Rogier Noort just published a post on his site, for a great part based on an interview he did with me during the Enterprise 2.0 Summit in Paris in February of this year. Rogier’s original title of the post was “Collaboration: Salvation or Myth”. It’s a great post, and Rogier clearly took the pain to reflect on our conversation. I would label it as “The Myth of Collaboration”. Some people call my point of view blasphemy in a period where everything has to be “social”, “working together” and “collaboration and hacking spaces”. So be it. I just felt there was something deep wrong about it, and Rogier did an awesome job of articulating my thoughts. I have copied the text in it’s entirety, and just added the usual colour emphasis.
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Collaboration is an important part of productivity. It’s a highly desired commodity, but seemingly more elusive that you’d might think.., and it cannot be forced.
The other day my wife saw a message from an old colleague.., they’re moving her to a flex desk. “Now, I’m no longer allowed to place a photo of my grand children on my desk”, is what she said.
Her work is routine, she’s not allowed to work from home, needs no collaboration, won’t hop from desk to desk, and nobody will wander in looking for a place to work.., in other words.., that particular department does not need flexible workspaces. What they need is a working environment where an employee feels comfortable, secure and relaxed. A place where it’s okay to have a picture of your grand children on your desk.
This message reminded me of a conversation I had with Peter Vander Auwera about this very topic. I didn’t know quite how to put this in a post, until now.
The Key to Success
There is a wide variety of approaches to SocBiz, or Enterprise 2.0, some say the business goals have to be aligned to social, or we need to measure everything first, or we have to have a Digital Village first… others take a more tangible approach. A more non-virtual one. They reshuffle the physical space people work in.., the office floor.
Collaboration is the key to success.., so.., we create a (physical) working environment where collaboration is as easy as raising your hand and ask a question. Serendipity is guaranteed because people have no fixed desk, so you never know who you’re going to sit next to.
According to Peter “[the office space] has been designed to enhance collaboration… working with each other across departments.”
The myth is, you have to collaborate all the time.
But, not everybody operates that way. As far as I’m concerned, I like my work area quiet. I need focus to concentrate, and more often than not, my work needs to be accurate and creative. Two things I can (or need to) do alone, no collaboration is needed.
For Peter it’s the same; “I don’t function that way… I need time on my own to think.”
Collaboration is Not Happening
Peter explains his view further; “When you sit with other colleagues around a “collaboration” table.., I hardly see any collaboration. Everybody still works in their own zone, because they have work to do. It just doesn’t happen.”
This happens when culture and progressive ideas clash. You can’t force people into a collaborative state of mind. Reshuffling desks, open up the floor, and taking away personal offices does not guarantee collaboration.., it just doesn’t.
I’m sure at some companies, for some departments this approach can do wonders. But, we should judge the merit of such huge changes on any specific floor/office/department/company.
You could simply ask employees their stand on such a high impact change.
“The other aspect has to do with physical space and emotional space. When working in a collaborative space I have the feeling my privacy is disturbed. At any time somebody can come up behind you and look over your shoulder.., it feels like a sort of surveillance.”, Peter says.
“It’s difficult to articulate, because I have nothing to hide, in fact, I have a lot of things to share. The idea of collaboration has the opposite effect, it doesn’t invite me to collaborate with the people who look over my shoulder. Because I feel they are intruding in my privacy zone, my creativity zone.”
The idea that anybody can criticise your work at any time can be a great hinder. This is not just in the physical space, but can also occur in a collaborative on-line space. When I’m working on something, a blogpost for instance, I like to write a great deal, preferably all the way to the end with a revision or two, before I let anybody read it.
This is my process, the way I want to work.., I do not want any input, suggestions or comments until I’m good and well ready for them.
More about working in peace can be read in “Silence, I’m Painting“, an article by Peter on his personal blog.
… or lack thereof. Most people in the office have nothing or very little to do with your work. The chance of having exactly that person that you need come sit next to you in an open floor space is quite slim.
The odds of serendipity (fortuitous happenstance or pleasant surprise) are against you, against us. Even if you plan and scheme everything to enhance those chances.
Inspiration therefore is one of those things we seek out. We connect with those people who can help us move beyond a certain point.., everything else is just noise.
Peter worries about this attitude sounding arrogant. Knowing Peter.., this is far from what is happening.
What’s really happening is that, at times, we should stop and think, reflect on the changes we’re trying to make, and the goals we want to achieve. Despite the fact there are a lot of talented people out there with a great number of good ideas, we cannot, and should not, just apply them. This goes for collaboration, but also hierarchy, job titles, software.., you name it.
Social business, The New Way of Working.., or whatever you want to call it.., is NOT generic. There is no One-Size-Fits-All. Not only does this apply to every company, but also to each department and each individual. To generalise, automate, or standardise this idea works as good as trying to fit every person in exactly the same suit.
Like any other undertaking, regardless of what it is, for it to have long term success, there has to be balance.
An office should provide spaces for all sorts of productivity styles. Employees should be involved in the design, their opinions should drive the change. After all, it is they who do the work.
Thank you Peter for the insights and challenging us to think.
Peter is a creative thinker, creator and sensemaker. Co-initiator of Corporate Rebels United, a movement to unite corporate rebels worldwide to ensure that true change happens virally. Charter Member of Change Agents Worldwide.
Edit: Richard Martin (@IndaleGenesis) pointed me to this wonderful video made by Dave Coplin (@DCoplin). It really adds to the points made in the post. It’s only 9 minutes, I encourage you to watch it.
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