Monday, November 27, 2006

Collaboration - The Other Side

Staying away from KM evangelization for a brief period has actually helped me cure my obsession with KM. Even though my passion for the subject is as good as ever, I am at least not so blinded by the passion that I can’t think about the limits of KM. Simply put, I will now not go around calling KM the panacea for everything under the sun. I know enough to think about the difficulties and the predicaments associated with it.

I’ve been one of the strongest advocates of collaboration (For the uninitiated, collaboration is a key component of KM). Collaboration for learning; collaboration for speed; collaboration for innovation; collaboration for efficiency and effectiveness etc. I continue to be influenced by the concept and will peddle it as a solution for many organizational problems. But I’d like to explore the subject here from another angle and point out the troubles and tribulations of collaboration that need to be considered before embarking on any collaborative process/solution revolving around collaboration.

  1. Collaboration will not be equally effective in all environments

Imagine three different organizations with the same challenge - Slow learning amidst high growth (business and employee growth). One of the key solutions to tackling this situation could be a framework for collective learning. Even if the challenges in the three organizations are exactly the same, the collective learning framework – however exhaustive it is – will not have the same effect on all three. The difference in the outcome would lie more often than not in the surrounding environment. The environment refers to the management attitude (do they talk about the need for collective learning and sharing and lead by example?), the physical workspace (does it have high walls?), the experience of the seniors (how much do they actually know to teach and be open enough to learn in case they don’t know enough?), the novices’ willingness to learn (are they motivated and interested enough to learn), the ability of seniors to teach and learn (how good are they at explaining), the availability of technical enablers (do they have efficient telecommunication lines, do they have tools that help them ask questions, answer them, jot down thoughts, store them for later use etc), the work pressure (is there so much work that people can’t concentrate during conversations?) etc

  1. There are different styles of collaboration

This is very important. Even if the environment for collaboration exists, it needs to be understood that each person has his/her style of collaboration. It may be commonly felt that once people understand the importance of collaboration and are provided the environment to work together….things need to start happening. But this may not be the case because just as each of us has his/her style of working, we also have our own style of collaborating. It obviously cannot so happen that only people who have similar styles of collaborating work together….so, there does seem to be a need to make everyone aware of the different styles, and train them to adapt themselves to the needs of the situation. I have attempted to explore some of the common styles/preferences below. I don’t think these styles are isolated in that people have only one way of collaborating….but there are likely to be some dominating traits amongst these in each of us.

-Some of us like to think together and be led by others’ thoughts, reactions, questions and inputs

-Some of us like to sit down and think quietly – in solitude

-Some of us need to work on the whole thing (like working on a document) all by ourselves and then send it to others for comments, feedback and suggestions

-Some of us are happy to take one chunk from the whole thing (eg: document) and then fit it into the right place

-Some of us do our best when the ownership lies with us

-Some of us do our best when somebody else take the ownership and we are involved only in the capacity of a consultant/reviewer

-Some of us collaborate well under pressure and vice versa

-Some of us like to converse our way through the problem while the rest like to get down to the nitty-gritty without much ado

-Some are worried about their role in the exercise and how much of the credit they’ll get

-Some are comfortable just using their minds while some others need a pen and paper or a marker and white board

-Some cannot collaborate with people whom they don’t know well enough

-Some prefer face-face collaboration to distributed collaboration

  1. Technology-enabled collaboration has its drawbacks

Technology-enabled collaboration is something that not everyone is comfortable with. Technology cannot do a perfect job of translating body language. There are people who are phobic about phones. Some of us don’t seem to be able to get personal and comfortable about discussion boards. Some of us hate to write because of which we don’t contribute to virtual workspaces that depend on discussion boards and repositories and chats rather than voice exchange. One tool may not be sufficient to meet the needs of the situation. Not everyone is dexterous enough to handle multiple tools for collaborating – telephone, online whiteboard, presentations, videoconference etc

  1. Collaboration is hard to sustain

Even if everything is conducive and people are motivated to collaborate and work together on a continuous basis, more often than not, they will encounter stumbling blocks along the way. These stumbling blocks can put a spoke in the wheel of collaboration and stop it from running. Work load and pressure are common culprits that prevent people from looking outside their own ‘selfish’ responsibilities. Response from the organization, peers and managers can also determine the success or failure of collaborative endeavors. An organization where people are used to finger-pointing behaviours, divide and rule habits, search for individual glory, rewards and incentives will find it hard to sustain collaboration.

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