The right collaboration: A fine line.

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I don’t know if you’ve noticed but it seems that Cisco’s boards and councils’ structure is stirring much conversation about the optimal collaboration effort to implement within organizations. Let’s get something out of the way first; I truly believe that collaboration is not necessarily good. As Morten T. Hansen puts it in “When Internal Collaboration Is Bad for Your Company”

“…the conventional wisdom rests on the false assumption that the more employees collaborate, the better off the company will be. In fact, collaboration can just as easily undermine performance.”

As the context of organizations is getting more and more complex, getting collaboration right is becoming a hard and critical job. In Social networking for business, Rawn Shah states that “Although collaboration is at the heart of modern business processes, most companies are still in the dark about how to manage it…they do a poor job of shedding light on the largely invisible networks that help employees get things done across functional, hierarchical, and business unit boundaries.”

So “Let’s collaborate” is no silver bullet. The right questions to ask are how much collaboration we need? And how can we avoid under-collaboration and/or over-collaboration? Through a network perspective, it comes down to finding which bridges to cross and which to burn based on intrinsic characteristics of the nodes, the ties and based on the context the team evolves in. How do you know when enough collaboration is enough? How do you set the line between over and under-collaboration? A very tough question indeed and no single fix can fit it all. I’ve been pondering this for a while and I really think that analyzing organizations through a network lens can help shade some light.

Targeted collaboration

Here is a fact that is often overlooked: every formal organization has in its shadow an informal “invisible” organization. And this informal organization is where the real work gets done. So the first thing we need to do is acknowledge that any effort aiming to enhance collaboration must go beyond the organization chart and dive in its shadowed structure.

Once we come to that realization, we need to analyze collaborative and decision -making networks and identify the weak spots. Over-collaboration is recognized by a very dense collaborative network and by high costs in terms of traffic and communication between its different nodes. Under-collaboration on the other hand is identified by a fractured network and too many bridges with few people to span them.

Once we get a clear picture of the organization’s collaborative network, we can start remedying to the situation by implementing targeted connectivity. This means that we need to cultivate collaboration precisely where it is needed the most. A way to solve under-collaboration issues for example is by identifying the most connected employees from different clusters (small-scaled interlocked structures) and encouraging them to connect, which by extension means spanning structural holes among their clusters as well.

It becomes obvious then, that any collaboration initiative depends less on the technological choices but rather heavily on the network components of the organization. Leaders need to weave their collaboration efforts into the organizations' strategy. They need to design the underlying collaborative networks as much as they do with the matrix structures they've been acustomed to manage. Leaders will therefore need to upgrade their skills by adding yet another crucial one, what Ibarra and Hansen like to call "collaborative leadership".

Lamia Ben.

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One thought on “The right collaboration: A fine line.

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