Economy of Collaboration

Economy of Collaboration

March 24, 2016

In today’s flatter organizations, collaboration has become a ubiquitous concept, if not always an effective reality. At some organizations, employees spend as much as 80% of their working time in “collaborative” settings, which for our purposes means meetings. But despite that widespread participation in meetings, if collaboration is measured by the amount of actual value, in the form of information or productivity individuals contribute, the numbers look strikingly different. In fact, there is an “economy of collaboration” that is in some ways, just as unequal as our economy at large. Harvard Business School researchers found that in sample organizations, collaboration was completely lopsided. Despite 80% participation in meetings, only about 4% of the employees were significant resources for others (see the link in the footnote to read about their methodology).  Why does this matter?

cogs in machineRemember the Pareto Principle? It states that 80% of results come from 20% of causes. Joseph Juran, father of LEAN and Six Sigma applied the same principle to management in the 1950’s and 60’s, suggesting that 20% of a company’s staff provide 80% of the results. Well, it seems as though that is wildly optimistic when applied to the value that individuals in organizations provide to their peers through collaboration.  This has several troubling consequences. For one, it means that at least 80% of an organization’s people are not using their time in ways that are productive or that serve their peers and are, at least to some extent, dependent on the overwork of others to survive.  It also has ramifications for the super-contributing 4%-6% who are the greatest internal providers of value. They get demoralized and either withdraw from interaction or leave the organization. So, as a leader, how can you identify if this is happening in your own organization and if so, address this inequity?

As in the most dysfunctional scenarios, knowing there is a problem is half the battle. So you might start by doing some internal investigation. Who are your top performers and who are the folks the are most relied on by others as resources.  The people you want to focus on for this collaboration gap is the few who are bombarded by requests for information, time, help, coaching or support. They are your bedrock 4%  — your Super-Contributors. Depending on the size of the organization this discovery work can be done through surveys or just by talking to people. But the goal is to identify the most in-demand team members so that you can interview or survey them themselves.

When researchers undertook the same investigation, they found that the super-contributors did not feel oppressed by all of the value they were requested to provide, just some of it. So it’s useful to breakdown the different kinds of requests that are made, and the different kinds of services that peers perform for each other. A rudimentary list might look like this:

  • Information
  • Data
  • Time
  • Project execution or management
  • Coaching
  • Mentoring
  • Training
  • Technical skill
  • Administrative support

And so forth.

When you start polling your team, aim to find out these three things:

  1. What is the proportion of requests that super-contributors get for each activity?
  2. How do super-contributors feel about fulfilling each activity request?
  3. Which of the activities do your super-contributors enjoy doing of those requested?


This is where your leadership now comes into play. With the information you’ve gleaned,

by adding more of the stuff they like and taking away some of what they don’t. You will need to restrict the latitude that your “taker” group are permitted in making requests, and require the biggest requesters to become more self-reliant.  At the same time, your super-contributors can take up some slack by doing the high-value, high-satisfaction activities that the requesters no longer have time to do (since they are now doing some of their own request fulfillment)!

It’s about equity and retaining your best folks!

Not sure how to execute this analysis and action plan? Maybe executive coaching and consulting is the answer! Contact me for a complimentary initial consultation.

Read about the Harvard research here