Is workplace collaboration a drag for headquarters personnel?
Presented here for discussion is a summary of a current article published with permission from Knowledge@Wharton, the online research and business analysis journal of the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania.
The mere mention of keeping up with overflowing e-mail, constant meetings and time-sucking conference calls makes many of us groan and roll our eyes. How did we all get so busy?
A major culprit is the sharp rise in cross-functional collaboration over the past several years due to the increased complexity of products and services, globalization, e-mail proliferation and the adoption of collaborative tools and social media, among other reasons.
Collaboration has been touted as a key to success by Steve Jobs, Virgin’s Richard Branson and Oracle’s Larry Ellison, among others.
“There’s just a range of things [about collaboration] that are undeniably positive,” said Rob Cross, a professor of global leadership at Babson College. Among these he cites employees’ ability to obtain information and expertise, which he says is better now than at any point in business history.
Wharton management professor Matthew Bidwell believes that for a company to adjust swiftly to changing conditions, collaboration is the way to go.
Yet the collaborative structure can have serious down sides, including slowing down decision-making without the traditional hierarchy of one decision maker. The constant e-mail and meetings can be a drain on workers’ time and resources and continual interruptions can lower productivity. Rewarding collaborative efforts can also be challenging because performance evaluations are often based on an older model of individual achievement.
Prof. Cross has found that some individuals manage collaboration better by doing “things like strategically calendaring, or blocking time, to be sure that they’re progressing toward their North Star and not getting drawn into things where either they don’t add unique value or that are not important to them.”
At the organizational level, some companies are finding it valuable to hire individuals who can “translate” across functional areas to help bridge potential silos. Enabling other departments to get to know one another can also improve collaboration.
You can’t just say no to people all the time, says Prof. Cross: you’ll end up being marginalized. But there are ways individuals and organizations can learn do it well.
DISCUSSION QUESTIONS: Are the frustrations seen in cross-functional collaboration any better or worse for retailers and their vendor partners? What advice would you have for individuals or companies on improving collaboration? Are there any personal practices you’ve adopted to better manage collaboration?