Human nature and technological enablement: the dilemmas of collaboration

A manager at my first job used to say that management is about getting things done. You have heard variations on the same theme such as ‘management is getting work/things done by using xyz’.

The often used quote came to mind when thinking about the goal of collaboration across all those platforms and tools we have, working together in agile and virtual teams as we increasingly do. The goal of collaboration is getting things done too; as a team, whatever those things may be and regardless of where we physically are as individuals. Seems simple enough.


However, business management definitions tend to be so simple that they don’t help us  much in real life. It’s like the result Google returns when you type in ‘definition of management’. The answer: ‘the process of dealing with or controlling things or people’. Right.

Collaboration in diversity: purpose and motivation

You will probably agree that getting things done, let alone controlling things, isn’t as easy as it sounds. There is no one size-fits-all answer, no universal blueprint and no scientific method. It’s like business management: more art and common sense than science and a world of difference between theory and practice.

In collaboration, as in management, the ways to succeed are as diverse as the companies, goals and, most of all, people involved to make things happen. Collaboration isn’t a goal as such nor a holy grail. But if we want to get something done as a team – for whatever purpose – it’s clearly a necessity, certainly in today’s decentralized work reality. However, we need to make sure that we take the human element into account and don’t fall in the trap of excessive collaborative demands, leading to collaboration overload.

As organizations are transforming and technologies in the realm of the cloud, collaboration platforms and mobile – the pillars of the 3rd platform – upon which digitalization is built, it is essential to understand that the motivations of employees are not the motivations of managers as Carolyn Aiken and Scott Keller reminded us in 1999 in a context of change management.

Being able to collaborate and work differently versus how we’re wired

Nicola Millard
Nicola Millard

How do we get people to collaborate? What is needed on top of the traditional elements? Dr. Nicola Millard, head of Customer Insights & Futurology at BT (a partner), recently wrote a great paper, looking into the realities and dilemmas in collaboration, called the Collaboration Conundrum.

Nicola touches upon the real-life, human, psychological and managerial challenges we face in collaboration today. A must-read for any manager out there who struggles to reap the many benefits of collaboration.

While technologies enable us to work independent of time and place, there are several challenges, having to do with how we’re ‘wired’ and the differences between collaboration and connection through networks and platforms on one hand and face-to-face interactions and contacts on the other. As a matter of fact, it’s not because we have decentralized and cloud-based tools and possibilities to work differently, that we use them or really work differently.

While six in ten people feel they perform better in a team, a third of employees say they don’t need to collaborate to complete tasks.

The benefits of choice and control versus the risks of fragmentation and declining trust and cohesion

Nicola points out that centralized and hierarchical organization structures don’t necessarily follow the decentralized work approach. Logic and technology don’t always coincide with what human nature dictates.

In fact, some organizations virtualized and now bring people back together she says and more than once the introduction of social in the enterprise has failed. The Collaboration Conundrum work shift paper examines the reasons for these and other phenomena, the role of collaboration and what to know about work and human nature to make collaboration succeed.

Here is one of several ‘collaboration conundrums’: the distance that is inevitable in a modern collaborative and decentralized context reduces trust and cohesion. However, at the same time the ability to have more choice over the when and where we work increases wellbeing and individual productivity. Dilemma.

Sometimes, for instance in consumption, too much choice can be a stress factor as marketers know. However, as Nicola puts it, classic psychology tells us that high demand and low control results in a stressed employee. So, having more control and being able to better ‘manage’ demand is beneficial.

The trouble with many organisations is that shared goals can be more diffuse, complex and, sometimes, not in evidence at all.

Aside from the fact that a collaborative and flexible work context doesn’t necessary lead to less demand as we know (another challenge), higher choice over when and where we work risks leading to fragmentation: while individual productivity may go up, the cohesion and trust between employees (and other collaborators) goes down because people don’t meet face-to-face anymore and because often you work with people you have never met, certainly in large organizations and for jobs where cross-border collaboration is a necessity.

What’s next?

The Collaboration Conundrum - more
The Collaboration Conundrum – more

It’s clear that collaboration requires effort, a common purpose – taking into account human nature – and a skillset, not just for those collaborating but also for those who ‘manage’ collaborative projects and ways of working and those who own it, the latter being the final conundrum. We’ll look into the various conundrums in next blog posts and tackle the question of what’s next if we want to collaborate successfully. You can also read a blog post Nicola wrote about ‘How to overcome the Collaboration Conundrum’ or simply download the paper (PDF, no registration required).

Let me end with a quote from an interview with the information manager at the Port of Antwerp Authority on the digital workplace and collaboration in action: “More than once we see the potential of technology, and it certainly is an enabler. But how we organize our work (processes) and how we live together as teams (culture) are as much part of the story”.

Top image: Shutterstock – Copyright: Gajus