It's difficult to find an industry that isn't talking about collaboration; it's one of those topics that is uniformly assumed to be a *good thing*.
Collaboration = good.
More collaboration = better.
Businesses are spending astronomical sums of money on their office buildings to find what are seen to be better ways of bringing people together. Break-out areas, meeting rooms, communal kitchens and restaurants are all designed and built with the purpose of finding new ways to co-locate people. The entire 'flow' of the building is designed to bring people together to share ideas and collaborate.
Similarly, businesses with dispersed, mobile workforces are wrestling with ways of allowing colleagues to come together, both physically and virtually. IT collaboration tools, video conferences, unified communications, tool-box talks, briefings, stand-ups and team meetings - all of these things are designed to encourage staff to work together and come up with ideas to work more efficiently, improve health and safety, to feel more part of a team. Bring these people together, and great things will happen. Right?
I'd like you to take a moment to stop and think about when you're at your most productive. When you feel like you have 'flow', great focus, when productivity becomes effortless, and you get a tonne of work done.
Are you most productive in meetings, or when there's lots of commotion and noise? Or is it when you're working on your own, with peace and quiet? How often do you go home in the evening thinking "Where did the day go?", feeling like you didn't achieve anything?
If you're lucky enough to work for a company that allows working from home, compare this with how often you feel that by staying home, by yourself, you get so much more done and still had time to walk the dog.
I'd like to forward a motion that modern business is lurching toward over-collaborating. Or at least, collaborating in the wrong ways. As I stated at the start, often we tend to think that because a little of something is good, a lot must be great. As with most things in life, this just isn't the case, but that's exactly what I see happening across businesses when it comes to collaboration. We must change our focus from trying to do more; we need to focus on better.
So how should collaboration look? Undoubtedly bringing together people to create a team dynamic, to build the foundations of ideas and to share experiences is essential and useful.
The analogy of a football team is often used to illustrate the importance of team-work. Each player knows their role within the team, the parts of the field they should spend most of their time, the runs they should make, the other players around them that they'll pass the ball to most often.
While this is all true, and a decent analogy, it stops short of modelling how a real, productive team works. At the extreme, you have the mercurial game-changer, the player that can create something out of nothing. They're usually far less interested in the team aspect of the game, instead they're maybe seen as slightly selfish, they do their own thing and drift in and out of games. However, when they do get involved they do things differently and "create", more than any other single player on the pitch, they create positive outcomes. In a more mundane way, each player, while knowing what they need to do regarding the team, must accomplish many of those things in isolation. Each tackle, block, forward run is a personal choice, and no help is received or needed from teammates.
I think this example extends to business teams. Team-work and collaboration are required to provide a foundation on which to create value, and without that foundation, the game-changing player is unlikely ever to touch the ball. However, once that foundation is in place, each person should be allowed the space to develop their own ideas; to create value. My opinion is that it's in these moments where the game is changed.
Collaboration is a good thing; a necessary foundation for creating value. The many styles of brainstorming, which still prove to be very useful, require collaboration and some level of group-think.
Sharing work experience using virtual tools can distribute vital knowledge throughout an organisation, removing islands of expertise.
Enterprise Content Management, Information Management and Knowledge Transfer tools can also be highly valuable in creating a medium for sharing information throughout an organisation (but only when people buy into the culture of using them).
The takeaway is - don't get drawn into thinking that collaboration is good for the sake of it or that more collaboration is necessarily better. Instead consider carefully the model you want to employ, give people opportunities to jointly develop ideas, build team ethics and share experiences. Then give them the space to develop those ideas; committees are simply not conducive to innovative thinking.