When was the last time you completed a piece of work where you needed no input at all from anyone else? That probably depends on the exact nature of your work and role, but for most of us in knowledge-intensive work, the answer is likely to be ‘a while ago’. Increasing demands on people to not just do great work, but to do great work together with others seems a key aspect of how work is structured today. Improving collaboration is mentioned as the top priority for many businesses and is often at the heart of workplace refurbishment projects.
In their recent article ‘The Changing Nature of Organizations, Work and Workplace‘, Judith Heerwagen and her colleagues ask the reader to imagine waking up one day and finding themselves in a 1960s workplace. What would be different? One of their main points is that work today is more team-based and collaborative than it was half a century ago. Among key organisational changes over the last decades they list reduced hierarchical structures, blurred organisational boundaries as organisations need to work together more effectively, and recognising teams as new organisational building blocks to reduce inefficiencies and continually improve work processes. Work is also more cognitively complex and requires significantly more coordination.
This ties in nicely with a little side note I found in the British Airways Business Life magazine in April 2015 on ‘How to collaborate’. Item 2 labelled ‘smash silos’ immediately caught my attention. The author Tracey De Groose suggests that work is often duplicated in large organisations and sharing information across a company is a way to overcome silo thinking.
So it seems that most would agree that we all need to collaborate more. But the idea of smashing the silo got me thinking: who should you collaborate more with? Your closest colleagues? Random people in the organisation you come across in the corridor? Or anyone in between? And does it matter?
A look into some of the latest research on teamwork, collaboration and networks is revealing. The basic question here is: what types of relationships between people (also called ties in networks research) have been associated with positive outcomes, e.g. faster flow of information, creation of new knowledge, reduction of duplicate effort, etc., all of which lead to increased business performance? Below are insights from some of the research I’ve read over the years.
- Strong ties, defined as frequent, close and often affective (i.e. emotional) relationships to co-workers; they were shown to lower the occurrence of disruptive conflicts (Nelson 1989), to ease processes of change in organisations (Krackhardt 1992) and to facilitate the transfer of complex knowledge (Hansen 1999). Recent research indeed suggests that only strongest ties matter for team performance (de Montjoye et al. 2014). So if you followed this line of research, you should collaborate more and more closely with those you collaborate with anyway: your closest colleagues, team members and those you like and trust.
- Weak ties, i.e. more sporadic and fleeting contacts were argued to be crucial for providing access to additional sets of information (Granovetter 1973). Research has highlighted the importance of weak ties, for instance for facilitating the search for new knowledge (Hansen 1999) and for creating new knowledge in collaborative organisations (Levin and Cross 2004). So that means you should collaborate more with your broader network of acquaintances and people you do not know well.
- Ties within teams, specifically integrated structures within project teams and strong connections between people on the same level of hierarchy were associated with high performance due to the ease of diffusing information (Cummings and Cross 2003). According to this research, you should clearly collaborate with those on the same level inside your team.
- Ties between teams, in particular connections to co-workers within the same organisation yet from a different team were argued to characterise high performers in R&D project teams (Allen 1984). So called ‘brokers’ who bridged to other groups were more likely to detect and communicate good ideas (Burt 2004) but also enjoyed higher achievements than their peers with regards to evaluation, compensation and promotion (Burt 2010). Most recent research has argued that network advantage does not necessarily stem from permanent brokerage, but rather from shifting between different network positions, sometimes brokering, and sometimes looking inward and connecting inside a group (Burt et al. 2013). The advantage of ties between teams also holds across the scales, since firms with a higher proportion of connections between different teams were argued to be more resilient towards organisational crises (Krackhardt and Stern 1988) and teams seeking more connections outside their own group were found higher performing (Pentland 2012). Therefore you should seek collaborators outside of your own team or work group and create connections to other parts of your organisation.
Confused? Well, the message here is clearer than you may think: collaborating with others can create many advantages for an organisation on many different levels. Existing research has highlighted how collaborating with others can result in positive outcomes for organisations, including higher levels of crisis resilience, easing change, facilitating flow of knowledge, creating new knowledge, and increasing effectiveness and performance. The key to all this is to be specific about the outcomes you are looking for and then work back into the types of collaborative relationships that are most likely to deliver them. Given that all of us have limited amounts of time and energy to spend for the purpose of creating relationships with others, you cannot have it all. It is a hard ask to collaborate more within your team whilst at the same time doing so outside of your team. The same, if you try to foster your network of weaker ties and at the same time spend more time with your strong ties.
So the next time you hear a general exhortation to collaborate more, ask: “Who with?” This might be the most important question of all.