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rockstar.esq

Is modern collaboration good for business?

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Right off, I'd like to dismiss the stock business school reply; "It depends".  That's neither helpful nor useful.

To help clarify, I think it's important to recognize that collaboration is traditionally defined as "cooperation plus leadership".  If we can accept that definition, then most traditional businesses would have to be collaborative.  However, that doesn't appear to be the consensus view.

In my experience, "collaboration" in the working world means meetings where leadership is intentionally downplayed.  For example, collaboration software will typically merge email, file sharing, and teleconferencing. Everyone has equal access and visibility.  Titles and other markers of authority aren't generally visible so there's no clear leader.  Some software will flag issues that go unresolved past their deadline, but a little red box is the limit of your exposure for coming up short.

Many of the offices we build out are "open concept" floor plans where a single sneeze stands a good chance of hitting at least four co-workers.  The design narratives suggest this creates a "collaborative" atmosphere.  In real life, I see a whole lot of people wearing earbuds doing their absolute best not to make eye contact with passersby.  

I bring all this up because I believe there's a serious flaw in this approach.  The open-office floor plans, and the constant connectivity generate social pressure to be seen as a congenial participant rather than a prepared and productive individual.  

I think a lot of people prefer to work in a less hierarchical environment so I can see the appeal for them.  That being said, a successful business needs stuff to get done.  If the idea is to motivate workers with social pressure instead of hierarchy, then it seems pretty obvious to me that accountability is a vital ingredient.  

What do you think?

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I think when you dismiss a standard reply as neither helpful nor useful you limit the scope of the discussion in a way that is neither helpful nor useful.

The bottom line is leadership is essential in the success of any business, as is specialization or compartmentalization.  It is neither feasible nor productive to try to pass all possible relevant information to all employees in a way that they can be informed participants in all (or even the majority of) situations.  Even if you can or could reasonably pass the information to everyone, there can be no good expectation that it will be even looked at, much less digested in a way that promotes productive engagement.  IMHO it's better to have clearly defined roles and expectations with accountability.  There are certainly times and places where teams of people are needed to accomplish a goal, but even within those teams my opinion is that the best and most efficient results are obtained by assigning specific tasks to individuals.  Brainstorming and concept meetings are valuable as everyone can have input from their point of view, but then a direction needs to be determined by a leader and the responsibilities for the various aspects of achieving the goal(s) assigned.

From personal experience dealing with other businesses who are customers, the more people who are involved in a process or decision, the longer it typically takes to get anything accomplished.  When dealing with a small business or organization usually you can get to a decision maker fairly quickly and move forward. 

Having said all that, my normal workspace is shared with 2 other people vital to the operation of the business.  They are always in earshot unless I close the door, which only happens during private meetings.  That way pertinent information is shared quickly, but our roles are all different.  You could say we collaborate, and it's not uncommon for one of us to ask the opinion of the others, but ultimately each person is responsible and accountable for his own slice of the pie.

I'm not sure any of that answered your questions well, but it's my 2 cents.

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Interesting as usual Rocky ... I worked in a government office that went from segregating the public from the office with riot screens to "open plan", completely ignoring the safety of the workers, in a bid to "keep up with the times" or words to that effect. The end result was a spike in aggression incidents and a total loss of privacy among the workers who now, deprived from an office space, had people wandering behind their back, strangers asking questions at random, workmates volunteering stories and more questions, in other words, chaos and a frontal attack on productivity. 

Open plan stinks. It is inspired by socialist dreams of equality and a clandestine desire of incompetent managers to micromanage behaviour because of their lack of imagination to do it in a way conductive to better and more productive relationships. 

As far as collaboration in doing business, it merits to discuss a business model that is all the rage. 

Someone becomes good at doing a particular business, generally on line. All of a sudden this person opens a school of business where he teaches others to do like him for a fee of course. What appears to be a honest collaborative effort to make others succeed, is in fact a slow and effective way to sabotage the original business model that the originator was so successful in doing, by multiplying the number of competitors exponentially flooding the market with same model business and eventually killing it. 

To me, if you are talking open plan in an organisation, such has a negative effect in robbing people of privacy, and adding unnecessary background noise to the thinking process that is all necessary to do business. Collaboration between business is  by definition bad unless it is limited to service each other with your own products or services. 

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As an introvert, open plan dropped my productivity substantially.  I have to wear industrial anti noise ear-muffs if I need to code or work on complicated database updates. It also injected some major errors into my work that I did not enjoy having to admit.  It's part of the "One Size Fits All" method.

As for collaboration; teams can do wonders when working together.  If working at cross purposes disasters can abound.  I've had to train field support people to ALWAYS check that nobody else is working an issue before making changes to an area of code.  Years of having my work overwritten or mangled have taught me skills of working together.

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A large brand name fortune 500 factory I work with decided that a "collaborative environment" was the buzzword of the day (orders from the head office in another state) so everyone had to give up their offices.  The maintenance supervision crew was given a large conference table with their computers on it and told that's where they all work now.  No drawers for supplies or the 100 doo-dads you need to get through the day. Just a table and a computer.  The plant manager's office had a huge picture window installed as well as a conference table..they called that the "fish bowl" and everyone got to see whomever was getting chewed out that day get their chewing.

So...the maintenance supers who had things to get done started having to find hidden corners to work in when they could...without being caught.  At the "collaborative table", the 40 maintenance workers who came in and out constantly to ask questions or request parts be ordered were so noisy and disruptive that work suffered:  Instead of just your guys coming in to bother just you, every one from every area got interrupted by every other area. Whole Circus instead of just an occasional side show...all day long.  Same when vendors came in to discuss projects.

Worse, though, was no privacy.  People need a little space of their own that's private...and a place to throw their daily junk.  Some maintenance supervisors for instance had to constantly reference a stack of spec catalogs...which had to be piled up on that conference table.  If you stored them elsewhere and went to reference them, upper management from out of state claimed you weren't a "team player" and were hiding.  Losing personal space/offices felt like a huge demotion to people who had been there for decades and worked their way up from the trenches.

It sucked. Moral and work suffered.  Things fell apart and they lost almost all of their good and long term people.  Corporate claimed they left because they wouldn't "get onboard" with the new system (inflexible) 

Because the MBAs at corporate always follow the trend of the day, this one never was eliminated after it failed---they just moved on to another flavor of the day and pretended that yesterday's  farce never existed.  Lather, Rinse, Repeat every few months as some new management fad comes up in the MBA world.  The corporate people with all these wonderful ideas had never spent a single day working in a real factory environment, of course--but that piece of sheepskin said they knew it all so they did.

Collaboration is great.  Forcing it rather than letting it naturally occur where it can be of benefit is idiocy.

Oh..and on a side note of "flavors of the day"...you now get 15 invoices free a year and have to pay THEM to send them an invoice for more than that.  It's only 5 bucks but as a vendor, it really shows one how much they appreciate you busting your backside for them when the need help.

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Lots of interesting replies,  Buzzkill, sorry if I came across the wrong way.  In business school there were a lot of lessons about management quandaries that invariably ended with "there are no wrong answers".  I suspect that anyone with a few years of experience could think of lots of moments where a poor manager came up with the wrong answer to a problem.  

"It depends" was the other placeholder answer.  I don't  believe the class could or should teach the correct answer for every possible situation.  That being said, it's possible to teach people how to prioritize effectively.  With the right priorities, the best answers are more obvious.  

In my experience, "it depends" is an easy way to stall things out.  It simultaneously rejects and responds to a question without moving anything forward.  I suspect it would be difficult to name a time where "it depends" was the answer that solved your problem.

Marc1, I never considered the boss overwatch angle.  That's a good point.  I've worked in a cube farm, a "fishbowl" ,and private offices.  The cube farm had a lot of "prairie dogs" who would pop their heads up over your cubicle wall to talk.  It was unnerving.  The fishbowl was set up so the boss could see your monitor through the window.  Any time I had to walk to the printer, I could see screens flashing in my peripheral vision when coworkers thought it was the boss.

Thomas, I'm not an introvert but I can't "tune out" background noise.  I used to work at a place where we would set up a "war room" for hard bids.  Five or six people working the phones, one person working the computer, everyone doing their best to get all the subcontractor bids reviewed before the deadline.  I couldn't hear anything on my first try.  Everyone had to repeat themselves because it was so incredibly loud.  The guy in charge placed great emphasis on hand written notes transcribed via telephone onto the faxed proposals.  

I implemented an emailed bid checklist which was uniform for a specific trade.  It asked all the pertinent questions in a yes/no/ Add/Deduct manner and provided a place for people to sign.  I could send maybe twenty group emails, and have 150 responses in ten minutes without waiting on hold even once.

Kozzy, that's a great point about shared resources.  How much would it cost to get a set for each person who needed them?  How much do you potentially lose in productivity bickering over who's got them?  This is a bit of a double-edged problem though.  The "cloud" based systems facilitate constant change and enormous files.  That took away two of the largest incentives to provide concise information at "hand-off" points.  I used to get an organized bid package containing all the documents I needed.  Now I get access to a cloud account with several iterations of the plans that have no bearing on todays work.  Vital information is buried alongside useless information because the file management is dumped on an intern who doesn't know what they're looking at.

About half of my meetings will involve a moment where someone asks a question, and someone else claims "it's on the cloud".  Most of the time, neither party checked the cloud account before speaking.  In the last five years, I've seen a noticeable decline in the completeness of documentation.  It's pretty clear that the goal is to deliver a place-holder document to check it off their list.  Then, as time permits, they surreptitiously update the documents without admitting that's what happened.

 

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1 hour ago, rockstar.esq said:

In my experience, "it depends" is an easy way to stall things out.  It simultaneously rejects and responds to a question without moving anything forward.  I suspect it would be difficult to name a time where "it depends" was the answer that solved your problem.

Fair enough as far as that goes.  However, if the dependent conditions are listed it can sometimes be of benefit.  For example: "It depends.  Small numbers of people working collaboratively on a particular project or aspect of a goal can be beneficial.  Beyond a certain threshold, which is not the same in every circumstance, noise pollution, competition for space or resources, and a lack of privacy can negatively affect morale and/or decrease productivity."

I am something of an introvert who dislikes a lot of background noise, waiting in lines, and other things associated with large numbers of people.  I prefer that other people cannot hear my end of a phone call regardless of whether it is a personal call or a business call.  I've experienced enough examples of someone overhearing a snippet of conversation who have then taken things out of context and passed the information on to others which ended up creating drama that was completely unnecessary.  I would not have job satisfaction or perform well in a situation where I could not control the noise level or have a reasonable amount of privacy. There are times I wait until everyone else has left work to complete some tasks that require my full concentration.  I can get more done in an uninterrupted and quiet hour or so than I can during several prior hours with frequent interruptions.  Other people I know seem unaffected by the same circumstances that make it difficult for me to be productive.

I suspect that the collaborative model works well in some specific sets of circumstances, but fails miserably to improve productivity and morale in others.  There is no one size fits all solution for pretty much anything to the best of my knowledge.

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Buzzkill; I make sure that I ask the desk at any Dr's office if they have a place to wait where I am NOT forced to listen to a TV set.  Sometimes I tell them I will wait outside and they can come and get me!

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Buzzkill,  I kinda got the impression you weren't the sort to just stop at; "it depends"!  Thanks for your thoughtful comments.

I sometimes wonder if people feel obliged to define themselves as introverted for simply wanting privacy and quiet to do their best work.  I'm extroverted however I passionately hate noise, especially people talking around me.  I spend very little time face to face with my colleagues and clients.  Phone conversations are much more nuanced and personal.  The last thing I need is a halting murmur because one side of the conversation is justifiably worried about being misheard.

Most of the open office floor plans I see have "phone booths" which are usually tiny little rooms with a transparent door.  Even in a room ostensibly designed to allow a private phone conversation, there's a penal aspect to the design.  In fact, many of them have built in chairs which force the caller to face the glass door.

A lot of conceptual pricing is done off of architectural concept sketches of the space.  These sketches typically include humanoids in the renderings to make the office look sufficiently collaborative and spacious.  It really stands out to me how open offices are always depicted with 1/16th their total occupancy.  

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Currently in higher education teaching methods have and are moving towards collaborative learning.  Instructional space is changing so students can work together in collaborative work groups. The days of seating facing forward listening to an instructor at the front of a classroom is quickly coming to an end.  Just like library's having books.  Each generation learns differently with the adoption of different learning tools.  I guess my point is that if you prefer to learn in a collaborative environment you will want to work in a collaborative environment. 

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JeepinJoe,

Right now there's a crisis among higher ed graduates because they can't find employment sufficient to get out of school debt.  I have a big issue with "collaborative learning" being presented as a replacement for conventional teaching.  

As a student, I'm paying the university to teach me things I don't already know.  This would make a group of fellow students an obviously poor replacement for a qualified instructor.    I think people have bought into higher ed marketing to where they think it's an "experience" that magically imbues professional success on participants.  That's always been a vicious lie.

Over the time I spent in academia, it was pretty clear that universities were reducing the instruction, as they increased the administration.  Currently, the majority of universities literally have more administrators than faculty.  When you've got more salesman than makers, the product declines and the marketing improves.  

How many schools promise to cater the education to the students learning style?  What proof is there that any of this exists, or that it's effective? I'm not talking "studies show" nonsense.  I'm talking about hard facts and figures charted over time.

Those numbers aren't so encouraging.  It's virtually impossible to earn a four year degree in four years.  Some published statistics suggest that only 40% of freshmen will graduate with a degree in six years.  These same statistics suggest that less than half of them will graduate in the major they initially pursued.  

During my time in higher ed, the tuition rose every single year.  Heck, the rate at which my tuition rose, went up every year.  My senior year tuition cost over 15% more per credit hour than my Junior year.  By some standards, my experience was downright frugal.

I think it's dreadfully unfair that an entire generation has been handicapped by this nonsense.  We all need the next generation to be successful.  

If it was truly possible for students to collaboratively learn what's needed to succeed in life, then higher ed should be cheaper, shorter, and smaller.  

Just to clarify, most of my classes involved group work that probably fits your definition of "collaborative learning".  One or two people in the group did the work, the rest got credit for "participating".  I never heard of a group that got a failing grade, but I did see my grade impacted by the shoddy work of a group member. I'm fairly sure that the dead-weight students in my groups considered themselves "collaborative learners".

 

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I stopped going to college when I was told the second time by a different instructor that we weren't there to learn a subject we were there to be socialized. The last instructor to tell me that was rather incensed when I told her I was working a 40 hr. week, driving an hour each way after hours to attend and paying my own way to LEARN SOMETHING. The last thing I listened to her say was about how much I needed to be properly socialized.

In jr. high we were taught the "new math", we learned all about the various arbitrary theories of math, how multiplication and division was done with Roman Numerals and lots of other interesting stuff. Just not how to do algebra. Count change? Cash registers do that, don't be silly!

Oh and the last sour note about my college experience. A couple years after moving out on my own and to Alaska I was well enough established I stopped couch surfing and rented my own place with utilities in my name. I got a letter from UC including a postage paid return envelope telling me I needed to fill out and return the questionnaire to receive my degree. The questionnaire asked what degree in what subject I'd "earned" and how many semesters I'd completed! I THOUGHT I'd gotten out before the no fail policy but I guess not. I 86ed the letter and the two repeats. Later I realized I should've picked a useless degree and returned the letter. ANY degree bumped my job application to the next level. Maybe make one up? Gender Diversity Appreciation? That's one that'd be in demand today. I wonder how many jobs are out there? Years later I realized they just wanted the funding represented by how many credits I claimed, actual education wasn't on their radar

Not all degrees are worthless of course but you have to wonder. I'm sure my General didn't earn her doctorate in the same school system. 

I've met too many high school grads who couldn't figure the area of a square or speak conversational English to . . . Nevermind.

Frosty The Lucky.

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So, collaboration can work when a natural leader with enough humility to lean on others' strengths rises to the challenge. Only, though, if the team has at least a working knowledge of what they're doing, and includes specialists to deal with the nuanced parts of the project that might be overlooked otherwise. 

It all falls apart without someone to steer the ship though. Or if the person steering refuses to acknowledge their specialists' expertise. Or if the experts in one area cannot fathom that they're not experts in every area. Or if the boss's know-nothing kid is put on your team to learn something and wastes all your time suggesting nonsensical solutions to things that aren't problems. Or... you get the idea. 

Though,  I think administration-heavy organizations are just as bad for business (as we see in the above tales of educational woe...). When you cripple workers under layer after layer of useless middle management, you stifle innovation and foster inter-departmental competition -- but not in a healthy, growing way. Instead you have constant efforts to stick it to the other guys by any means necessary. 

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Rockstar, To be clear I am not trying to defend or say higher education has it right.  I'm simply stating the current pedagogy. You make some very valid points and I would say the higher education bubble is coming close to bursting.  There needs to be some serious changes in higher education and just like the housing market the bubble needs to burst before that will happen.  Simple return on investment calculations indicate change needs to happen.  Sadly, we could talk all day on tuition and fees and what changes need to be made.

Exo313, You make some excellent points.

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