The culture of collaboration is strong in today’s workplace. Collaboration is used in almost every industry in a multitude of situations. Pared down to its bare essentials, collaboration can be defined as “a dynamic process resulting from developmental group stages and as an outcome, producing a synthesis of different perspectives” (Gardner, 2005, p. 2). The success or failure of collaboration depends on the characteristics of the stakeholders that form the group and the dynamics of the group. Often, no formal training regarding collaboration is provided in the workplace. Hence, collaboration efforts fail, leading to a mixed bag of opinions regarding whether the advantages outweigh the disadvantages or not. This paper shall explore both sides of the issue.
The Phases of Collaboration
Collaboration addresses complex problems when it is not more efficient to have an individual take responsibility for resolving the issue. At best, collaboration lends itself to situations where the solution appears to be “imperfect, changing or divergent” (Gardner, 2005, p. 10).
Collaboration has three phases; problem setting, direction setting, and structuring (Gardner, 2005). During the problem setting phase, stakeholders establish their credentials and expertise. Next, during the direction setting phase, stakeholders agree on the problem and what actions and resources are needed to address it. Lastly, in the structuring phase, stakeholders implement what was agreed upon in the previous stage and allocate roles, responsibilities and resources (Gardner, 2005). For collaboration to be successful, the stakeholders must all have a similar mental model of what the process entails and what outcomes are expected.
Stakeholders’ Characteristics Influence Collaboration
Communication dimensions impact collaboration. Thus, the delivery of content and how the sender perceives the relationship with the other party is important (Gardner, 2009). Another key element is the value individuals attribute to the communication process and how much time they contribute in its pursuit. Furthermore, the environment for communication can also vary, according to the tastes of the stakeholders. Face-to-face sessions, socializing, sophisticated software and instant messaging all foster collaboration and meaningful relationships.
According to Pressman (2009), “the most effective teams are composed of highly competent individuals with at least a modicum of interpersonal skills and a balanced mix of personalities and passions” (¶ 18). Davies, (2009) suggests that in order to get a team that complements each other, stakeholders should be recruited on the basis of whether they are thought-oriented, people-oriented or action-oriented. Their specialist knowledge, qualifications and experience should also be considered.
Types of Collaboration
Types of collaboration can vary according to the make-up of the members and the goals of the collaboration efforts. The most common types of team collaboration are cross-functional, specialized, and partnership. In cross-functional collaboration, members of the team have diverse functions within an organization, and a common goal. In specialized collaboration, team members often have the same skill set and share similar experiences. Additionally, collaboration can exist as a partnership, where various departments come together to discuss the points where they intersect in the organization. The key elements to identifying team collaboration are: “members of the group are known, there are clear task interdependencies, expected reciprocity, and explicit time-lines and goals” (Callahan, Schenk, & White, 2008, ¶ 13).
Two more categories of collaboration also exist: community and network. There is a shared area of interest in community collaboration, but the goal is learning rather than being task based. On the other hand, network collaboration starts with individual self-interest and accrues to the network as individuals add their own personal knowledge or opinions. However, there are no roles or time-lines defined (Callahan, Schenk, & White, 2008).
Advantages of Workplace Collaboration
This section will examine what the team found as being the most important advantages of workplace collaboration. Team B specifically looked at team collaboration and the sub-categories. The common factor among these advantages appears to be the level of cooperation and the rapport established between team members.
Trust (once established)
In collaborative environments, cooperation is the mechanism by which trust is increased (Gardner, 2005). Trust is a substantial advantage when a group is able to use this to their benefit. Confidence can be developed and strengthened through communication between stakeholders, honesty, accepting and giving advice, completing tasks, and meeting deadlines.
Getting tasks successfully completed can be difficult. However, completion of tasks is critical to developing trust. Rushing through a task and declaring that the task is finished, then finding out mistakes were made, or things were missed, will lead to a loss of trust. On the other hand, knowing that time was taken to ensure a task is complete, is a good way of helping develop trust.
Collaboration, like teamwork, provides structure and balance in regard to projects. Collaboration provides and fosters the belief, “For the greater good,” instead of the belief, “What’s in it for me.” This fostered belief allows for cross-functional teams to perform at a high level of performance, time management, fiscal responsibility and critical checks and balances (Archer, 2004).
The management of time is a key component in any work relationship and limited time is an obvious obstacle to a successful collaboration effort which must be managed accordingly. Collaborative teams realize that collaboration is a journey. As such, team members often build enough time into the project to accommodate changes, testing and meetings (Gardner, 2005).
Having a sense of belonging is also important to collaboration. People have a natural need to belong and seek to feel like they are part of something. Collaboration fills that need. Collaboration brings out the best in people because it drives better working relationships, which forges camaraderie between its members. For example, when teams build strong communication methodologies, the possibilities are endless (Marshall, 1995).
Through communicating with each other, a wealth of information is conveyed. Individuals within teams learn from each other. Often, by listening and observing the behavior of others within the team, members learn skill sets that cannot be learned in any other way.
The social makeup of any team is interestingly dynamic. It allows members to gain a better perspective from experiences of other team members, which in turn makes the individual team members stronger. The importance of optimizing individual and team member strengths relies on the team having different cultures, diversity in work experiences, and a mix of genders represented accordingly.
According to Computerworld, collaboration, if channeled correctly, provides increased productivity, which can lead to vast benefits for organizations (Teaming Up for Work, 2008). When productivity is increased, it becomes a considerable advantage in getting projects completed. Through collaboration, productivity is improved as tasks become more manageable. Work is accomplished more rapidly, a higher percentage of mistakes are caught, resources are abundant, expenses are shared, and someone is able to step in where another leaves off or is unable to help.
Projects can seem overbearing. The difficulty is organizing them. Being able to split the responsibility makes the project more manageable. In theory, everyone gets to work on a small task contributing to the desired result. Being able to work on a small task allows more involvement on that specific task. The advantage of added contribution to the tasks generates a higher quality result.
Splitting tasks is also very effective when attempting to resolve complex problems. Drexler and Forrester (1998) believe that collaborative teamwork is what it takes to meet the ever- changing market conditions of today. In the case of software developers, programs are usually broken down into small segments assigned to different teams working in parallel, which results in faster deployment.
Collaboration also combines the expertise of the groups to produce a consensus of much better thought decisions. “A group of investors will usually outperform a single expert; the bad opinions in the crowd tend to cancel out, so that the average is wise,” an advantage known as “the wisdom of the crowds” (Freedman, 2006, p. 62).
Creativity and Innovation
Innovation and creativity can be advantages of collaboration, but they need to be broken down into their elements – inspiration, invention and implementation. Without all three elements, there is no advantage. Inspiration comes from a dynamic environment, invention from chaos, and implementation from structure and planning. Cross-functional teams seem to be more innovative than other types of teams because these teams provide those elements (Spencer, 2008).
Disadvantages of Workplace Collaboration
After researching, Team B found out that the number of disadvantages associated with collaboration equals the advantages. This section will explain what the team found to be the most critical disadvantages.
Extensive Time and Effort Required to Manage Collaboration Effectively
Every project is going to be time consuming. The difficulty is finding the time to complete the project, and at the same time, work on others. Supposedly, working as a team can greatly reduce solution timelines. When less time is spent on a project, it allows for more time to be allocated towards other initiatives and company strategies. The more objectives a company can get accomplished, the more productive that company will be.
Collaboration in the workplace is not always as good as it sounds. One of the biggest problems with working in groups is time management. A collaborative process tends to be lengthier than other methods because more people are involved. Time is of the essence when it comes to getting projects done and turned in by the deadline. It takes effort and coordination to find time to work together (Johnson, 2006). When a group of individuals in the workplace is thrown together to get a task done, most of the time the project is not only theirs. The issue then arises of when can the group meet during the workday and have a sit-down to decide how to delegate the pieces of project. If everyone doesn’t agree on an outcome, then the team becomes deadlocked and that takes time to resolve. It also takes more time agreeing on a schedule to get the work accomplished in a timely manner. If the team leader is too busy resolving conflicts and trying to make all the decisions that no one else can, then he or she does not have the time to participate effectively and collaborate (Johnson, 2006).
Unequal Workload and Wallflowers: Non-Contributors
A lack of participation from non-contributors can cause group members to experience an increased workload and feelings of anger, resentment and alienation. When working alone, it is agonizingly obvious when someone is not generating any help. On the other hand, a wallflower personality can be physically present, observing the actions of others, but contributing nothing, while remaining part of the group (Davies, 2009; Freedman, 2006).
Members in a poorly managed team often resort to suppressing their own opinions to avoid conflicts with others. The result is a buy-in to a consensus. A good example of this is Enron, where fatally wrong decisions were made based on a false consensus of ideas. A groupthink approach defeats the wisest members, who lose confidence in their reasoning when facing a majority of opposing opinions (Freedman, 2006).
Technology Can Make Collaboration Worse
Technological advancements can make collaboration worse; members become more hesitant to offer their opinions due to fear of confronting the larger audience made possible by instant messaging, web-conferencing and other virtual collaboration tools. In addition, technology makes collaboration easier for every team member to bring more ideas to the discussions. Eventually, foolish ideas are allowed to gain significance when it becomes difficult to filter the pool of ideas (Freedman, 2006).
Social Loafing and Romance of the Teams
Freedman (2006) argues that effectiveness of collaborative teams could simply be a misconception. The structure of most teams makes members lazy, exerting little effort and not achieving their full potential. This aspect is what encourages people to love teamwork. “The romance of teams” is what Natalie Allen, a psychologist at the University of Western Ontario, calls it. Freedman cited Kip Williams, a Purdue psychology researcher, who believes that “the notion that individuals outthink and outdecide groups is so well established among experts that they don’t bother to study it anymore” (p. 62). This is exemplified when conducting brainstorming sessions. It is always assumed that group brainstorming brings more bright ideas than individual brainstormers. The fact is that individuals are able to do more thinking when left alone, whereas the group members waste their time listening to others. When compared to the loud interaction of the team, individuals appear less productive due to their silent brainstorming (Freedman, 2006).
Collaboration at work can cause conflicts, and if these conflicts are allowed to continue then they can become a hindrance to an otherwise productive team. Knowledge protection can be one cause of conflict when working in a team environment. Team members may fear others in the group and feel the need to protect their knowledge and interests. If they protect their interests then they won’t keep an open mind or speak what is on their mind when in discussion. This kind of protection can then lead to further issues like miscommunication and mistrust (Littleson, 2008).
Loss of Individuality
The loss of individuality can be summed up as the loss of power or personal direction in the workplace. Responsibility for tasks gives one power, and once responsibility is lost, power is lost (Johnson, 2006). Loss of individualism can cause one to lose focus and direction. Team members must be sure to keep and maintain that balance between individualism and integration (Gardner, 2006).
Problems Can Take Longer to Resolve
Collaborative teams can sometimes fall into situations where they are not able to reach a solution to a given problem. This usually happens when groups are assigned to make decisions. As cited by Freedman (2006), Bernard Nijstad, a psychologist at the University of Amsterdam, stated, “About half of all groups don’t reach any conclusion at all” (p. 62). In addition, complexity and interdependence of certain teams might elongate the resolution times when groups wait for each other to build the final product.
Conflict of Divided Loyalties
Divided loyalties can occur when stakeholders identify more with their department than with the organization. When the organization and the department have differing goals, then collaboration efforts are jeopardized, and conflicts arise. Instead of working for the good of the company, stakeholders work against each other, creating a weakness in the organization (Archer, 2004).
However, the impact of divided loyalties can be alleviated if it is understood that this situation exists. Partnering, as a form of collaboration, recognizes that different sub-groups exist and the need to work with these differences rather than remove them (Archer, 2004). In this form of collaboration, areas of interception or commonality are examined and improved by the group.
Conflicting Cultural Elements and Values in a Diverse Group
Charles Darwin once said, “In the long history of humankind, those who learned to collaborate and improvise most effectively have prevailed” (Pressman, 2009, ¶ 19). By not learning to compromise with others, one runs the risk of losing services, innovation, attitude, commitment and ultimately the designated goal.
Codependency is widespread, and it appears with ever increasing frequency in the workplace these days. Often, collaboration can encourage codependency rather than interdependency (Johnson, 2006). A codependent person is one whom, knowingly or involuntarily, reinforces dependency on other persons or groups. A codependent individual may not think that he or she has to work as hard, since he or she has a group to help him or her out. In the end, he or she receives undeserved credit, or blame, although he or she did not participate in or contribute to the outcome. The problem with codependency is that it results in an entanglement with another person or persons, rather than a relationship where both parties are equal. Feelings of subordination can cause this, and the stakeholder represses their own thoughts in a group setting, saying nothing. At this point, everyone needs to pitch in a little extra to save the group from falling apart. Each individual member of the group needs to pick up the slack, develop skills in different areas, increase workload and be prepared to rescue the codependent from his or her own shortcomings. In the writer’s opinion, repeated group salvaging attempts will only allow the deprived individual to continue this destructive course and become even more dependent on the unhealthy care taking from others (Johnson, 2006).
Ultimately, the success or failure of any group resides with all the team members. All the stakeholders will need to work as a cohesive unit in order for the team dynamics to be successful. If the team can establish trust, resolve conflicts, foster creativity and innovation, and maintain the integrity of the team the probability of success increases.
Just as there are positives to collaboration, there is an equal amount of negative aspects such as unevenly distributed workloads, time restraints, information overload, and mistrust. If the team allows negative aspects to affect the team it will reduce the chance of success significantly.
As Charles Darwin once said, “In the long history of humankind, those who learned to collaborate and improvise most effectively have prevailed” (Pressman, 2009, ¶ 19).
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