Any discussion about collaboration that focuses entirely on the "knowledge worker" risks leaving a lot of employees out of the conversation. 

The Knowledge Worker

Wikipedia gives a definition of knowledge workers, from which I will copy a quick snippet:

What differentiates knowledge work from other forms of work is its primary task of 'non-routine' problem solving that requires a combination of convergent, divergent and creative thinking .... despite the amount of research and literature on knowledge work there is yet to be a succinct definition of the term”

So we don’t have a succinct definition of the term, which is fine. Within my organization the majority of employees, including customer facing ones, might be considered knowledge workers as they have to deal with non-routine problem solving. However at the same time, may of them have highly routine, task oriented and process based elements to their roles. Another large population ONLY has task oriented and highly process based elements to their daily work; but this does not mean they all work as hermits, never collaborating with anyone.

For a simple definition of collaboration, I like this one:

“Two or more people working together to achieve a common, understood goal”

So collaboration is NOT the same as communication, or information sharing, although it may well require both. It may require working together to make some physical object, to analyze something, to solve some problem, to create some content of some sort, or to complete some specific business process. So “non-knowledge workers” (task or process based workers) also need to collaborate in order to get their tasks done, and to carry out their repeatable processes.

Many other contributors to this month's focus make the point that collaboration is about the people -- and I'd add not all people within our enterprises and organizations are knowledge workers.

The Dimensions of Collaboration

Barry Schaeffer makes a great point in his article, “Separating Collaboration from the Collaboration Tools" -- that we need to fixate less on the tech and think more about the people. He wrote:

If we can get our definition of collaboration back to its basic components -- working together to achieve a goal or compatible goals -- we may be able to focus on the personal traits and habits most likely to make collaboration possible.”

I could not agree more. As a consultant I would often use the “iron triangle” of technology consulting when talking to clients: People, Process and Technology. When we consider collaboration we can add additional dimensions to get the bigger picture, which gives us something that looks like this:

Collab_dimensions.pngTechnology to me is not a problem when it comes to collaboration. Most organizations are very well endowed with collaboration technologies, be they focused on content centric collaboration (e.g., SharePoint Team Sites) or conversation centric collaboration (e.g., Jive or SharePoint Social Communities). We could spend time, money and effort integrating multiple tools into a single portal perhaps, as a way to improve the user experience when confronted with multiple tools. However unlike Nish Patel in his article “Is collaboration at risk of becoming siloed,” I don’t care if collaboration is siloed. There are very good reasons for collaboration to be siloed -- I don’t need to collaborate with every one of the other 46,000 individuals in my organization on an ad hoc basis.

Collaboration is NOT information sharing. I can publish content to the intranet so everyone can read it, I can use micro-blogging to publish what I am doing so that anyone who is interested can find out, and I can complete my "rich profile" so that other employees can discover me (and my own self published appraisal of my talents and expertise). So if we have SharePoint 2013 as an enterprise collaboration platform and SalesForce Chatter as a specialist tool for those using the CRM, and some other tool for HR to use when recruiting senior executives, then that is just fine.

No, rather than worry too much about the technology platforms we need to worry about getting back to the basics like Barry Schaeffer suggested. We need to think about whether our organizational culture really appreciates, advocates for and equips the workforce with the right attitudes for successful collaboration. The same can be said for information sharing and knowledge management activities -- if the organizational culture rewards or turns a blind eye to information / knowledge hoarding and the internal politics is based on competition between teams or individuals, then it really doesn’t matter how good the technology is, it won't be used to it full potential. Luis Suarez touched on this in his article “The Future of Collaboration Lies in Human Resources Hands” stating that our HR colleagues need to focus on the human element of any collaboration based transformation. 

Time for Multidisciplinary Collaboration Center of Excellence?

Although I would like to minimize the amount we stress about it, we can’t ignore the technology. We have to deal with the incessant change and the demands of the often vociferous minority for BYOD, use of “consumer” grade tools, etc.

So if we are going to have efficient, useful collaboration with the required groups working well together to effectively produce or execute upon their tasks, should we take a multidisciplinary Center of Excellence approach? If we can pull together HR, IT, Communications, Learning and Development and Process Management professionals together to advocate for effective collaborative processes, effective use of the existing and new tools, and to provide simple training on the basics of effectively working together, then could this be the future of collaboration?

Do you think your organization is collaborating effectively? Do you tend to focus on the knowledge workers, or does your industry mean you have to think about the process workers too? Please dive into the comments section below and let us know what you consider to be good (or bad) about collaboration in your workplace.