Solutions, engagement, productivity, collaboration. The marketing language surrounding enterprise IT software comes with its very own jargon, and the word "collaboration" in particular is overused. Office 365’s product page talks about helping “collaborate across departments.” SharePoint pledges to help potential customers “store, sync and share and easily collaborate,” Google Docs promises “real time collaboration,” while Salesforce guarantees “employee collaboration.”

Collaboration can be defined as the action of working with someone to produce something. Now, there’s no denying that many enterprise IT tools really can help individuals work together. Whether it’s working together in real time on a document in Google Drive or discussing an idea in Office 365 Groups, digital workspaces make the possibility of collaborating together online a reality. 

However, is all this collaboration actually necessary? Despite all the hype around working together, there’s evidence that one individual concentrating on a problem can in fact be far more effective than one hundred collaborators getting nowhere fast — anyone who’s spent 10 minutes reading through a "collaborative" OneDrive document will attest to that. The passive aggressive comments, responses and suggested changes to wording in paragraph X might just be enough to make anyone dubious about the benefits of collaboration.

The Collaboration Bandwagon

Over the last few decades we’ve seen hundreds of management books and business gurus promoting collaborative working. From brainstorming to redesigning offices, to decision by committee and now digital workspaces, the notion that more minds are better than one is widely accepted.

Collaboration's popularity lies in that it supposedly brings different perspectives, new ideas and novel approaches into an organization’s work. Rather than doing things as they’ve always been done or reinforcing the decision making hierarchy, a collaborative workplace breaks down silos, lets ideas and knowledge circulate, and encourages innovation.

But Does Collaboration Work?

The problem is collaboration often fails to do what it sets out to achieve. Keith Sawyer, a psychologist at Washington University puts it like this: “Decades of research have consistently shown that brainstorming groups think of far fewer ideas than the same number of people who work alone and later pool their ideas.”

Many types of work benefit from individuals working together to achieve a bigger goal — from manufacturing to construction to sports. However, businesses employ knowledge workers to find solutions to problems. And it's been shown that individuals concentrating on a problem solve problems more successfully than when working in groups. We can see this in action in the arts, sciences, IT and anywhere in which people need to reflect deeply on a problem or concept:

  • Picasso argued that “without great solitude no serious work can be done”
  • Isaac Newton and Albert Einstein were known introverts
  • Steve Wozniak recommended inventors “Work alone ... Not on a committee. Not on a team”

Not everyone is a groundbreaking artist, scientific genius or innovative inventor. Surely the rest of us mere mortals could benefit from anything that will help us get more done? Not necessarily so. A 2015 study published in the journal of Organization Science suggests that collaborative software actually makes people less effective at finding solutions.

The study used a platform designed by the US Department of Defense which works as kind of "whodunit." Players suggest theories about a fictional terrorist attack based on evidence provided in the game. The research involved 417 participants, some of whom were clustered into tight groups within a network where they could share and discuss ideas more easily. Others were "unclustered," left to work on problems with little or no help from other players.

The results were telling — the least "clustered" participants came up with an average of 17.5 percent more theories.

Time to Kick Collaboration to the Curb?

Is it time to throw your collaborative software in the trash? Not just yet.

Collaboration in itself isn’t a bad thing, but when companies become over dependent on the idea, it can become an issue. As with most things, it’s a case of finding balance. There are stages in a company’s workflow when being able to collaborate is great, yet other times when individuals need to work alone.

Take the process of writing this article. I spent a couple of hours researching the topic alone before writing out a synopsis. I discussed this with my colleagues before sitting down to write it. My company’s collaborative software let colleagues read through the draft, edit the copy and proof it for mistakes before submitting the final piece. Were we to actually write the whole article "collaboratively," paragraph by paragraph, you can be pretty sure you wouldn't be reading this now.

Collaborative software in itself isn't a bad thing, yet overemphasizing its importance at work can be unproductive, if not downright frustrating. Give knowledge workers space to work alone, to concentrate and not be distracted by endless comments, committees and meetings. Working alone might not be fashionable, but it might give you your biggest breakthroughs.

Creative Commons Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic License Title image by  Keith Allison