Collaboration Calculus

Why is it so difficult to incorporate new collaborative processes and tools into an organization?  I’ve recently been observing a small team in a Fortune 500 company as they wrestle with this Calculus is the study of change...question.  They have the necessary tools at hand, plenty of technical knowhow, and they uniformly express a desire to build community within their geographically dispersed team.  But they are still struggling to get things moving.  What more could they possibly need?

Collaboration initiatives fail for a variety of reasons.  The problem is typically multifaceted and unique to the situation.  However, I believe there is a central theme that can help break down this complex equation.  In short, collaboration requires participation.  My friend and colleague, Joe Moran, recently postulated in a discussion forum on Cisco Community Central at a key principle that he calls the Participation Theory.  He set this up as a simple equation that I think gets to the heart of the matter.  I’ll let him describe it here:

Ultimately, I think participation in any activity is tied to what I like to refer to as the: Participation Theory (PT).  Broken down simply as:  

Likelihood of Participation (LoP) = Reward / Effort

Now, of course that oversimplifies things immensely because the perception of Reward (R) and Effort (E) will vary significantly from individual to individual.  Ultimately, I think if we spent enough time we could come up with a core set of variables that would serve as common inputs to determining the weight of each factor.  Perhaps basing it off of Utility Theory or other like decision theories.  Of course we would need to factor in global variables which widely impact a given population, such as everyone within an enterprise.

However, in its simplest form when LoP > 1, we participate.  When LoP is < 1, we don’t participate.  If LoP = 1, then participation may be intended, but follow through is not certain.

So, the Reward must be greater than the Effort required to participate.  When true, collaboration happens.

Sounds simple, but if you read the follow-on comments in the discussion, you will see that there are a variety of other variables that make up R and E.  Things like Inertia and Availability and Awareness and Time to name just a few.  Joe has promised more detail as he considers other variables.  Your comments are welcome on the Cisco site or here on my blog.

When we think about what individuals see as Reward, we begin to appreciate the complexity.  In the “outside world” people are rewarded by emotional experience associated with contacting old friends on Facebook.  Or they gain professional benefits like job offers from LinkedIn.  But what are the rewards inside of the workplace?  For many people, I believe they center around whatever is on their performance plan.  Or the deliverables for the current project.  Or activities that help achieve a promotion.  Only the occasional person feels that altruistically “enhancing cross team communications and community” outweighs the effort required unless, of course, that fosters success in one of their other goals.

The Effort required is equally significant, especially when it’s placed on already heavy workloads.  Things like: learning new technologies; overcoming hurdles associated with alpha or beta products;   deciphering which new collaboration tool to use for what; fighting the inertia-of-the-inbox (“no one else seems to be using the new tool – I should probably just email this to the group”); taking the time to write things down.  All of this is above and beyond the current job.  Is it worth the reward?  Is there a reward?

Math equation

Math is not my forte

Another critical variable in the equation is that people often believe that giving up precious knowledge will make them vulnerable – less valuable.  Known as knowledge-hoarding, it is characterized by the phrase “Knowledge is Power”.  In this economic climate, if you give up your power, do you also give up the death-grip you have on your job?  I think of it as the perceived penalty or the anti-Reward.

This is where team leaders can directly influence the equation.  Staff members examine the actions of the leadership team to know if collaboration is really important.  Are they modeling the behavior?  Are they working to increase the reward and decrease the effort?  Do they offer reassurances that sharing, rather than hoarding, knowledge creates value for the individual?  These actions are especially important during the initial adoption period.  At some point, as with email 20 years ago, the new processes and tools take a life of their own and achieve momentum – inertia.  Until then, the leadership has to provide guidance on which tools to use and for what purpose.  They have to encourage certain behaviors and discourage others.  Otherwise the team is confused.  “Should I be using Wiki-tool X or Y? Or maybe the knowledge management system?”  “Should I be spending time documenting this solution or do I need to move on to the next task on the project plan?” “Mailing lists seem to be the best way to reach everyone.  Should I try something different?”  Et cetera.

But how aggressive can the leaders be in applying top down tactics.  Can we go so far as to prohibit email, or limit it to certain tasks or quantities?  On an enterprise scale, my experience says “No”. At a team level, however, I think disruptive moves like this have some merit.  In the past I’ve led brainstorming sessions that yielded easily a dozen similar ideas that appealed to my team.  Everything from “no email Friday” to prizes for the best blog.  To gain buy-in from your team, and to avoid being seen as heavy-handed, be sure that you include your staff when developing these ideas.

Can mathematics alone solve your collaboration adoption problems?  Of course not.  But perhaps they can help you understand them.  Once you see the relationships and understand the variables, you can begin to determine those that have the strongest impact for your organization — especially the multipliers or exponentials — and find ways to influence them.

Albert Einstein pondering thisSo, what about the team I mentioned at the beginning of this post?  In that case it’s pretty clear.  While Effort is actually pretty low, Reward is even lower.  Relative, that is, to the Priority of their primary tasks and their available Time.

Interesting… Perhaps we have yet to uncover the Theory of (Collaborative) Relativity?


5 comments on “Collaboration Calculus

  1. Joe Moran says:

    I think concept works in both the simplicity of its design, yet the flexibility that it provides.

    Important to remember as well, that the ‘inertia’ concept described above is very powerful and difficult to displace. In McAfee’s Enteprise 2.0 terms, he references the concepts of inertia via the ‘Endowment Principal.’ In summary, people value what they have and if you want to replace it, you will need to provide value which far exceeds (not simply matches) the value they already have.

    Ultimately, I believe all these concepts end up being reflected in the variables that make up Reward (and Effort).

    • Mark Eggleston says:

      Thanks for your comment Joe. Inertia certainly has a multiplier effect. Other interesting points are the intrensic vs extrinsic rewards for individuals. I wonder if there are any grad students with double major in Math/Sociology who want to help?

  2. […] their social tools, they fail to gain traction due to the outdated and flawed mindset that “Knowledge is Power“.  Within that mindset they find themselves hoarding their content for their own […]

  3. […] Collaboration Calculus September 2010 3 comments and 1 Like on, 3 […]

  4. ronberndt says:

    As the younger generation might say…. I so agree with this! All the best! Ron.

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