A practical guide to collaboration

A new book makes research into workplace collaboration accessible and useful.

Steve Kelman is professor of public management at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government and former administrator of the Office of Federal Procurement Policy.

It seems to have become de rigueur for popular books presenting academic research to have one-word titles. Malcolm Gladwell, a writer at The New Yorker, seems to have inaugurated that trend with his book "Blink" about scholarly work on intuition. In that spirit, Morten Hansen, a professor at the Haas School of Business at the University of California, Berkeley, has written a book about collaboration in organizations, called simply "Collaboration.”

Hansen has been doing research on collaboration in companies for 20 years. Given the enormous interest in the topic in government in the past decade, it is interesting to see a similar trend occurring in corporate America.

“When I started my research on collaboration…the topic was not that important,” Hansen said. “Managers saw it as one of many things to get right, but it didn’t climb to the top of their agendas. This has changed considerably. I have witnessed collaboration becoming a top priority in large multi-unit companies in the United States, Europe and Asia.”

Hansen is no fan of collaboration for its own sake. Collaboration takes time, and if it doesn’t generate sufficient benefits, it might not be worthwhile. It also creates a danger of free-rider problems, in which collaborators lose a sense of individual responsibility and work less hard, assuming others in the group will pick up the slack.

Hansen sees four barriers to collaboration:

  • A “not invented here” syndrome that leads people to reject ideas from the outside.
  • Hoarding, in which people want to keep knowledge close at hand because they are competing with others inside the organization or because the information enhances the holder’s power.
  • The difficulty of searching for information located somewhere in the organization (the “if we only knew what we know” problem).
  • The cost of transferring knowledge from holder to recipient.

The first two barriers relate to the motivation to collaborate, Hansen said. The latter two relate to the ability to collaborate.

Hansen’s key managerial point is that efforts to deal with problems must be tailored to the barrier. To deal with motivation problems, he recommends a mix of incentives and leadership skills. You can’t expect people not to hoard knowledge when all the rewards are for individual performance. Instead, people should have performance plans that are based on both their personal achievements and their unit’s accomplishments and on meeting some specific goals that require cross-unit cooperation. So-called 360-degree evaluations by subordinates, peers and supervisors can also help.

Leadership plays a role, too. Citing a classic social psychology field experiment involving kids at a summer camp, Hansen said intergroup hostility can be counteracted by a leader forcefully giving the groups a goal they can only meet by working together.

To ease the costs of transferring knowledge, Hansen said the key is to encourage the building of effective networks. He cited his own research to show that having a large number of people involved in a network is not associated with improved output. All that networking takes time, which can hurt productivity. Instead, it is the diversity of people’s ties that helps. In other words, you want to get people to associate with colleagues who have different skill sets. Furthermore, the people most effective at transferring knowledge are often longtime employees who have worked in many parts of the organization.

Hansen’s book is a good and practical read — an excellent example of making academic research accessible.

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