Workforce Collaboration: A By-Product of the Technology-Driven Marketplace

by Tracy Gibbons, Ph.D. and Randi Brenowitz

This article appeared in Mworld, the online periodical of the American Management Association, July 2001 and in Innovative Leader, 11/22/02.

Technology has done wonders for American management. Yet the complexity of today's technology makes it impossible for any one person to know all of the intricacies behind a new product's design and development. Only 20 years ago, designing and developing a product were more of an individual effort, and organizational design centered on a hierarchical approach. Today companies have to accept that rapidly emerging technologies, a global marketplace and an increasingly competitive and complex business environment demand workplace collaboration.

The Collaborative Work Environment
The simplest way to define a collaborative work environment is to think of how we arrived there in the first place. It began with the massive introduction of computers in the mid-1980s. Better enabled by computers and their infinite capabilities, a new breed of "knowledge workers" was born and, in many ways, they share the same behaviors and value sets. The more the computer distributed power in organizations, the less we relied on traditional models of industry. Clear divisions of hierarchy have been blurring ever since, shifting from a manufacturing model to one of integration.

The collaborative work environments representing this stage of the timeline are team-based organizations with highly aligned people and structures. In this setting, team roles, goals and operating principles are clarified, and joint problem solving and innovation are essential.

Getting a company to this point is difficult. The traditional hierarchies of most companies don't easily lend themselves to team-based structures - especially large organizations that are complex and more difficult to manage and modify. The non-profit Association for the Management of Organization Design promotes the knowledge and practice of organization design. After more than a decade of studying companies, they state on their Web site, "…We see the emphasis shifting on a number of dimensions…less reliance on hierarchy and more reliance on networking and strategic alliances; less reliance on physical labor and more reliance on knowledge workers and technology, less reliance on isolation and more reliance on value chains and the willingness to build strong, healthy communities."

Collaboration Means a New Design

Organization design is the planning and integration of the way people work in an organization. It's also an essential business tool for building a collaborative workplace. Although organization design previously focused more on physically modifying an organization's structure, information technology is changing this approach. With the technical tools now available many types of dispersed work methods have emerged. Home offices, drop-in work centers, electric conferencing are symbols of what has vastly changed the focus of a company's organization define efforts. The high-tech world is finally redefining today's process-based organizations and changing the lines and boxes of traditional organizational charts.

The Random House dictionary defines collaboration as: to work, one with another; cooperate. In many ways, a collaborative workplace is characterized by teamwork - a new style of teamwork designed to fit today's changed organization. Collaborative work teams aren't necessarily without structure, nor are they without levels of power and status. The difference lies in the fact that the structures are set up to change rapidly and to encourage innovation.

For example, companies such as DreamWorks or Apple Computer tend to perfect their definition of teamwork as they grow. Decision making power and authority are constantly changing. Or, there are companies, especially those with extensive sales efforts, that must manage dispersed teams where managers work in one location and their teams are located in several other places throughout the world.

Collaborative Work Models

The complexity of building a collaborative environment dictates the need for expertise in its planning and implementation. Originally, small teams of five to 20 people characterized the collaborative models. Increasingly, however, teams are getting larger and more geographically dispersed. Arriving at an operating style that works for all team members is sometimes a hurdle, which is why companies often work with organization development practitioners.

Creating a collaborative work environment that supports the work of engineers shows how models should be altered to accommodate specific needs. In engineering organizations, frequently the concept of team is associated with a loss of creative freedom and individual uniqueness. In an organization where the charter is to imagine and invent, even the possibility of losing the freedom to innovate can be traumatic.

Design engineering work is not a matter of continuous improvement, but rather of creation and innovation, leading to technological and conceptual paradigm shifts. This type of work does not easily lend itself to cross-training or pay-for-knowledge reward systems that are typical within team-based process organizations.

The length of feedback loops in engineering organizations is much longer than those in manufacturing organizations. On an engineering project, it may take years before one knows if the customer or the marketplace thinks positively about the product. This is in contrast to quality control or internal inspection in manufacturing organizations, where feedback may be received in a matter of hours or days. Traditionally, engineers were trained to be independent workers. They are often frustrated by today's technology and the structural constraints market demands are exerting on their work environments. In general, engineers prefer being measured on individual uniqueness and heroics, not on collaboration and team behavior.

Building effective models of collaboration is challenging. Even when a company has decided to team its special (best) talent to meet today's critical challenges, the ensuing process cannot be underestimated. It warrants a great deal of attention, especially regarding the players in the collaboration. One common philosophy points toward the three components necessary for team success:

  • A goal that is clear, significant and embraced by all members
  • Members who are competent in the behavioral and technical requirements of the team effort
  • Ability of the members to work together effectively and collaboratively

The Collaborative Team

The exciting experience of being part of a collaborative team is often enough for players to maintain their commitment. As members build on each other's ideas, the resulting synergy is rewarding. But these attributes don't just happen by accident. It's not enough to get a couple of the elements right, because this is still a system. Systems are interdependent by nature, so changes in one part of a system create corresponding changes in other parts. All of the elements need to be designed in concert with one another in order for the collaborative workplace to operate well. Ultimately, paying attention to the total design of the organization, and not just its structure, is as important as paying attention to customer satisfaction or financial results.


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