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Thinking Work: When Collaboration Makes Sense

henry fordMost people have heard about collaboration. In fact, the majority of senior business leaders, executives and managers probably bombard their employees with messages extolling the virtues of collaboration. And therein lies a slight problem, as with all change management that comes from authority. Making things slightly more complicated is the simple fact that most people really do not like what they do to the extent that they would be at their productive best. And then there’s the pesky little thing called ‘thinking work’ which more wish to do but the vast majority do not get to enjoy. Yes, all work requires some use of brain power, but that does not quite cut the mustard if we want real thinking to fill our day.

What does a combination of the above factors reveal about the true nature and potential of collaboration in business? A lot!

The first thing that I notice with many people is how quickly they tend to gloss over the idea that collaboration can’t work unless its rules are well understood. One mention of collaboration governance and a person who 5 seconds before seemed ‘so into collaboration’ is reaching for their smart phone looking for some kind of distraction. Perfectly understandable given how much collaboration is talked about. It is one thing to hear, say, a managing director profess that the business has to collaborate with its competition (as indeed many have been doing for years), but it is an entirely different thing to expect unengaged employees to think of a way to do it. An abysmally small number of employees across all sectors are given an opportunity to learn about collaboration. Instead they are being told to collaborate as in ‘work together’, while being provided with one of many tools on the market. A bit like strapping them into a Formula One car and assuming that their existing A class driver’s licence will suffice.

As complicated as collaboration can be, the first steps do not have to be hard. Collaboration is first and foremost ‘thinking work’; the kind that involves less routine and more creativity and analysis. To do that well, managers have to change. Big time! Collaborators, be they an intra-business team or inter business group, have to be able to fail, experiment, try things that are not written in any manual and, above all, feel engaged. And not a lot of managers have expertise in this. Thus the need for careful examination of the whole organisation and making adjustments without fear. Great business can result from a collaborative approach, but this often means change for all. Collaboration is not 1 + 1= 2. It is more of a mixture of unknowns and knowns leading to hoped for results, as well innovation.

Making sense of collaboration starts with clear acknowledgement that thinking work is not a formulaic process. Replicating the process is possible but real collaboration necessitates demand for improvisation, which is unsettling to say the least. Collaborating parties, be they individuals or groups, are more likely to produce results when metacognition skills are employed.

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