For proof that workplace collaboration is a tough problem to solve, check out the scores of books on the subject. Near the top of that list is The Culture of Collaboration, by Evan Rosen, a San Francisco-based consultant who began focusing on the subject after beginning his career in executive communications.
Rosen says that in trying to help executives get their message across, he discovered that they often didn’t agree on the same message from one office to the next. The issue, he realized, was a lack of collaboration. And the reason for its absence, he discovered, usually involved the culture of the company. American society, says Rosen, encourages individualism and a star system, which inhibits the very collaboration that he maintains can make companies more effective. He explained why to technology journalist Lee Gomes.
TR: What is the main idea underlying your perspective on collaboration?
Rosen: Collaboration means different things to different people. When some people refer to collaboration, they’re talking about technology. And that’s part of the problem. Companies think that if they introduce certain technologies, that they’re collaborating. But a central point in my book is that tools and technologies never create collaboration. Culture creates collaboration.
Organizational culture stems from our collective culture. And our collective culture in the United States is star-oriented. We read and hear about “star athletes,” “star chefs” … the list goes on. And it’s a myth. Because all of these so-called stars need help from others to achieve. Star culture is the antithesis of “collaborative culture.” In a star culture, the best people supposedly rise to the top in a Darwinian survival-of-the-fittest fashion. Some companies regularly eliminate the bottom 5 percent of the workforce. They rank them, pitting people against each other.
But there are counterexamples, like Apple. It seems the opposite of everything you’re describing—very hierarchical, with people almost fearful of the guy at the top. Yet it is a huge success.
Well, there are always examples of companies that are successful even though they’re command-and-control oriented. But the question I always ask is, “How much more successful would they be if they were truly collaborative?”
Well, what’s the answer?
You can look at examples. Collaboration is about creating value, because if we’re not creating value, what’s the point? When you start looking at shaving months off product development cycles—in everything from automobile manufacturing to aerospace to animation—that is real, measurable value. And that is what collaboration can deliver.
What empirical evidence is there that companies that collaborate well do better than companies that don’t? The examples always seem anecdotal.
Scoring collaboration is something I am currently working on. And you’re right, most of what we are dealing with is anecdotal. But we are starting to put a framework around it.