Opinion by Thornton May

We’re undervaluing collaboration

In our interdependent age, everything depends on a series of collaborations, and yet collaboration remains largely unmeasured and unmanaged

teamwork together brainstorming collaboration sharing
Credit: Thinkstock

Collaboration isn’t just something you want to happen in your office. Our economy, the political system and civilization itself may be productively analyzed as a series of collaborations. (Not to be confused with the late Sen. Ted Stevens’ virally ridiculed “series of tubes.”) How we feed, clothe, educate, amuse and entertain ourselves relies on a remarkably complex and yet surprisingly unremarked-upon series of collaborations. 

We live in an interdependent age. Very little today is the product of just one actor working alone. Collaboration, collaborators and the technologies they choose to use are the key drivers of modern existence. Organizational success in every vertical market depends on effective collaboration — both internal and external to the enterprise — and yet collaboration is, in most instances, unmeasured and unmanaged. This has to change. 

If today’s collaboration tools (just a partial listing of the amazing array includes Asana, Atlassian, Cisco Spark, Evernote, Igloo, Jabber, Google Docs and Google Drive G-Suite, Office365, OneDrive, Pipedrive, Podio, Ryver, Sharepoint, Skype, Slack, Solstice, Trello, Volerro, WebEx, Yammer) are to come anywhere close to realizing their full potential, management teams around the world are going to have to get much better at understanding their series of collaborations. 

As critically important as collaboration is to success in our increasingly digitized world, it is essentially invisible. Nowhere on an enterprise’s systematically produced documents (e.g., the balance sheet or a 10K) will you find collaboration measured. 

On LinkedIn, some 500 million professionals list their achievements and skills, but there’s no broadly accepted metric specifying whether they are good at collaboration. In our skill-obsessed global economy, there is a growing realization that even if you have the hot new skill — if you’re, say, a data scientist or an information security guru — you still need the plus one of collaboration. 

Every CISO of merit readily admits that an essential ingredient in the success of any enterprise information security program is the ability to effectively collaborate and induce others outside the discipline to actively collaborate as well. Talk to anyone working in big data, data science or analytics and you’ll hear praise-singing for collaboration. Having sat in on several post-mortems of very visible failures to generate enterprise value in the infosec and data science spaces, I can say that less-than-expected performance is inevitably linked to a failure to collaborate and induce collaboration in the general employee population. 

Historically, when it becomes apparent that something important isn’t getting the attention it deserves, some analyst or academic will proclaim the need for specific C-level attention. And yet I have not seen anyone claim that modern enterprises need a chief collaboration officer. Whether CCOs will show up in org charts anytime soon, we certainly do need to accurately measure and aggressively manage collaboration. 

Collaboration is measurable

More than a quarter of a century ago, my colleague Karen Stephenson, of UCLA, pioneered the rigorous, systematic and very mathematical analysis of human connections in complex organizations. 

Scholars credit Stephenson with creating the field of social network analysis (the ability to map which humans are collaborating with which other humans with an eye toward achieving certain objectives). Stephenson has used the techniques of social network analysis to optimize the placement of physical offices following mergers, to analyze the composition of product development teams, and to make visible, for the intelligence community, the series of collaborations that underpin terror networks and, for public health officials, the person-to-person spread of epidemics. Senior executives should be using similar tools and techniques to identify and amplify the great (and frequently hidden) collaborators in the workforce. 

Collaboration influences how information flows (or does not flow) through an organization. What has always surprised me is that more organizations have not aggressively pursued analysis of the series of collaborations governing the information flows associated with both value created and value destroyed. Gaining a better understanding of the way collaboration assists information flow and positive outcomes seems like a sure-fire way to achieve positive outcomes more often and to avoid repeating costly mistakes. 

Trust is key

An organization’s capacity to collaborate is a reasonable proxy for the levels of trust it inspires — how much employees trust the enterprise, how much the enterprise trusts employees and how much employees trust one another. This impacts performance, since there is a positive correlation between “the amount of trust in an organization and its members’ ability to develop and deploy tacit knowledge together,” as Strategy+Business said in an article about Stephenson.

Economically, organizations with a high capacity to collaborate have lower internal transaction costs. Stephenson has observed that: 

… if people in two different departments or regions (say, marketing and sales, or Asia and Europe) feel enough trust to speak candidly together about their impressions of the market, the quality of work processes, and ways to improve the work, then they have many more opportunities to innovate and think together. The cost of new projects goes down accordingly. … More value is created when expensive, unwieldy oversight is reduced. 

I hope I will not be accused of having “Columbused” the criticality of collaboration — I am not claiming to have discovered it when it has, in fact, existed all along. I do hope, though, that you will more rigorously measure and manage the series of collaborations through which your organization creates value and achieves its mission. 

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