Collaboration is a curse, according to last month's Economist. Or it can be, if there's too much of it, which is the point of the column. The anonymous author--The Economist uses no bylines--was responding to a Harvard Business Review cover story as well as a Georgetown University assistant professor's recent book--"Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World." (Sounds like a title spewed out by an algorithm if I've ever heard one.)
The takeaway from both, according to The Economist, is that the knowledge workers of the world are suffering. The modern organization, it seems, is overrun with teamwork. Workers are being browbeaten into a state of collaborative submission via an endless series of meetings, communication novelties like Slack and Chatter, and that old standby, email. What's lost in all the "replies to all" and meeting invites, according to the writer, is uninterrupted time to concentrate--presumably the very thing that forms the bedrock of what's gratingly referred to as "the knowledge economy."
If I might contribute a few painstakingly parsed words of my own in response--what a load of bull. First of all, the term "knowledge worker," though it may have been coined by the illustrious management thinker Peter Drucker, is somewhat misleading, or at least The Economist writer uses it in a misleading way. The assumption made is that because someone works with her head instead of her hands, her job requires hours of solitary cerebration. (As if people in production don't use their heads as well as their hands.) Forget the old marketing "silos"--what knowledge workers need, apparently, is more time in ivory towers. The writer cites the recent publications as part of "a growing body of academic evidence" that the world has gone "collaboration mad." To this, I'm inclined to say: Academics, heal thyselves. If there's any environment more dominated by endless meetings and requests than university departments, I've yet to find it. And if there's any group who feel more demands on their time while under pressure to produce their "own work" than faculty members, I haven't met them.
But what's the point of Harvard, Georgetown or any university if not to gather resources in one place to educate and learn? It's an association; that means people associate. Where would Plato be without the discussions at the Academy, for God's sake? The same is true for any company or organization. People get together to work together. They have a single goal. It's how things get done. As even The Economist's writer concedes, people who work together achieve things that people who work alone cannot. That's why the other extreme of working from home has its limits--and its severe drawbacks.
At Big Ass Solutions, we have more than 800 "knowledge workers" who think at desks and on their feet. Every last one of them, from production to sales, uses their training, wisdom and expertise in one way or another, and collaboration is a cornerstone. I tell people that I don't care if they come up with the greatest ideas in the world, if they're not collaborating and working out problems with their co-workers, they're screwing the pooch. Different perspectives see farther than a single set of eyes. Yes, we have an open floor plan where salespeople, writers, graphic artists and engineers are within earshot of one another, yet by some "miracle," creative work gets done--and a lot of it. We--a manufacturing company--have grown at 30% a year for going on eight years.
The Economist writer seems to equate collaboration with distraction, when the real problem is poor time management. Sure there are going to be distractions in our kind of environment, but it's a distracted world. Those people who estimate that 70% to 85% of their workdays are taken up with emails, requests and meetings probably go home and look at their own smartphones for Facebook updates just as often.
If you talk to our employees, they'll tell you they find ways to set limits on distractions. If the graphic artists have a particularly heavy workload, they put the word out. And the people in R&D--who may best fit the deep-thinker stereotype--will tell you that their time is split 50-50, at most, between the by-products of working together and its long-term goals. They also recognize that in our environment there are hard deadlines that require constant collaboration. They know this is not a place where they can burrow down a rabbit hole or climb an ivory tower--it's a company.