities. For some reason, we could handle it during the Agricultural Revolution, we could handle it during the Industrial Revolution, but when it comes to the Information Revolution, we’re falling short.

Views? Comments? That is, if you’re prepared to share them….

23 thoughts on “Thinking about collaboration”

  1. I see exactly the kind of division of labour you talk about on a small scale in IT in successful agile projects, where a command and control structure is replaced with a self organising team working collaboratively towards a common goal. The team divide up activities amongst themselves based on their skills, ability, interest that day, context and what needs to be done that no-one else has done yet (theres a parallel to how individuals choose what to work on in the approach espoused in Getting Things Done but that is another topic). Respect for each others contributions is inherent as is collective responsibility. Successful teams have a mix of different talents. Indiviudal reward is wrapped up in the team success so it discourages individual heroism at others cost as a way to succeed.

    When you try to scale the approach what seems to happen is the organisational reward structure gets in the way. Individual contributers are rewarded. Heroically rescuing something from a crisis is more valued that preventing it in the first place. The way to increased status and reward is through hierarchy.

    Thus while the seeds are there, they struggle to transform the whole organisation. I think this is why start-ups seem to be able to take a collaborative or division of though labour approach (and maintain it as they grow if you believe Yahoo! and Google) and big organisations seem to have an internal resistance that keeps the changes limited to pockets. There is a fear of losing control as you switch from top down to decentralised.

    Seems the decentralised model works for Toyota though. But they built the values into the company culture. Maybe thats why its so rare. Thats hard.

  2. I believe that the knowledge economy is still largely governed by industrial age mind-set. However with access to information becoming cheaper and easier to access to a point soon where individuals and organisations won’t differentiate themselves by their know-how, rather by leveraging their relationships and reputations.

    Regarding having the right mind-set for sharing, I think Mark Earls talks about the difference between individualistic western cultures verses more community orientated eastern cultures. People often dismiss this recent obsession with collaboration as a relic of the 1960s, but the web has been described as the biggest legacy of those times and perhaps that’s no bad thing.

    As Howard Rheingold says “More people pooling more resources in new ways is the history of civilisation”.

  3. I work in a dysfunctional setting where I’m able to do innovative work because I’ve learned to accomplish tasks that normally would be done by at least six or seven additional people. I can do this because I own some of the necessary hardware and software, which the company wouldn’t supply me.

    Collaboration with six or seven people who understand and value the product/goal would probably be better, but what I’ve learned is that ATTEMPTING to collaborate with even one other person who doesn’t get the concept and really doesn’t care about the outcome is worse than doing something alone.

    I’m extremely fortunate that I get to work with one talented designer who enjoys the section I produce and adds value to the print edition. Our collaboration is very light, based on trust, and has been fun and successful.

    The thing is, it really only takes a few people in an organization to poison collaboration for everyone. When those people are managers — and they typically are — then each individual has to decide whether collaboration in this setting or that setting will add to or detract from whatever they’re working on.
    My advice to any executives who are considering how to improve collaboration? Look to the culture you have fostered by the decisions you’ve made in hiring and promotions. If you spent the past decade hiring and promoting sycophants, glory-hounds, yes-men and meeting jockeys, then you cannot improve collaboration by announcing a pro-collaboration policy at a managers meeting. You’ll have to begin by radically reshuffling your organizational chart.

    Example: In 2005, a new boss asked me to take on a web modernization project. I had no one that I supervised, no power over the people in the other stakeholding departments, no commitment from my boss’s boss, not even a job description beyond “drop everything else for a year and fix this.” There was even a competing corporate effort to solve some of the same problems.

    We were able to succeed beyond my original expectations largely because so many of the people BELOW THE MANAGEMENT LEVEL were anxious to work together to solve the problems that were making everyone miserable and embarrassed. I was able to get these people to try collaborating because I had some credibility with them as both a doer and a former manager. I was able to get through conflicts by using persuasion rather than rank. And we were able to solve complex problems because everyone saw their own interests represented in the outcome.

    But the outcome? After a year of making ever-accelerating progress, management created a new department, redrew the org chart, hired a new director from outside the company and declared victory. The new director immediately pushed me out, alienated the other departments, and tossed out all the development projects we had in the works. Collaboration ended instantly, and all our achievements began to recede.

    Management culture is fast-acting karma. Even creating a protected space for collaboration within your organization will fail to sustain its results if your management continues to operate on ingrained, egocentric values.

  4. Perhaps a reason for our difficulties to cooperate is in a fact that we are still learning our roles in this new game. Many knowledge workers would rather focus on certain tasks they enjoy most, but have to use their time on less enjoyable tasks because it is a path of less resistance – it is easier to do, than to explain what and how it should be done to somebody else.
    The agricultural tasks and processes were around for a very long time, and thoroughly learned and “formalized” before the division of labor was established. In industrial setting it happened seemingly much faster, but it was build on centuries of artisan guilds experience and very strong economic incentive model as people were paid for a piece of their production without reference to overall productivity. Now we have often to figure out what is our next step is going to be, and there is no established economic model which convincingly support “sharing”. I am a very big fan of Open Source, but I can see how much more money made by Google and it’s “secret”, patented algorithms compared to Red Hat.

  5. Is it possibly because there is no software that encourages people to collaborate and as a direct effect attribute credit where it is due ?

    There is a problem to solve and 10 people are asked to solve who come up with 5 hints/answers.

    Do we have a system in organizations to let the answers(sources) be rated for useful in context ?

    At the end of the day/week, am i able to thank (with my points) the people who have helped me with my problems and vv.

  6. JP, your viewpoint is fascinating leads to more questions that will hopefuly trigger further musings:

    1- how do collaboration and sharing interfere in the knowledge world? in order to collaborate, you have to share information.

    So maybe those who do understand the value of collaboration are reluctant in part for the bad old concerns that lead experts to hoard knowledge.

    2- what is a knowledge worker best at? We have never learnt to analyze where the individual value of a knowledge worker is and what value is created in an interaction / sharing session / collaboration with another one.

    3- Please tell us what kind of “division of labour” we could achieve in knowledge work? If we put aside the trivial divisions of Work Breakdown Structures or the roles of Project Leader vs Analyst, how else can we divide intellectual work? There are a few cases in literature of double authors, and this is fascinating.
    A contrario, the division between documentary research and patent analysis, as performed in Patent Offices, is a very basic division that does not bring much value to this discussion.

    4- back to intellectual property: how to manage the intellectual value that is generated in a collaboration effort?
    Not just the knowledge that may have been “given” to the collaborators, but the new knowledge that is created in the collaboration process.

  7. JP,
    As usual you threw up a bunch of questions that rattle my mind. It got me thinking, that, of all the previous revolutions, the IT revolution, is seemingly the one that truly enables collaboration.

    With software, the cost of collaboration, ie. establishing standard interfaces, is much less than the savings that true collaboration can render, and yet as you mention, today, we see a lot of software systems that are not easy to interface with (sometimes, companies that will not work with each other)

    In the past, we have had such true collaborative software. UNIX comes to mind. The concept of building a complex system from seemingly simple ones, as enabled by the UNIX command line is simply wondrous. (I adore the | ability of the unix cmd line.)

    Personally, I have yet to work in an environment where collaboration was not valued. I think it is more of a culture of an organisation, than the lack of tools, that is the main obstacle. I also see a lot of closed systems, particularly, in consumer devices (iPod touch anyone?!), that seem to have been designed to be collab-agnostic :).

    (I’ve been pretty vocal about this in the past, and suffered a lot of flak from some fanboies too )

    So I guess there are several forms of collaboration, that is needed in IT revolution.

    1. Data collaboration – RSS, SOAP, JSON etc
    2. App/code collaboration – no standards as yet, but Flickr API comes to mind (several sites are slowly using Flickr API as a standard model)
    3. Skill collaboration – this has been done usually thru forums etc. I’m hoping will be enable this in future

  8. Two words of insight that were actually gathered from a talk by Bernard Charles (the CEO from Dassault Systèmes and a world-class orator).
    For knowledge workers, true collaboration requires not to share their knowledge or their skills, but their ignorance and their shortcomings.
    This is actually quite profound, and resonnates with what your wrote about respect and confidence. Collaboration actually works in a “positive push” mode, where people push questions and positive bits of solutions, but it works much better when push/pull and positive/negative information flows are supported.
    — Yves

  9. Well, it’s maybe the consequences of “information times”, where power owns to people who knows. But who knows what now ?
    With UGC and social net expansion, content sometimes owns to no one or to billions !
    In the other hand, when I start technical education, I had some time working in furnitures industry, hard place, art but bulk, and with some hazardous ways outs…But I knew I had a real skill: some which can be given to my children or to younger, to make that skill never vanish. And we must insist on this fact : lots of artcrafts, skills, jobs, are going to disappear, if no one takes the time to teach to others…You have probably that state of mind JP, but so many don’t ; and makes life so disappointed sometimes.
    Let’s spend a second each day, to give without receive, it’s probably save a future life…

  10. Benoit’s point about double authors is the key for me (and I assume you’re discounting ghost authors, who are legion). Maybe instead of knowledge economy, it’s creation economy. It’s not what you know that delivers value, it’s what you can make with what you know.

    Creative people have a distinct tendency to egocentrism, contraindicating collaboration. We only collaborate when we have to, and the dynamics can be, well, dynamic. Being in a band is a pressure cooker of competing egos forced together to produce something none could create alone. When it works, it’s heaven on earth. When it doesn’t, which is most of the time, the product is worse than the individuals could do alone.

    It’s a long run from musician’s antics to an enterprise of brainiacs, but I’m convinced there’s a similarity. Creators, by nature, think quite highly of themselves.

    So now, instead of needing seeds or steel, we use our knowledge to make things of value. But it’s the making, not the knowledge, that creates value.

  11. It is timely for me to read this blog as I am being encouraged by a man I have never met via Skype to take my new brand and make it global – not in a monetizing franchising way, but as a collaborative effort. His vision is to allow people in other countries (he is in South Africa) to share the experience he and I gain from putting on our individual events focused on people starting over (divorce, bereavement etc).

    On the one hand I find myself trying to decide when to invest in patenting a new brand that has not yet even experienced the test of it’s first event, and on the other hand, keen to create a collaborative platform via a shared website to support others who want to do their own versions of the show, but within a kind of consistent framework (like with franchising).

    But without trademarking and without the discipline and clear consequences (removing the right to benefit from ‘the brand’) for those who choose to dumb down or spoil the collaborative vision, how can collaboration work when the players are dispersed, and the project they are working on lacks the clarity of a new open source software development?

    Democracy – when done well – is all about collaboration. When King Arthur sat at the Round Table, he was no longer King but part of a collaborative group, with a shared vision and values of conduct.

    In our modern world, perhaps it is the lack of clear vision and the lack of shared values that makes collaboration so often fail. Successful collaborative work is democracy in action. Management culture without true democratic processes and inspired vision will always be a sham.

  12. Why collaborate ?
    Collaboration is borne of motivation.
    WWII gives us an atomic example of this.
    We will only collaborate when needs must.
    What is the dictionary defintion of Collaboration again ?

  13. Dan makes good points.
    But think of the collaborators motivation…
    Why do people collaborate?
    A\ Fear of the thing (unconfirmable but specific is best) that drives the statement “drop everything for a year” ?
    B\ Respect for Dan as a “good guy” and embodiment of a worthy cause ?
    C\ they have been ready & waiting to do this thing for ages ?
    Answer: 90% A; 9.9% B; 0.1% C
    I was being generous on B.

    And to another point: you must have something singular (idea/person/thing) to collaborate with.

  14. As Shivanand puts it well, the article has some good thought-provoking points which ‘rattle the mind’. And I would not agree any lesser with Yves that knowledge workers, for true collaboration, should share their ignorance and shortcomings…..which is where the collobration breaks at times. As is our nature, mostly we are not inclined to be an open book and share our weaker points, ask for information which we are already expected to possess, etc. When the knowledge workers in the collborative network do nothing more than share only what they think they know better, which incidentally could be what others too think they know well, there is a fatigue in the collaborative activities since no new information / creativity is being added.

  15. I’m afraid I totally disagree with you. In my experience collaboration, division of labour and respect for the abilities of others is almost universal among knowledge workers. I submit the fact that the “Information Revolution”, as you call it, has actually occurred as evidence that there has been large amounts of collaboration and knowledge sharing. Most of the achievements of the Information Revolution would simply not have been possible otherwise.

    I remember, about 20 years ago, joking with my then boss about “7-year-old football”. He asked me what I meant and I replied: “Haven’t you seen seven-year-olds play football? They all run around in a big pack surrounding the ball.” Somewhere between the ages of seven and ten children learn that football is much more fun (and they win more) if they specialize and collaborate.

    Now there are some knowledge “teams” that play seven-year-old football, but, in my experience they are few and far between (I say “teams” because it’s arguable if you can even call such a group of people a team). They are also short-lived, because they tend to get beaten or replaced by real teams.

  16. JP,
    I’ve thought a lot about the various technological revolutions, but the collaboration aspect is a new perspective for me.

    The fundamental difference between the information revolution and the previous ones is that it deals with invisibles/intangibles – software being an obvious, easy example. I think this invisibility brings a strong degree of uncertainty about where the boundaries of specialisation are – both in the team dynamic and in the continuum of knowledge worker evolution.

    Where collaboration works is where the goal is clear, or at least where the ‘production cycle’ of knowledge is clear, such that there is no visible downside to sharing knowledge. Fundamentally, it’s about relationships: which is (stereo)typically a subject that the most powerful knowledge workers know least about.

Let me know what you think

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.