Collaboration is a means not an end

Collaboration Isn’t Working: What We Have Here is a Chasm writes Deb Lavoy in CMS Wire.

Why do teams fail to act the way we think they will? Are we oversimplifying the notion of team? What about organizations? Where is the deeper insight on the relationship between teams and organizations? Why isn’t a sophisticated vocabulary breaking out? Why do we not yet have 100 words for different kinds of collaboration and teams, as expert in it as we think Eskimos are about snow? What is the difference between an intranet, a community and a team?

My immediate response was to say to myself, why of course it isn’t working, based on my own observations and client experiences. Collaboration is only part of the solution to building social or open businesses. I have looked at the two types of behaviours necessary in a social enterprise: collaboration and cooperation. Cooperation differs from collaboration in that it is sharing freely without any expectation of reciprocation or reward. Try to get people to openly cooperate in most businesses and they will be reprimanded for not being focused on their jobs, the bottom line, or shareholder value. However, cooperation contributes to the REAL bottom line: the entire business ecosystem.

One other necessary change in becoming a real social business is much more difficult. Both Don Tapscott (via Ross Dawson) and I see certain principles necessary for open networked business.  Transparency, Collaboration, Sharing, and Narration are all relatively easy. Empowerment, or distributed power, is rarely, if ever, discussed when it comes to social business. It’s the big gorilla in the room that can scare owners, executives, and managers senseless. But we have the technology to move away from command & control, because, as Gwynne Dyer clearly shows, “Tyranny was the solution to what was essentially a communications problem.” We no longer have that communications problem in business.

Social business lacks overarching principles. Social business is a means to an end, not an end in itself. For me the objective is clearly the democratization of the workplace. Many business leaders shirk away from such thoughts. Wirearchy, as Deb notes, is an excellent example of such a principle [notice the bit about “power & authority”]. It sounds more like a democracy than a well-oiled industrial business machine.

“Wirearchy: a dynamic flow of power and authority based on trust, knowledge, credibility and a focus on results enabled by interconnected people and technology.”


Vendors of collaboration platforms are selling tools that can enable a more democratic workplace, but most clients don’t want that, so vendors don’t mention it. Business just wants more efficient and effective work. Networks, by their very nature, subvert hierarchies, whether those in charge like it or not. But hyper-connected work environments require different operating principles. That’s the big shift that has happened over the past two decades. It’s becoming much more obvious now because people outside the business structures are seeing the value of cooperation in a networked world; Wikipedia being the best-known example. Many in business still need to wake up to the notion of cooperating with your environment, your customers, your suppliers, and especially your workers.

Until workplaces becomes more cooperative, enterprise collaboration software will amount to very little. Social business is just a hollow shell without democracy (I wrote that a year ago and little has changed). Businesses can harness the powers of knowledge networks by promoting cooperative behaviours, within an overarching organizing principle like Wirearchy. While it’s not about the technology, the technology has changed everything. I cannot see any other way that businesses will remain relevant in a networked world other than by becoming more open, and democratic.

9 Responses to “Collaboration is a means not an end”

  1. Gerry Nicholson

    It was a pleasure to read this post. There still (I say still because after 35 years of work experience we still seem to struggle with the simple obvious things) seems to be a chasm between what we intuitively know will work and support us and the behaviours we are forced to employ to adapt to our environment. It is all so obvious (there I go again) yet so out of reach. If I take a step back from business to the screenager years I see a myriad of examples where cooperation sharing honesty community and flexibility “just happens”. Then after the school system has finished with these bright young minds companies get their hands on them and start to mould them into their image, mostly a world of boundaries and control. It’s not all like this, there are a wealth of examples where the restrictions are lifted. Maybe, just maybe change is in the air, will keep plugging away and do my bit to help create the environment where teams and wired networks can flourish.

  2. deb lavoy

    I am so thrilled to see you developing this discussion. Power flows, leadership, sensemaking and more are some of the key questions we need to ask, and I hope we have the chance to discuss at length, Harold.

  3. Jon Husband

    It’s also really important to remember (and I think many of us know it but don’t want to confront it ,.. boring and dry as well) that there are some very important and very enduring structural issues about the ‘design’ of work and how doing it is motivated, rewarded and managed that will make any really significant transformations still a very daring, and laborious, process.

    But the issues you outline just will not go away, until we all start ‘going deeper’.

    I believe we’ve talked about this before when we’ve been F2F or over Skype. The issues to which I am referring will also not be able to be entranced by a magic wand. These issues are very very stubborn .. and suit the people who hold power in traditional hierarchies. I don’t expect they’ll stampede to make the necessary kinds of change.

  4. Les Hirst

    I am an avid follower and sharer of your blogs, Harold. This piece is so foundational to the difference between those companies and organizations who “get it” and those who do not (and as you well state — will be “left behind!”). I hate to get philosophical, but it bears mentioning that this is basically an epistomological issue. Modernity with its need to design systems of truth (the purvue of experts and academicians) cannot admit that “regular people” have anything to offer (they just mess up the systems which they are too unlearned to understand!). In post-post modernity, where we are all seekers of truth and we are not troubled with the need to defend our truth systems, we all can be learners; and both collaboration and cooperative become not only possible, but natural and celebrated.

  5. Brad Palmer

    Makes sense Harold. Thanks for setting this down so clearly.

    But what about the timing? The logical sequence of change?

    As you point out, step 1 cannot be a huge shift to mass collaboration. That does not make sense and will not happen quickly. We think this is the main reason first-generation enterprise social platforms are failing.

    Most organizations of any size are already hyper-connected, with all manner of cross-silo relationships, cross-organizational initiatives, shared goals, matrix structures and the like. Problem is, all this exists with little clarity of who is doing what, where key information and expertise lies, or a vibrant culture to glue it all together. Fixing these problems does not require the introduction of collaboration as step one.

    For me the sequence needs to be:

    1. Clarify who you are and bring your existing culture to life.

    2. Decide where you want to go. Move there step-by-step by recognizing new values and changing how decisions are made, shifting your culture in the process.

    As you say, “Business just wants more efficient and effective work.” Enterprise platforms that clarify and energize workplaces in this manner can deliver huge value. Today.


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