The Human Side Of Collaboration

Collaboration is a hot topic in IT circles, and we see many vendors competing to provide the software to accomplish this task. But is collaboration really a technological issue? (Courtesy:

February 1, 2005

4 Min Read
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Collaboration is a hot topic in IT circles, and we see many vendors competing to provide the software to accomplish this task. But is collaboration really a technological issue? After all, humans have been collaborating for thousands of years--long before the introduction of information technology. Here's a way that IT people can look at collaboration and become more influential in their companies.

Imagine that you're asked to develop a collaboration strategy for the company. How would you proceed? I’m afraid that for most IT people, the process would look very similar. You'd investigate various software offerings, and perhaps even benchmark one or two. Some research would certainly accompany this, but it would be technical research--looking at what others say about the software.

Imagine now that you’re not the typical IT person. Let's say that, like me, you studied to become a psychotherapist and later translated this interest into the study of organizational behavior. Your research, therefore, starts with the premise that collaboration is primarily a social and cultural phenomenon.

You go back to seminal work that Dr. Harold Leavitt did in the late 1940s. In his doctoral dissertation, Leavitt discovered that the way that people communicate profoundly impacts their task efficiency. He found, for example, that a star network, in which participants can communicate only with the head of the group, is good for fast decision making and control. On the other hand, a circle network, in which the participants can communicate with members on either side of them, leads to more creative problem solving and task completion, and more adaptability. And circle-network members enjoy better morale and exhibit more enthusiasm.

Additional research turns up a little-known MIT study that shows that one-to-one electronic communication, such as E-mail, actually inhibits community building, whereas many-to-many--as in chat groups and groupware-- enables community building.
As your research continues, you find that high-trust cultures naturally collaborate. Digital Equipment Corp., my former employer, was an example. It may have been the first large-scale user of collaborative software with its VAX Notes software. In June 1980, Digital was using VAX Notes to collaboratively design its products with suppliers and internal people. For Digital, VAX Notes was a natural outgrowth of the way people worked internally, and therefore, was highly successful. Other companies, such as IBM, shut down their collaborative-software efforts around that same time, because those efforts conflicted with the underlying command-and-control culture.

Your research turns up a wealth of information about collaboration from the social-science community, and you conclude that technology solutions can't possibly be successful without first understanding why collaboration works--or doesn't work--from cultural and social perspectives.

In the process of conducting research, you develop a deeper and broader knowledge of collaboration than anyone in your company. Your knowledge is not only relevant to your subsequent search for software tools and their successful implementation, but also can be extremely valuable to the executive team. Note the following excerpt from a recent article on collaboration in the Sloan Management Review by Morten Hansen and Nitin Nohria:

"In the alternative view, firms come into being in order to enable human beings to achieve collaboratively what they could not achieve alone. If one accepts this as the true purpose of any organization, then the main focus of executives' attention should be on how to foster collaboration within their companies. Especially in an era when advantages based on traditional economies of scale and scope are rapidly diminishing, the successful exploitation of collaborative possibilities may hold the key for multinationals seeking to gain or maintain leads over their rivals."

Having done your research, you can ask for 30 minutes at the next executive staff meeting to discuss ideas to enhance collaboration among internal people and with the company’s major partners. No doubt, your ideas will contribute to the company’s greater competitiveness.
Peter DeLisi writes regularly on leadership for He is president of Organizational Synergies, a consulting firm focused on developing IT leadership, as well as academic dean of the Information Technology Leadership Program at Santa Clara University. Prior to founding his firm, DeLisi spent 16 years at Digital Equipment Corp., eight of those as a consultant to Digital’s largest customers.

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