Monday, January 26, 2009

Collaboration across divisions is unnatural

We're writing a booklet in Dutch about the possibilities of web2.0 tools to foster learning and collaboration in knowledge-intensive organisations. I'm struggling a little whether the tools are just helpful and nice, helping you to do your regular work. Or whether they hold the potential to turn over the way knowledge workers collaborate in organisations. On the one hand I don't think it is an automatic process- you introduce a wiki and hoops, the various departments that used to have such diferent attitudes start to collaborate. On the other hand it is true that fervent web2.0 workers are very open to share what they know and to respond to questions. Having lots of those people would make a different workplace, wouldn't it?

So I found a great article about boundaries in organisations. (Boundaries Need Not Be Barriers). I really liked it because it highlights the psychological difficulties to collaboration across groups within organisations. It's not natural to work across departments since we have an intergroup bias towards other groups, favouring our own group. This is complemented with a territorial need of groups. Territory includes physical space and other tangible and intangible objects. Groups may see themselves as possessors of certain knowledge and may restrict their information exchange to what they consider as 'their' members (the ingroup). The final barrier is that people are poor negotiators across groups or departments. We first think of how to get a large piece of the pie and don't think about enlarging the pie for the whole organisation.

What managers or leaders can do to stimulate collaboration across boundaries (often very needed!) is to emphasize group goals but at the same time organizational goals at a higher level. Furthermore showing that collaboration can yield a more secure place in the organisation instead of lead to insecurity. Lastly, people need to learn how to negotiate and identify win-win opportunities. It's a skill to look at the broader picture and see how we can all create a larger pie.

It's clear that collaboration is not as natural as it seems through the web2.0 tools. Possibly web2.0 tools can help to connect people across divisions, and help see the larger picture and identify opportunities to collaborate...


Emmanuel.K.Bensah II said...

collaboration is critical! what about the emergence of ning platforms? How would you speak to that? It's been a while; hope all is well with you!rs

Joitske Hulsebosch said...

Hi Emma, everythings great here! I think ning platforms can also bridge divides when the themes are well chosen, I'm member of the african village, you too?

johnt said...

Thx for this paper, as I'm more interested in human behaviour and barriers, rather than papers on best practice.

I'm yet to read it, but I noticed I have read a great paper by the same authors on a similar topic

3 barriers and counteractions:

1. Intergroup bias
- clique
- competition over scarce resources
Link group interests to overarching interests

2. Group territory
- a tribal and identity thing
Use collaboration as a necessary method to achieve a solution across group involvement

3. Poor cross-unit strategies
- failing to recognise the other parties needs and strengths and weaknesses
Revamp negotiation skills

Joitske Hulsebosch said...

Hi John, thanks for this, I will also check out the other paper, sounds there is quite some overlap. I also like their approach to understand human behaviour rather than prescribe what to do!

Dennis D. McDonald said...

Getting people to collaborate across boundaries can be a challenge - just providing tools is not enough, as you point out. One approach I've taken is to focus on project management as a situation where there is frequently a targeted need to accomplish work by people in different parts of an organization working together. Even then, people tend to fall back on using tools they are comfortable with but which are not well-designed to support collaboration, such as email. For an example of this, see my presentation here:

Dennis McDonald
Alexandria Virginia USA