Tuesday, September 30, 2008

The Alternatives to Collaboration

Ever since knowledge management as a discipline began some thirty years ago, there has been a strong focus on collaboration. We always assume everyone knows what we mean when we say that: groups working together and sharing knowledge. Even if we define “collaboration” at a more granular level (distinguishing between team collaboration and communities of practice or communities of interest), our intent is clear.

So why is it so difficult to get users to play along? At times it seems like we have taken something people do naturally and we have turned it into something they don’t want to do. Partially this can be attributed to regimentation: even if 90% of the people would do it naturally, there are 10% who don’t and will resist all efforts to enforce it.

But if we are honest with ourselves, the resistance to KM programs is a much larger ratio than just human disinclination. Frequently, an adoption rate as low as 20% is considered success for a KM initiative.

So where is the gap?

The Problem With Collaboration

We assume that collaboration is the preferred and most effective approach for sharing knowledge and solving problems. However, collaboration can be a surprisingly elusive goal. Reticence, resistance, even outright refusal can strain relationships among team members or employees.

The fact is not everyone is comfortable with the practices used to encourage collaboration. Not everyone likes brainstorming. Some people are simply not comfortable opening up to a group of relative strangers. And no amount of team building or facilitation seems to completely resolve these differences.

So, if collaboration is so fundamental, are the methods themselves insufficient or is there a deeper problem?

The Alternatives to Collaboration

Perhaps we need to consider the possibility that some people simply don’t like to collaborate. I am not talking about the “dead wood” and underachievers. In many cases, some of the most productive workers are also the most resistant to collaborative activities and group meetings. Despite not “playing along” they continue to work effectively. Sometimes more effectively than the rest of the team. How do they do it? What alternative approaches do they utilize to continue their high level of contribution?

In my experience, I have seen at least three behaviors people use to work with others. (This is in no way a scientific study, purely a personal observation.) The first is what is traditionally called "collaboration": working in teams, sharing knowledge and experiences openly, etc. The other two techniques are conspiring and competing.

Conspiring and Competing

At first, these two activities might not seem effective methods for working with others. However, they each provide a measure of collaboration that has -- in each case -- unique advantages in terms of achieving business goals (which, in the long run, is the ultimate goal). Of course, they also have offsetting and equally unique deficits.


Conspiring is very common among senior contributors within a team. Conspiring is simply a form of collaboration where the"community" is limited, usually to select members who the contributor trusts. Rather than speak out or agree during meetings, this individual will seek out others who they feel will understand and appreciate their contribution and work with those people to flesh out their ideas. They may even strategize privately about how to bring the rest of the team "around" to their way of thinking. (This is the conspiratorial part of the equation.)

The advantage of conspiring is that ideas gestate rapidly -- far more rapidly than in public discussions -- due to the level of trust and commitment of the participants. They talk almost in a private shorthand, there is so much understanding within the core conspirators. No need to explain fully or argue seemingly irrelevant details as can happen in broader discussions. Ideas and inspiration grow and move forward rapidly.

The disadvantage of conspiring is that the individuals who practice this technique can be seen as not "team players" or as underhanded if their conspiring is found out. When they finally reveal their opinions -- fully-fledged and often in opposition to ideas being openly discussed -- it can result in hard feelings, even though the ideas are well thought out.


, on the other hand, happens out in the open. Competing is founded on two basic assumptions:

  • Ideas reached by consensus are not necessarily the best ideas. Rather, they are ideas that sound most agreeable or that provide the least resistance to current conditions (in other words, ruffle as few feathers as possible).
  • By openly pursuing multiple approaches in parallel, you can test more possibilities and (the key to competing) inspire each group to reach farther and develop a more complete and creative solution.

Competing is one of the key characteristics of open source development, as described in Eric Raymond's book The Cathedral and the Bazaar. The concept is that competition, the same basic principles behind capitalism's supply and demand and Darwin's theory of evolution, will drive innovation faster and result in the solutions with the best fit "surviving".

Rather than pursue a single line of thought resolving differences in the discussion, individuals inclined towards competing will break off in small groups offering to come back with the solution after they have tested and refined their theories. They will also argue the correctness of their ideas even in the face of significant opposition from the majority of the group. This is based on the thinking that only the marketplace can determine the true right or wrong of a concept. Theoretical discussions, although interesting, are not decisive or binding in any way.

The obvious advantage of competing is that less obvious but more creative and possibly, ultimately, stronger ideas have a chance to survive and thrive. Competing can also break the stalemate that sometimes arises when groups or teams try to achieve consensus.

The major disadvantage of competing is that the individuals are often seen as loud, disruptive, and stubborn as they tend to stick to their ideas in the face of overwhelming opposition.

Understanding and Bridging Multiple Styles of Interaction

I have discussed these styles of interaction in terms of group decision making. However, they affect other forms of collaboration as well, which is where they can play havoc with knowledge management initiatives.

Each behavior leads to a preference for particular technologies. Those who conspire tend to adopt 1-to-1 technologies, such as instant messaging and IRC. Those who like to compete tend to favor group technologies where they can carve out their niche and take the lead, such as wikis and Twitter. Whereas, those who are collaborative tend to prefer more "democratic" tools, such as forums and distribution lists.

That is not to say there is a cut and dried separation. Conspirators may use forums, but they will tend to hang back and only respond when prompted or specifically requested. Those who compete will tend to use forums and distribution lists in bursts -- arguing their point of view vehemently (it is a competition after all) -- leading others to fall silent or complaints of aggressiveness or other asocial behavior.

Of course, there are times when people act trollish in forums. But that is not always the case. Sometimes they are simply communicating in their own, competitive, style which is seen as abrasive by others. But the backlash against their approach will tend to drive them underground until the next subject comes up.

Similarly, there has been a recent fad for using Twitter and live blogging during events (presentations, seminars, etc) as a "backchannel", sometimes even presented on a separate screen during the event. These technologies tend to favor those who favor competition -- literally competing with the presenter in terms of attention. They find this format invigorating. While those who tend to collaborate are extremely uncomfortable with the "noise" created by the competing inputs; their tendency would be to let the speaker have their say before opening the floor to discussion and alternatives.

Mix & Match

The good news is that -- like any personality traits -- there are no hard and fast rules about people's tendencies concerning collaboration. Some people are extremely conspiratorial, some are extremely collaborative, and some seem able to perform well in two different modes. Some people can both collaborate and conspire, while others conspire and compete and still others compete and collaborate. However, I don't think I've ever met anyone who does all three well.

The key is there are points of intersection and the individuals able to bridge the gap between different modes are critical to making the systems "work". For example:

  • Cultivate personal relationships with the "quiet" members of your communities. Rather than trying to force senior contributors or other conspirers to participate in forums, contact them directly if there is a question you know they could contribute to. In many cases, individuals who would not speak up in public because they "don't have the time" or "have nothing to offer", are more than generous if asked directly 1-on-1. The output of these discussions can then be fed back into the forums by the intermediary.
  • If someone is making a strident argument (and possibly verging on the abrasive), ask them directly what their suggestion is, making sure they get to explain it in full. You can do this either in public (the forum, meeting, or other venue in which the argument is occurring) or personally 1-to-1. Although this is the opposite of many people's tendency (which runs more towards "you are in the minority, please shut up") it offers a way for competitive members of the community to "have their say" and circumvent further bad feelings. In most instances, they are not trying to block a decision. They simply want to make sure that their point of view is being seriously considered. So once they get to voice it in full, they will allow the decisions be made and the discussion move on.


Mary Abraham said...


Great post. Thanks for broadening the collaboration/no collaboration analysis. Now, to dig deeper into the implications for KM...

- Mary

Anonymous said...

Really enjoying your blog Andrew.

I found a paper deep in my archives related to this subject called "leading and creating collaboration in decentralised organisations"

3 barriers and counteractions:

1. Intergroup bias
- clique
- competition over scarce resources
Link group interests to overarching interests

2. Group territory
- a tribal and identity thing
Use collaboration as a necessary method to achieve a solution across group involvement

3. Poor cross-unit strategies
- failing to recognise the other parties needs and strengths and weaknesses
Revamp negotiation skills